Scrivener: My Three-year Review

Scrivener review

Scrivener is a powerful writing program that has been my software of choice as I write and revise my first novel. Here’s what I’ve learned about the program along the way.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

In “The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book,” I wrote about my impromptu process for turning notes jotted on my phone into long-form fiction.

In “Scrivener and My Case Study in Organizing a Novel,” I talked about how Scrivener, the groundbreaking writing software program, influenced my process.

I’ve been using Scrivener to work on my novel every day for three years. My manuscript’s word count is over 130,000 words and I am deep into a late-stage revision: cleaning up inconsistencies, smoothing out transitions, and updating sections to fully reflect how I think and write today — rather than how I did months or years ago. The Scrivener app has played a key role in all of these efforts.

Scrivener is a powerful creative writing program with loads of features, and I’ve been surprised at which capabilities have helped me the most. Read on for a look at how the software has continued to elevate my writing practice and how that functionality can help you, too.

Scrivener app interface

Scrivener lets you tweak and customize its interface in a variety of ways. In full disclosure, I haven’t explored many of these options and don’t really plan to. As far as overall aesthetic, I’m happy with Dark Mode, which gives most of the app a mellow grey background that I find more conducive to novel-writing than glaring white. I also like the default three-pane layout, with my organizational window on the left, the section I’m revising in the middle, and Snapshots on the right (more on all of that below).

Whether the above works for you or you prefer something completely different, the app gives solid formatting flexibility so Scrivener users can create atmospheres and interfaces that set them up for success with each writing session.

One note: in working on this article, I rediscovered Composition Mode, which turns your computer into a virtual typewriter, bringing whatever section you’re working on to a welcoming full-screen layout and excluding all distractions. I look forward to experimenting with Composition Mode soon and seeing how it impacts my revision process.

Scrivener file organization

One of Scrivener’s core benefits is that it allows writers to wrangle massive, multi-sectioned projects so they’re easy to organize, visualize, and work with. This is my favorite aspect of the program and one I recommend all long-form writers explore.

On the left of my Scrivener screen, I have ten folders within my organizational Binder (as Scrivener calls it). They don’t correspond to chapters of my novel per se, but to loosely-defined sections. Breaking my work into groupings like this has helped as I continue to conceptualize, shape, and refine my narrative.

Within each folder is a collection of sections, each of which can be named and paired with a customizable icon. It’s great to be able to label folders and sections as I see fit — for example, a blue book icon to indicate a section is fully revised and ready for the next step, a lightbulb graphic to show that I had an exciting idea and need to flesh it out, or a green flag to bookmark sections that have been semi-revised but require further attention.

The best part of Scrivener’s organizational functionality is that you can drag and drop sections and folders to easily and completely reorganize your work. I couldn’t imagine shifting chunks of a massive, multi-part project this effectively via a more traditional word processing program.

I also love how the Scrivener app allows you to have both birds-eye and granular views of your writing right next to each other. As I’ve worked on my novel, I’ve found that one view informs the other in unexpected ways. If I hit a roadblock on a section I’m revising, for example, I’ll often glance at the Binder and become inspired with new ways to tweak a different section instead.

Snapshots and revisions

My current revision has included serious rewriting, mostly of sections I first crafted years ago. This is exciting but scary, as there have been times I’ve gone deep into a new rabbit hole only to discover I liked the original one better. This is how I discovered Snapshots.

For each section of text, Scrivener allows you to take multiple Snapshots, which capture your text as it stands at any given moment. To do this, you pull up the section you’re working on, select Show Snapshots under the Documents menu, and get familiar with the Snapshots toolbar that appears. Click the plus sign and you’ve grabbed a new Snapshot, automatically labeled with the date and time of capture. You can customize the names of individual Snapshots, too.

Most exciting is that you can revert to previous Snapshots at will and compare multiple Snapshots to see what you’ve changed from version to version. This is similar to Microsoft Word’s “Compare Documents” functionality, but cleaner, more effective, and easier to use. In the section of the writing project I’m currently working on, I have two Snapshots from earlier this month and two from March. It is immensely helpful to click back to earlier versions and contrast my original draft with my current revision.

If you use Scrivener and are a heavy reviser — or just have been working on your project for a long time, like I have — I encourage you to use Snapshots early and often.

Backup

As I regularly cite in my articles for BookBaby and its sister company Disc Makers, Schofield’s Second Law of Computing states that if data isn’t saved in three separate places, it doesn’t exist. In other words, if your work is not consistently backed up in multiple locations, you’re asking for trouble.

After my first few weeks using the Scrivener app, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble on a “Scrivener backups” folder in my Finder containing a series of ZIP files. I didn’t remember putting it there or enabling any automatic backup functionality, but research showed that Scrivener does this automatically.

Automatic backup isn’t new or revolutionary, but it is deeply useful. The inclusion of this feature shows that Scrivener’s developers know their audience and want to help writers not just create, but protect their work as well.

— — —

After three years of heavy use, I love Scrivener. I get the feeling I’m only scratching the surface of its functions and features, but the flow I’ve described above works well for me — and that’s what I need.

If you require organizational help with your own writing, or just a flexible digital home for your works-in-progress, Scrivener stands the test of time and is a tool well worth trying.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. I tried it even bought it. But it left me confused, lost and dazed. I’ll stick with MS Word for writing. It’s simple and easy. I’m using Pro Writing Aid to revise and edit.
    I know at least one person that writes in Word and edits in Scrivener.
    I need someone right there with me showing me, but not on video, whether I’m doing it right ot not.

  2. +1 but I’d add that the first and only thing that you should do with Scrivener before you write is read the tutorial, all of it, don’t skim or skimp, it was only after two years of ‘getting it wrong’ that the tutorial got a proper airing and the light bulb went on.

    It really is greater than the apparent sum of its parts.

    MPT

  3. I was a heavy Scrivener user but disliked the limitations on backing up to iOS as well as using it on a smartphone (I write on the phone, iPad and MacBook depending on my need).

    I switched to Ulysses which does the same thing but far more steamlined.

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