Scrivener – the writer’s word processor

To quote the people behind it, “Scrivener is a ring-binder, a scrapbook, a corkboard, an outliner and text editor all rolled into one.” It’s popular with a significant percentage of the writing community and can be used to write novels, essays, journalism and more complicated documents like scripts.

Unfortunately, it’s also a specialist tool that has a somewhat steep learning curve, so this month’s Technophobia looks into the app’s feature set by way of a brief tutorial. By the end you should have a better idea if Scrivener is worth the £30 investment.

You don’t have to pay anything up-front, though. Scrivener comes with a 30-day free trial. It runs on both Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac, with a Linux version in the testing phase, and can be downloaded from


Scrivener’s benefits fall into two categories. The first is writing tools that make life easier. For example, you can take a “snapshot” of a chapter or scene before adding-in something you’re less confident about. A snapshot is simply a version of the chapter and you can later view the snapshot to either recover it entirely, or to salvage the best bits from it.

Secondly, Scrivener offers organisational tools. If you’re a freeform writer who dumps their creativity onto the page then this might sound scary but Scrivener includes tools to let you later organise your writing regardless of how you write. You could write the entire novel in one long document, then split it into chapters afterward, or you could take a structured chapter-by-chapter approach (or even scene-by-scene). Chapters can be easily rearranged by clicking and dragging.

Throughout this tutorial we’re going to assume the author is a novelist, so when the app starts select the Fiction project template at the left.  You’ll be offered three sub-choices: Novel, Novel (With Parts), or Short Story. We’re going to assume your work is a modest affair with a simple chapter arrangement, so select Novel.

You’ll immediately be prompted to save your project, so type a filename by which you’ll remember it. Scrivener is unusual in that it creates a new folder on the disk for each project. To open the novel in future you’ll need to go into the folder and double-click the project file.

Program window

When Scrivener’s main program window appears you’ll see it’s split into three areas. In the centre is the text editor, which looks and works just like a traditional word processor. At the left is the Binder, and it’s here where you’ll keep your novel organised. The Binder contains individual documents. Imagine these as the sheets of paper that make up scenes, chapters, research, and any thoughts you have about characters or places. Just about anything can be a document, including pictures and videos (just drag them onto the Scrivener window). The Binder can also contain folders, by which you can further keep things organised – if your novel takes on more epic proportions, for example, then you might want to create folders for Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and so on. The novel template we’re using contains a folder called Manuscript, then a sub-folder called Chapter. It also contains folders for Front Matter material and Research.

At the right of Scrivener’s window lives the Inspector. If you can’t see this, click the blue (i) icon at the top right. The Inspector shows a synopsis index card, which is attached to the document you’re editing at that moment, a little like it’s attached by a paperclip. Here you can record a summary of the document, either before you write or afterwards. I’ll explain why this is important in a moment. Beneath this you can optionally set a label or status for the novel. A label might be “Chapter”, while the status might be “First Draft” or “Final Draft”. Beneath this there’s space to type notes, which can be anything that helps in writing the document, such as stray thoughts.

View modes

The synopsis index cards are important because a key feature of Scrivener is its corkboard view. This shows the index card from each document within the Binder. You can switch to corkboard view by clicking the middle icon in the view mode arrangement in the middle of the toolbar, although first ensure you select the Manuscript folder for your documents in the Binder at the left.

The index cards can be dragged around on the corkboard, and this will rearrange the order of the documents in the Binder. The index cards can also be edited on the corkboard (just click and start typing), to help you restructure the work or create a narrative flow. Folders appear as a stack of cards.

The button to the right of the corkboard view lets you switch to outline mode, in which the titles of each document can be viewed as a list. Folders are shown too, with documents indented beneath. I explained how outlining works in issue 146 of Writers’ Forum. It’s another way of taking a birds’ eye view of your work.

Documents can be arranged into folders, but selecting a folder within the Binder activates “Scrivener” mode. Put simply, this combines all the documents in the folder into one long document, so you can read or edit without having to switch around.

Creating a doc

To explore Scrivener’s writing tools, let’s start writing a novel. The novel project template provided by Scrivener suggests you write individual scenes, which can then be combined into chapters. This makes sense but Scrivener is flexible enough to work any way you like – you could write the entire novel as one document then split it into chapters later, if you wished.

To get started, ensure the Manuscript folder is selected in the Binder, and then click the New button on the toolbar – the green circular icon with a plus in it. You’ll immediately be prompted to give your new document a name. Perhaps surprisingly, you’re not encouraged to type something like “Chapter 1” because the whole point is that documents can be rearranged later. Instead, type something descriptive – “Intro to Alison”, for example, or “Showdown at hotel”.


Then click in the word processor area and start writing. You can choose fonts and formatting from the toolbar above the text area. However, bear in mind that Scrivener isn’t about making your text look pretty. The idea is that you’ll do that later when you’ve finished the piece. Scrivener is simply about getting your creativity onto the page – a kind of “writer’s shed”.

Let’s assume that a few months have passed and you’ve written 50,000 words in a single document. You want to split it into chapters. This is easy. Just place the cursor after the end of the first chapter, then select Document > Split > At Selection. Repeat at the other chapter breaks.

Alternatively, if you took Scrivener’s guidance and created hundreds of scenes as individual documents, you might want to combine several into single chapter documents. To do so, switch to corkboard view and then rearrange the scenes into the correct order for the first chapter so they narratively follow each other. Then select them by holding down the Ctrl key and then click Documents > Merge.

Writing tools

For distraction-free writing Scrivener offers a full-screen mode that essentially turns the entire screen into a text editing area. It’s the sixth icon from the left on the toolbar (remember that hovering the mouse cursor over an icon will show a tooltip). You can adjust the look and feel of full screen mode by moving the mouse cursor to the bottom and changing the toolbar settings. Hit the Esc key to exit this mode.

To save a snapshot, as mentioned earlier, ensure the Inspector is visible (click the blue (i) button on the toolbar), and tap the camera icon at the bottom (third from the right). Then tap the plus button at the top right of the sidebar. The new snapshot will appear beneath and selecting it will show the contents of the snapshotted document below in the sidebar. You can copy and paste from this to restore text, or if you simply want to revert to that snapshot you can select it and select the Roll Back button. Rather usefully, before doing so Scrivener will again save the current state of the document as a snapshot so you can rollback to it if you change your mind about your initial rollback!

When you’ve finally finished your novel you’ll need to output it in a file format others can understand, such as Microsoft Word. This is done by clicking File > Compile. The options here are complicated but select Original from the Format As dropdown list, and Word Document (.doc) from the Compile For dropdown list and you should end-up with something everybody can understand.

Is it worth it?

Scrivener’s value isn’t in the tools it offers. It’s more about the good practices it teaches authors. Plot holes become less likely if you use the index card and corkboard system. That said, Scrivener also adds in a level of complexity that can simply get in the way. If you decide to give it a go, commit to spending a few weeks using it to get over any initially annoying hurdles. Be sure to Google for Scrivener tutorials, of which there are many created by helpful fellow authors.

Leave a Reply