How to use Scrivener minimally to write a novel

Scrivener corkboard

I will never, ever go back to Microsoft Word.

Scrivener is a godly writing platform at a stupidly affordable price (under $50). But dozens of writers are hesitant to switch over because it’s “complicated.”

Let me ask you this: How many things do you know how to do in Word? Maybe … 10%? 20%?

Scrivener is easy. I know it can do some pretty fancy things, but even at bare minimum, it’s amazing. You absolutely do not need to pay someone to teach you how to use Scrivener.

Here’s the gist.

Your novel consists of “folders” and “texts”

When you start up Scrivener, you make a new project. Choose “Fiction” and then “Novel.” Give it a title, and voilà.

Your chapters and scenes all go in the sidebar so you can quickly switch between them. Select “Manuscript,” right-click, and then add a new folder for a chapter. Right-click on the folder and add a new text for a scene.

From there, you can drag folders and texts around to put them in whatever order you want. I give my chapters a name, but I just list scenes as “Scene 1.1,” “Scene 1.2,” etc.

(The below screenshot is from the Mac version, but I’ve used the PC version as well and they’re both equally good.)

Scrivener Mac

You only really need two modes

Wherever your three “Group”/”View” mode buttons are (these vary on PC and Mac), toggle between them to try them out. One looks like a blank sheet of paper; another looks like a notecard. There’s a third mode, but don’t worry about it.

These are the only two modes you need. Actually, you only need the mode that’s a blank sheet of paper. It’s the only one I use.

Scrivener mode

Delete a bunch of stuff

Delete everything under “Research.” Delete the “Template Sheets.” Delete “Sample Output.”

You can always recover these from the Trash if you want them later.

Scrivener binder

Write in any font you want

One thing I really like about Scrivener is that you can write in whatever font or size you want. None of it matters when you compile the document because Scrivener formats your manuscript for you.

And that’s the single best reason to use it.

“Research” is for everything else

I took out everything in the pre-formatted “Research” section and made folders for:

  1. “Characters” — literally, profiles on each main character
  2. “World-building” — magic rules, politics, geography, etc.
  3. “Plotting” — For me, this consists of things like chapter and act word counts, a table of macro problems to fix, scraps and random brainstorming, ideas for a sequel, and discarded chapters.
  4. “Other” — For tentative query pitches, a sample query letter, a novel synopsis, an elevator pitch, thoughts on theme, and so on. It was super helpful to see those in one place, side by side. (More on that later.)

And that’s it

I don’t really use the corkboard (digital index card feature) in Scrivener because I do a lot of planning in a good old-fashioned paper notebook before I even open a word document and start typing. That’s just my style.

You can go a lot deeper with Scrivener, but at the end of the day, it’s no more complicated than using Microsoft Word. Probably less so, because Word is annoying and dumb.

When you’re ready to print or make a non-Scrivener file type — a Word doc … or, on second thought, anything else, like a Kindle file or PDF — all you have to do is hit “Compile.” Easy peasy.

I’m happy to talk more in-depth if you have questions or want to bounce around ideas, so leave your thoughts in the comments.


$1000 writing competition at PUBSLUSH Press

PUBSLUSH Press is calling all manuscripts for a writing competition that will award $1000, “the chance to be published” (in other words, it’s not a sure thing), and a featured spotlight on their website. The submission period is open from now until March 31, so finish those manuscripts and good luck! The winner will be contacted by email in April.

Manuscripts will be judged on “style, content, and commercial viability” and include but are not limited to the following genres: “Biography, Chick Lit, Children’s, Comedy, Fantasy, History, Horror, Mystery and Crime, Poetry (compilations only), Politics, Religion, Romance, Sci-Fi, Self-help, Teen, and Thriller.”

This is a great opportunity for aspiring novelists and poets to market their book, even if actual publication doesn’t happen. Remember, word of mouth goes a lot way, and so does an extra thousand bucks in your pocket. If PUBSLUSH doesn’t pick up your book, someone else might take notice.

PUBSLUSH sounds like a good publisher to be involved with, too: According to their About blurb, they let readers decide what books get published and donate a book to a child for every book sold. That’s something worth more than seeing your book in print.

My novel’s stuck in Revision Hell, so I doubt it would be ready by the competition deadline. I’ll give it my best shot, though! I’m trying out Scrivener (on Windows since 2011 and Mac since 2007) thanks to blogger Aly Hughes, who convinced me to finally give the trial a download, and revision is already more appealing. Juggling Word documents was becoming a job in itself, and I was torn between typing in my preferred composition style (my desired font, etc.) and a traditional manuscript presentation (I’d just have to do the work later). Scrivener leaves the compiling and formatting as a final step, so you can type the way you want without worrying about the dirty details. Plus, the program gives users a generous amount of options for putting together and organizing ideas via outline or visual flowchart (aka the Corkboard, which is one of my favorite features). It’s great for getting a better handle on your structure and concept and exposing weaknesses in your plot.

The written tutorial was lengthy but very useful and informative, so if you give the trial a chance (no personal info needed), definitely take the time to familiarize yourself with all the available features.

My only problem initially was the Scrivener wants you to type your manuscript without indenting paragraphs and without skipping a line between them; otherwise it messes up the standard manuscript look, and this is the only thing that can’t be easily changed in the compiling process. I’m fine with not indenting, but not having spaces between paragraphs was throwing me off—all the text looks packed together. My solution? Go to Format –> Text –> Spacing, and set the spacing “Before” and “After” to at least 5 pts each. This doesn’t actually double space, but it does make your paragraphs a little roomier.

Are you a Scrivener wizard? Feel free to share your expert tips with me.