Scrivener and My Case Study in Organizing a Novel

organizing a novel

At its best, software can inspire and empower its users. Scrivener did both for me and I’m excited to see what this software can do as I head to the completion of my novel.

In “The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book,” I wrote about how I was compiling a novel, chunk by chunk, in the small cracks of time that life made available. In “Write by Accident, Refine by Design,” I wrote about editing and revising those scores of textual snippets — written completely out of narrative order — and my efforts to piece them together into a cohesive whole.

That last part is easier said than done.

At this point, I have roughly 76,000 words all compiled in the same text document. Some major chunks are stitched together and every piece of text, large or small, has been edited and tweaked at least twice. What’s missing is the complete narrative roadmap. Should I place one protagonist’s encounter with law enforcement in a downtown Vietnamese restaurant before or after his sister-in-law’s artistic origin story? Where should I put a political announcement that turns another protagonist’s existence inside out?

When dealing with multiple, complex characters and timelines over such a huge span of text — and having assembled that text in the admittedly haphazard manner I did — making decisions about structure can prove challenging.

In a recent web video, best-selling author Jill Santopolo (who I interviewed for “10 Tips For Creating Your First Children’s Picture Book“) talked about working with Scrivener software to help organize her writing. She used the tool to move parts of the narrative around and keep track of various storylines.

Since I’m working hard on challenges similar to Santopolo’s, I decided to give the software a try. Here’s what happened.


Scrivener was easy to purchase, download, and install. Upon initial launch, the software pointed me to a thorough tutorial. I generally spend as little time as possible on “how-to” documents in favor of experimenting with software and learning as I work. That said, Scrivener’s tutorial was, not surprisingly, extremely well-written, organized in a user-friendly way, and very helpful. I highly recommend spending at least 20 minutes going through it before diving any further.

Early impressions

I saw right away that Scrivener was an impressive piece of software. For every project you’re working on, you can organize “Draft and Research” folders right next to each other so it’s easy to toggle between the words you write and background materials that inspire them. Web browser-style navigation buttons help you quickly return to whichever section of your work you were just looking at. I also loved how intuitive and writer-friendly the entire interface felt. It was a digital ecosystem that fit together organically and made me want to write.

Getting to work

I began by opening Scrivener’s “Novel” template as well as my own 76,000-word Pages document. Within my Scrivener project, I created a new Folder for each chapter and a new document (as Scrivener calls it) for each scene within that chapter. The entire structure nicely displays in a typical Finder-style setting at the left of the Scrivener window.

As I cut and pasted raw text from Pages into Scrivener, I labeled each Document and Folder, as the tutorial had suggested, with a summary that would let me know at a glance what was going on. Scrivener also lets you add notes and metadata to each individual chunk of text you create. I started doing this with character names and settings and will likely return with more detail as my narrative and timeline become more complicated.

After 10 minutes, I had about 7,000 words — or one-tenth of my manuscript — entered and very basically organized within Scrivener. Not a bad start.

Seeing structure and reorganizing

To this point, I found Scrivener simple to work with and the process of inputting and organizing my novel to be pretty exciting, if not mildly tedious. That changed once I had my 7,000 words, divided into four chapters and eight scenes, laid out in front of me.

Seeing the structure of my novel presented so transparently helped me recognize parallels that hadn’t been obvious previously. For example, early in the book, two central characters experience very different but equally momentous events that are linked in multiple ways. One character ponders what happened as he returns home to meet the other character, his girlfriend. In the next chapter, she follows a similar path home, but not before her micro-journey is eclipsed by the actions of a third protagonist.

All of this is to say — the parallel nature of the lovers’ journeys home was always present, but the significance was muted by the structure I had created. By simply dragging and dropping the girlfriend’s return journey into the chapter that already contained her boyfriend’s counterpart scene — and with the narrative’s focus now alternating between the two of them as they drew closer together — I was able to alter that bit of my story to significantly increase its impact.

Looking forward

Though the example above might seem like a small matter of cut and paste, it felt momentous. In a reasonably short time, I was able to input a major chunk of my novel, see it in a new way, and make a key structural adjustment that will help set the flow and tone for the rest of the project.

When working with creativity-oriented software in general, it can be easy to forget that its purpose is not to replace artists, but to inspire and empower them. Scrivener did both for me and I’m excited to see what else this powerful piece of software can do as I nudge my novel ever closer to completion.

Learn more about Scrivener at


  1. I really appreciate this post. I had read other reviews that scared me off Scrivener. They said the learning curve was really steep at first. I am self taught on the computer and have only ever taken one very basic course at a community library. I somehow manage to run a simple blog, however. Computer ” stuff” still intimidates me and. Am on the fence about buying Scrivener.

    I have over 60 K words written of a novel and I am starting to find file cards are just not working any more. Time to look at this tool again!


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