Writing a novel-length project is incredibly challenging. How do you keep track of plot points and character arcs, revise and rearrange scenes, organize notes and research? In the past I’ve attempted to do these things with the use of 3-subject notebooks, post-its, highlighters, and lots and lots of Word documents. Then I found a better way: Scrivener.
A few months ago I decided to try Scrivener’s free 30-day trial and see if it helped me as I revised my YA suspense novel. Almost immediately I could see that Scrivener was going to be a game-changer. For the first time I was able to see my manuscript as a whole, and it was SO MUCH EASIER to make changes using Scrivener’s organizational tools.
Hold up – what is Scrivener exactly?
Scrivener is writing software for Windows or Mac that is specifically designed for long projects such as novels, book-length nonfiction, research papers, screenplays, and stage plays. Scrivener helps you stay organized as you draft, compile, revise, and rearrange all the parts of your manuscript. In this article I will discuss how to use Scrivener for brainstorming, drafting, revising, and polishing your novel or memoir.
When you create a draft in Scrivener, the lefthand sidebar (called “The Binder”) will look something like this:
With The Binder you can easily navigate between chapters or scenes, and you have a place to store and organize notes and research, including images, audio/video files, and webpages. You can write short descriptions of each scene for quick reference, assign different colors to different scenes, and label docs as “to do,” “in progress,” or “first draft.” You can also split your screen to look at up to four documents at the same time, or view your scenes/chapters in “corkboard” format.
Some of the basic features of Scrivener include:
- Templates for novel, screenplay, research paper, and more.
- Easily navigate from one section of your manuscript to another.
- Scrivener constantly autosaves — no worries about losing your work!
- Easily rearrange chapters or scenes.
- Easily revert back to previous drafts or make saved copies of different versions.
- Free 30-day trial (And the 30 days are counted only as the days you open the app, so if you only write on Saturdays and Sundays, you will get Scrivener free for 15 weekends!)
- One-time price – once you buy it, it’s yours forever. No annual fees.
Use Scrivener for the Prewriting Stage
When you’re starting a new project, you’re brainstorming and researching, doing character studies, writing snippets of dialogue, jotting down ideas about plot and setting. Basically you’re amassing a huge hodge-podge of material, and you need a way to organize it.
With Scrivener, you can make files in The Binder for all your notes and research. Scrivener also provides character and setting templates. For more help with the brainstorming stage, see my post: How to Write Better Novels with One Key Step.
Use Scrivener for Plotting and Planning:
Scrivener is MADE for writers who like to plot ahead of time (or for writers who don’t like to but know they should). For example, you can create folders in The Binder for Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 then create documents within those folders for important scenes: the inciting incident, the midpoint, the climax. Fill in what you already know will happen, and create blank documents for the scenes you know you need but haven’t yet figured out.
Or, take your planning one step further by using the plotting “formula” described in Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder or Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Create documents for all your pivotal scenes, even before you know what they will be exactly, and view your scenes in corkboard format.
If you’re interested in this level of planning, you may want to check out How to Outline Your Novel with the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet or Outlining with Scrivener and Save the Cat.
Use Scrivener for the Drafting Stage
Once you’re ready to start writing, use Scrivener’s “composition mode” to keep from getting distracted. (You can also use Scrivener offline to keep from getting distracted by emails or social media.) If you’re feeling stuck on a scene, mark it as “in progress” and move on to another. With Scrivener, it’s easy to write out of order, or write linearly then change the order of your scenes later.
It used to be, when I sat down to write for the day, I’d want to first read over everything I’d already written (thus using up all my writing time). With Scrivener, you can read your brief descriptions of each scene to get you back in the groove then get going writing new words.
And if you’re the type of writer who needs to set goals and be held accountable, use Scrivener’s project and document targets to set word-count goals and activate push notifications to keep you on track.
Use Scrivener for the Revising Stage
I don’t know about you, but my revising usually includes deleting and adding scenes, moving scenes around, and generally taking my novel apart and then putting it back together. Again, this is what Scrivener is made to do. I find The Binder and the Corkboard View help me see my manuscript as a whole, which makes it easier to make global changes. Use labels and colors to mark which scenes have been revised and which still need more attention.
If you’re about to make major changes, you can take a “snapshot” which makes a copy of your manuscript exactly as it is now and saves it within the Scrivener project under “snapshots.” In this way, you can save different versions of your manuscript, all within the same project. Scrivener also has a “Revision Mode,” which is similar to “track changes” in Word. To learn more, check out Revising Your Manuscript in Scrivener and 7 Tools to Revise Your Novel in Scrivener.
Use Scrivener for the Polishing Stage
Like Word, Scrivener has a check for spelling and grammar, as well a search bar so you can look for certain words or phrases. I like to use this to search for “clutter” words like “really,” “that,” and “just.” (For more words to trim from your writing, check out this post from Diana Urban or this post from Ink and Quills.)
Scrivener also has a sophisticated “find and replace” function (called Project Replace) for when you want to make global changes, such as the name of a place or character. Just be careful when you use this function. I once changed the name of a character from Jack to Rob; later, a beta reader asked, “what’s a rob-o’-lantern?”
At some point you will want to take your manuscript out of Scrivener. Use “Compile” to export all the final draft chapters into one Word document. When you do this, Scrivener automatically generates the proper title page and headers.
If you’re planning to self-publish, Scrivener can put your manuscript in the proper e-book format as well. When compiling you can also chose to include front matter (such as a title page, dedication, copyright page, foreword, etc.) and back matter (such as acknowledgements or an author bio). For more info on formatting an ebook using Scrivener, check out this post from Scrivener Virgin, or this post from Sarah Smith.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Scrivener has to offer, and that’s because I myself haven’t used many of the features. So there’s this takeaway as well: if you want it, Scrivener probably has it; but if you don’t need it or don’t want to figure out how to use all the features, just use the aspects of Scrivener that appeal to you. You don’t have to use all the features in order to get your money’s worth.
Speaking of money, Scrivener costs less than $50. It’s a one-time purchase, and then it’s yours forever. (And if you’re a student or academic, you get a discount!) To be honest, I’m really annoyed at myself because a few years ago I spent $250 on Final Draft (the screenwriting software), and for less than $50, Scrivener has all the scriptwriting features I need. Argh!
(FYI: Scrivener links in this post are affiliate links.)
Still not convinced? Take advantage of Scrivener’s 30-day free trial. You got nothing to lose.
Try it out and let me know what you think!