Scrivener for Fun and Profit
Using the world’s best word processor to manage ideas and ongoing projects
Let me confess up front that I’m a stereotypical creative: there are little scribbled-on scraps of paper everywhere. My bedroom walls are covered in index cards so I don’t lose track of the ideas I’m most excited to execute. Binders upon binders of notes and photocopies and marked-up printouts are nowhere near as organized as they appear on the shelf. All this mess means that any program or system that enables me to keep my digital and paper chaos even somewhat under control is a tool for which I will evangelize. Scrivener is an investment ($45 for Mac, $40 for PC) and there’s a bit of a learning curve, but this program allows me to write and plan as efficiently as a chronically untidy person can do — so there’s a built-in morale-booster as well.
In this article I’ll show you screenshots of four real Scrivener files (since I find tutorials using blank or demo projects considerably less helpful and inspiring):
- a completed middle-grade novel
- my “back burner” historical fantasy
- a virtual binder of Medium drafts and Youtube scripts and notes (which I group together because there’s a lot of overlap)
- the catch-all file I call my “Repository”
If you’re brand-new to Scrivener, you may want to read this article first. Hopefully this peek inside my files will give you some ideas for managing your own writing, whether you’re working on a book or script (what Scrivener seems to be most commonly used for) or organizing blog content, freelance assignments, or other ongoing projects. The important thing to remember is that once you get the hang of the Scrivener basics, you can use the bells-and-whistles features to whatever extent makes sense for your own workflow. (Some features I’ve found by watching the clear and concise tutorials on the Literature and Latte YouTube channel, and others I’ve discovered by happy accident—though you may be surprised at how seldom I use the more advanced features for someone who’s been Scrivening for nine years!)
Straight-Up Drafting a Novel
For my first few novels, I kept a separate Word or OpenOffice file for each scene or chapter, collecting them in a file folder on my desktop and compiling them when the draft was more or less complete. Cole Cohen introduced me to Scrivener at an artists’ colony back in 2010, and I was thrilled (in true nerdy fashion) at the prospect of a “virtual Trapper-Keeper,” officially known as The Binder: different ideas, sections of prose, and bits of research oh-so-easily re-orderable and categorizable along a left-side column. The Scrivener interface is clean and pleasing to the eye; I could move a scene to another part of the book with a single click-and-drag; I could view two documents at once using the split-panes feature; and composition mode (which shows nothing but the page you’re writing on) made it so much easier to focus on the scene at hand. It all sounds so simple, I know, but as any Scrivener evangelist will tell you: it was a revelation.
My new middle-grade novel has six protagonists in three separate timelines, and the chapters cycle between points of view (third-person close for living characters, first person for deceased). In Scrivener it’s been a snap to order, re-order, and re-re-order scenes as needed. Full disclosure: I use Google Sheets to help with outlining and continuity — Scrivener does have an outline mode, and it is possible to insert a table into a subdocument, but so far I’ve found more flexibility in an external spreadsheet. I also prefer real notecards to Scrivener’s corkboard mode when assembling my master outline. (I use Scrivener plus Google Sheets plus paper index cards when planning and drafting nonfiction projects too—a method I can explore in a future post.)
Importing and Using Research
My historical fantasy is set in 18th-century Edinburgh, so this Scrivener file contains thousands of pages of primary and secondary sources (most of them scanned by Google Books): social life and customs, urban planning, folklore, cookbooks, and suchlike.
The split-screen feature (horizontal or vertical) allows me to write and refer to my research without having to toggle back and forth. To import a PDF, JPEG, audio, or video, just drag and drop the file into your Research folder.
Now that I’m posting regularly on YouTube and Medium, I need one place to store all my ideas and drafts — virtual Trapper-Keeper for the win yet again! Pieces I intend to publish within the next week or two are at the top of my Medium folder, and the rest of my drafts live in folders also arranged in priority order. Once a draft has been copied and pasted into the Medium editor, or a video recorded, I move the document to the archive at the bottom of the binder.
As for the icons feature, it may seem a bit frivolous, but it actually helps a lot in visual organization.
For instance, I assign a custom icon (a green asterisk) to interviews with vegan artists so I can see at a glance how many of these are in my queue. You can see in the screenshot above that I’ve used another custom icon (the “rolling on the floor laughing” emoji) just because the piece to which I’ve assigned it is one that amuses me. I probably won’t get around to assigning an icon to every category — I just need a few to visually break up the list, and they’re really fun to use besides.
This is the file into which the ideas on all those little scraps of paper ought to migrate. Back in 2010 I started this Scrivener project as a virtual filing cabinet, and though this screenshot is the closest some of these stories will ever come to publication, I want to keep every idea in the running until I’m absolutely certain I’m never going to use it.
I go for months without opening this file, and when I do, I chuckle to look back on the seeds that have since turned into published books (three, so far).
From these screenshots, you can get a sense of just how much time I spend using Scrivener each day; the pleasure I take in working more efficiently (and organizing my ideas more logically) is a self-enhancing cycle. The next time you start a new Scrivener project, spend a while tweaking your formatting and folder structures to make this fabulous program even more enjoyable to use.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation (forthcoming in October 2019). If you liked this post, you can subscribe for updates (and to thank you, you’ll get a link to two free sample chapters from Life Without Envy).