I'm the creator of this site (Grammar Gang). I'm also the founder of Codeless, a long-form content creation company that's been featured in The New York Times, Business Insider, The Next Web, and hundreds more.
We produce around ~100 long, in-depth articles each month. So we're relying on these tools on a daily basis. Here, I break down the good, bad, and uuuuuuggggllllyyyy.
Latest posts by Brad Smith (see all)
- “F-You, Pay Me.” How to Get Paid to Write - May 16, 2019
- The 7 Best Writing Tools to Write More, Faster, in Less Time - April 17, 2019
- Why Most Freelance Writers Shouldn’t Waste their Time with Pinterest - February 9, 2019
So you decided to give Scrivener a shot but found the interface quite daunting, right?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s common for many writers to start rolling their eyes when they first come across the busy interface of Scrivener.
That’s why most of them either drop out or spend cold hard cash to learn the program.
But why would you pay someone when you can learn it for free?
Yeah, you heard that right! In this post, I’ll show you how to make the most out of Scrivener step-by-step on both Windows and Mac.
And by the time you finish this article, you’ll have a complete grasp of most of the functionalities of Scrivener, writing on it, editing and creating versions, and finally, export in your favorite format.
So, you ready? Let’s get going.
How to get started with Scrivener
Before we dive deep, it’s important to let you know that the swamped interface of Scrivener is merely a mirage.
Because 99.9% of the time, you won’t need most of the functions. It takes only 5-6 tools to create a ready-to-publish piece from scratch.
So, my focus will be on these essential tools so you can get a concise roadmap to use the software. You can ignore other features as most of the authors do.
Let’s get started by getting familiar with the different functions of Scrivener.
As soon as you open the Scrivener app, it asks you to create a project by giving it a name and selecting a template from the repository.
Unless you’re working on a novel or screenplay, choose the blank page, name your project, and hit ‘create’.
Once you create the project, it takes you inside the app, and this is what you come across:
A blank page with lots of icons around it. Starting with the menu bar at the top, let me break down everything section-by-section.
At the top we have a menu bar that consists of:
- In the left side, you see standard menus like ‘File’, ‘Edit’, ‘View’, ‘Insert’, etc. to go to different functions. But don’t get intimidated because, in Scrivener, the only time you would visit this part is when you want to import or export files or if you want to take snapshots (I’ll come to it later).
- Just beneath the menu options, we have a toolbar with a handful of icons. Again, the only tools we are going to need is the “Full-Screen” icon and “Compile” which is second from right and extreme right, respectively.
- In the middle of the bar, we have different modes of Scrivener where the left icon is for ‘Editor Mode’, the mid one is ‘Corkboard’, and the right one is ‘Outliner’. We’ll talk about these three modes in detail in the “How to organize content” section.
- And finally, at the right side, we have a tiny search bar to search within a document or project. And a big blue ‘i’ icon that opens the inspector pane.
Now, coming down to the left portion of the interface. You see a panel called ‘Binder’. Binder is the control room of your project.
It’s divided into three categories:
- Draft: This is where all your actual writing is stored.
- Research: As the name suggests, the place where you can store all your research notes, images, and even web pages.
- Trash: The place where all your deleted files end up in. It’s like the ‘Recycle Bin’ of your computer.
Binder is basically the navigation bar of Scrivener where you can create or navigate through all the sections of your document.
At the bottom, there’s a gear, folder, and document icon.
While the folder and document icon can be used to add a separate folder and document to the project respectively, you can use the gear icon to rename an existing document or folder, and also to send it to trash.
Now, we have conquered the left panel, shift your focus to the right where the inspector panel is waiting for us. You won’t be able to see it until you click the big blue ‘i’ icon on the top right corner.
Once you click on it, it opens a whole different set of features that might make your head spin for a while.
But fret not, it’s not as messy as it looks.
The inspector panel has three different sections.
1. Synopsis: You can write a short description of a particular chapter or section of the project.
2. General Meta-Data: This section is handy if you write multiple drafts of your novel or screenplay in the same project. That way, you can add labels (as Chapter or rough) and status (like first draft, second draft, finished, etc.) to your documents. Otherwise, keep it as is.
3. The third section depends on which function you choose from the toolbar just above the Synopsis section. By default, it remains in ‘Notes’ that opens a yellow text box at the bottom where you can enter all your notes on the go while writing. It looks something like this:
Besides ‘Notes’, it has the ‘Reference’, ‘Keyword’, ‘Custom Meta-Data’, ‘Snapshot’, and ‘Comment & Footnotes’ sign.
While the Reference tool enables you to add a local file, folder, or webpage for future reference, ‘Keyword’ lets you tag specific keywords to your files. It is useful when you have a pile of documents, and you are looking for a specific one.
Just enter the keyword tagged with that doc in the search box, and it returns all the files tagged with that particular keyword. It narrow down your search and save time. Its neighbor feature ‘Meta-Data’ also performs similarly.
However, I would advise you to ignore the Meta-Data’ part to simplify the whole writing and organizing process.
Next to the meta-data field, there’s a camera icon that denotes the Snapshots section. This is where you can find all the snapshots (I’ll talk about it in a moment).
And finally, at extreme right, you can find the comment tool that allows you to add comments as well as footnotes to your doc. The process is the same as you do in Word or Google Doc.
Select a word or phrase and click ‘+’ in the top right corner to add a comment.
If you want to remove it, hit ‘-’ and the job is done. As simple as that!
At last, it’s time to explore the minimalist bottom bar.
As you can see in the picture above, there’s nothing special here to mention. In the right side, there’s a small circle (looks like a dartboard) that lets you set a maximum word limit for a particular document.
Use it when you’re working on a blog post or short story that has a specific word limit associated with it. Otherwise, I don’t prefer touching it.
The mid section of the bottom bar indicates the total number of words written in the current doc. And in far left, you have the option to bump up the size of fonts.
And finally, the big white space is where all the action happens.
The text formatting pane is just above it, and it’s the same ordinary one that we see in any word processor. And in the far right, you have the facility to split the screen vertically or horizontally.
When should you do it? I’ll let you know in a moment.
So with that, you are now fully aware of the Scrivener interface. I hope it won’t haunt you anymore.
Now you can start doing what you’ve bought it for: write and organize content.
How to start writing content
You can either start typing words right away or import your existing work on Scrivener.
Since it supports almost all the popular formats, you shouldn’t face any issues importing your files even if you’ve written it on Final Draft (another screenwriting app).
Go to File, select Import from the drop-down menu, and click ‘Files…’. Select the file you want to work on and click Import in the next window.
Within a few seconds, your chosen file will be there on your Scrivener screen.
In case, if you want to add some quick notes while writing, open the inspector pane by clicking the blue ‘i’ icon on the far right, and dump everything there.
However, keep in mind that you can add only text notes. You can’t insert images or add webpages.
For that, Scrivener provides you a dedicated section in the Binder pane marked as ‘Research’.
Right click on it, point over Add, and click ‘New Text’. It’ll open a document where you can store all your notes whether they’re images or words.
It also lets you keep webpages. All you need to do is repeat the same process, but instead of ‘New Text’, pick Add webpage and enter the URL and title in the new window and click ‘okay’.
The funny part is, you can access the webpage even when you’re offline.
Now, you might be wondering, “Hey, do I always need to flip back and forth between my research and writing doc while working?
The answer is no.
Whenever I write a piece that requires heavy research, I always split the screen vertically, and while the left part shows my actual writing; I keep my research doc open on the right side.
And how do I do that?
Simple, just click on the white space inside the right side screen and click on the research doc in Binder. It’ll open that doc on the right side of the screen.
This is how I save at least half an hour every day and keep my momentum going. And I would recommend you to follow the same steps unless you want to waste hours jumping between multiple docs.
Now many of us have this habit of working on sessions, and we set a goal to write a specific number of words in one go.
Scrivener knows it very well that’s why it lets you create sessions and monitor word count if you go to Document > Project Target.
Set a specific target according to your capacity and click okay.
I love using sessions whenever I work on a long-form blog post like an ultimate guide or an eBook.
It helps me finish long writing assignments in a short time without feeling overwhelming.
And you know the best part?
Scrivener saves everything automatically. So there’s no chance of damage even if you forgot to hit ‘Ctrl S’ after a rigorous writing session.
Similar to Sessions, I can’t imagine writing without the Full-Screen mode of Scrivener.
Because personally, my focus game is so fragile that I can get distracted even by the ping of a notification.
That’s why to block all these interruptions and of course, to escape from the jam-packed interface of Scrivener, I turn the full-screen mode on by clicking on the arrow icon.
It blurs the background and pushes it backward, so the only thing you see is the current page you’re working on.
Additionally, you can control how much screen the page captures and how blurry the background should be by increasing or decreasing the paper width and background fade at the bottom (just move your mouse to the bottom, and it’ll show up).
Now the question is:
How can I have my notes on the same screen when the full-screen mode is on? Do I need to go on and off full-screen mode just to confirm a source or take a quick look at my notes?
Again, the answer is no?
Hover your mouse down and click on the inspector (i) icon and there you go. You have all your notes next to your writing doc.
And just beside the inspector icon, you have the ‘Go to’ option, that takes you straight to your research docs or any document while the full-screen mode remains intact.
So this is how you can make full use of the full-screen mode. And once you’re done writing the first part or chapter, always write the next chapter or section in a different doc.
Don’t worry about how you’ll export all the bits and pieces together because when you hit ‘compile’, it’ll stitch the whole document together.
So create a new text file by right-clicking on your current doc in the Binder, hover your mouse over Add and click Add New Text.
It makes the organizing part a breeze. Wanna see how?
How to organize content
Scrivener’s ability to organize content is the primary attribute that separates it from other software.
Before I show you how to use this power, take a quick flashback to the first section where I introduced you to the three different modes of Scrivener – Editor, Corkboard, and Outliner.
This is where these three modes come handy.
It doesn’t matter where you’re organizing your project; there’s only one way to do it – drag and drop.
When you’re in the editor, shift your entire focus in the Binder panel.
It contains all your documents, so select the one you want to change, drag it, and drop it where you want to place that section.
For example, if you want to interchange the spots of section 5 with section 3. For this, select section 5, drag it, and drop it between section 2 and 3.
If you drop it just over section 3, it’ll become a sub-section of section 3. So, always drop the document beyond the section that you want to replace while arranging docs in editor mode.
If you find it challenging to arrange documents in Binder, Corkboard could be your favorite place to organize content.
It lays out your entire project as index cards where each card, has the document title on it with a synopsis (if you’ve added any).
Again, select a card, drag it, and drop it over another card to exchange their spots. You can see these changes take place in the Binder when you shift again to editor mode.
And finally, the Outliner mode is where you will find the headings and subheadings of your project as a spreadsheet.
It’s similar to the ‘list view’ we see on our computers. To re-arrange different sections, perform the same process you do in Binder.
Yes, not just drag and drop over the section, but go a little further.
And that’s how you organize your content in Scrivener. Just remember three words – ‘drag and drop’.
How to create versions and export
It’s a common scenario for a writer to spend an hour writing a paragraph, scrap everything out in the next moment. Write another paragraph, and finally scrap out that para too to go back to the older one.
It’s damn annoying to go back and forth between different versions when you’re not sure about the perfect copy.
But with Scrivener, it’s a breeze.
If you’re not sure about the latest version of your document, save it as a snapshot and use it later, in case the future copy doesn’t turn out as per your expectation.
Go to Document > Snapshot > Take a Snapshot.
In a second, it stores the current doc as a snapshot. Similarly, you can take as many snapshots as you want, and you can find all of them in the inspector panel under the Snapshot section (yes, the camera icon).
If you want, you can rename each snapshot by double-clicking on it. And when you select one (single-click), it shows the copy in the text box below.
If a particular version seems a better fit for your project, hit ‘Roll Back’ in the top-right corner, and it’ll restore that version.
At last, when the editing part is done, you are ready to export your documents in your favorite formats.
One of the significant benefits of using Scrivener is, it makes formatting effortless.
For example, if you format your document on MS Word for e-reading devices, it may take hours depending upon the size of your document.
But with Scrivener, it takes seconds.
Go to Compile and in the pop-up wizard choose an appropriate format in the ‘Format as’ field- for example, ePub and Mobi for eBooks, print-ready PDF for paperbacks or the plain Word document.
Next, choose a format in the ‘Format for’ field,click Compile.
And within a minute your file will be there in your desired folder.
Now, you’re free to send that doc to your publisher, editor or even to your friend; the choice is yours.
Wow… that was easy, ha!
Scrivener is not as complex as it looks. The functions are easy to perform and it serves everything in a single platter.
Of course, there are other functions too that I didn’t cover in this post, but the real question is:
Do you really need them?
Not even the pro authors use all the features of Scrivener. They stick to most of the tools we discussed here.
In fact, I’ve also been using Scrivener for the last couple of months, and even I don’t know when was the last time I added meta-data to my documents or used the collection tool.
So fret not.
Go through the entire tutorial while keeping the Scrivener app open for faster learning and you’ll be able to tackle any writing project successfully.