Organize your writing in Scrivener

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Writers have a nearly endless choice of tools. The number of word processors, text editors and other text software available today is staggering. But most of them are designed for a specific type of writing: linear writing, where you start at the beginning, then write until you get to the end.

Literature and Latte’s Scrivener is designed with the assumption that most writers of long-form works—novels, non-fiction books, theses, screenplays, and so on—don’t write in a linear manner. Scrivener provides a unique environment that frees you from the strict constraints of beginning, middle, and end. You can start at the end of your work, then write the beginning, then fill out the middle, if you wish. As you write, you can easily move around scenes, sections, and chapters, until your work is exactly as you want.

As a writer of either fiction or non-fiction, you have myriad options for the tool you use to record your words. However, you may find that Scrivener can replace the current program you use for writing, and provide you with powerful features that your current writing program doesn’t offer.

In this excerpt from my $10 e-book “Take Control of Scrivener 2,” I show you how to use Scrivener’s organizational tools to your advantage. Current users of Scrivener may learn some new tips and tricks; I hope that prospective users of Scrivener will see just how this app’s powerful organizational and text management features help you get on with what counts most: writing the words. Your tool is important, because it is the scaffolding around which you create, but you need to focus on your text, not your tools.

Scrivener is powered by a triad of key organizational tools—the Binder, Corkboard, and Outliner. You can work in one mode, switch to another, add more information and ideas, then switch to another mode. Some people may never want to use the Corkboard, and others may swear by it; some may only use the Binder, while others may make detailed outlines. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find a way of planning your work with Scrivener’s powerful tools.

As you read about these three tools, you may find it useful to start thinking about which one will work best for you. The Binder is always there for you in the left sidebar of the Scrivener window, giving you immediate access to your work and enabling certain types of organizational activities, and Collections—which appear in the Binder sidebar—give you new ways to experiment with and consider your project. However, you’ll likely also spend time in the Corkboard and Outliner, with their respectively visual and hierarchical approaches to the same information.

Understand the Binder and Collections

Most of the organizational work you perform in Scrivener involves the Binder, the sidebar at the left of the program’s window. Organizing, planning, restructuring, and exporting your project all depend on the arrangement of files in the Binder. The contents of the Binder vary depending on which template you choose when you create a project.

The Binder holds three main containers (called “folders” although they don’t always look like folders): Draft, Research, and Trash.

The Draft folder is where you put your actual writing. After the project is created from the template, the Draft folder contains an “Untitled” file; if you start writing in the Editor right after creating a project, your text is added to that file. You can add more files to the Draft folder whenever you need—one file per chapter is an easy way for Scrivener neophytes to think about it, but to fully embrace the Scrivener philosophy and gain from its powerful features, you may want a more granular breakdown that starts with ideas and later grows into a logical structure. You can also add sub-folders, and you can reorganize these files and folders in the Binder.

The Draft folder is important because its contents are used to Compile Your Work for Print and Export. While you can create other folders, and store text files in them, you must eventually move those files to the Draft folder (no matter what name you have given it) before compiling if you want them included in your final document.

The Research folder stores your research documents. You can add text files, PDFs, graphics, Web archives, audio files, video files, and more. As with the Draft folder, you can create sub-folders and move files from folder to folder. The Trash does what you’d expect: it acts like the Trash in the Mac OS X Finder.

This image shows the Binder for my Moby-Dick project, which uses the Novel template. The Novel template names the Draft folder “Manuscript” and it adds folders named “Characters” and “Places,” which are designed to store notes about characters and settings. The Template Sheets folder contains special files that are formatted to store information about characters and settings. Finally, the top file, “Novel Format,” is an introductory text that describes the template; you can delete it once you’ve read it.

So, depending on your project, you’ll have different items in the Binder, but they all function in the same basic way: they are folders and files.

You may already want to add a number of files to the Binder, if you’ve started planning your work, for example, and have chapter titles or ideas already set down. To add a new file to the Binder, select the folder where you want to store the file, then click and hold the Add button in the Toolbar and choose New Text.

As you work, you may want to add folders and sub-folders to your Binder to better organize your writing and your research. For example, you may want to separate items in your research folder for different characters, locations, historical events, and so on. To add a new folder, click and hold the Add button in the Toolbar and choose New Folder.

Use Collections to Organize the Binder

Collections appear at the top of the Binder sidebar.
Another way of organizing and accessing files in the Binder is to use Collections. Collections appear on a special type of tab that displays at the top of the Binder sidebar. Collections can be shown or hidden. To view them, choose View -> Collections -> Show Collections or click the Collections button in the Toolbar. You’ll see something like the next image, without the “New Collection” collection.

Scrivener has two kinds of collections, which you can create and use in several ways:

Search: Search collections store the results of a search, as their name suggests. Type something into the Search field at the right of the Scrivener Toolbar, and the results of that search appear in the Binder. If you click a file in the search results, you can view it. When you click the Binder tab, you go back to the Binder, but you can click the Search Results collection at any time to return to the most recent search results as long as you have not cleared the Search field.

To save a search so that you can re-use it later and not have it replaced by the most recent search settings, click the triangle next to the magnifying glass in the Search field in the Toolbar and select Save Search. This creates a new collection that acts exactly the same as the Search Results collection; when you click it, you see the current results for the saved search terms. You can use a saved search if you want to repeatedly search for, say, specific terms or keywords, or find where a character or location appear in your manuscript.

Standard: Standard collections can store anything you want. You can move items to them from the Binder, and they stay together, but the originals remain in their original locations in the Binder. If you modify an item in a collection, the changes also appear in the Binder. You can even put the same Binder item into more than one collection. (If you are familiar with the Mac OS X concept of the alias, think of Standard collections as storing aliases of files in the Binder.)

For example, you might want to add several chapters or scenes to a collection to remind yourself to go back and revise them later. You can also use a Standard collection to rearrange files—chapters or scenes, for example—to read through them in a different order to decide if you want to change the order of your texts.

Reorganize Your Work

Files in the Binder can be chapters, sections, scenes, beats, or whatever you want. This is one of the important aspects of Scrivener, one which helps free you from the fetters of linear composition.

Your files can be as large or as small as you want; they could be separate paragraphs, if your work dictated such an approach, or entire chapters, or anything in between. If you break a chapter into scenes, it can be much easier to move scenes around if you wish to restructure the chapter later. In addition, you don’t need to commit to any specific approach when you start writing: you can split and merge files as needed. If you wish to split a file, put the text cursor at the location where you would like to make the split, then choose Documents -> Split -> at Selection. To merge two or more files, select the files, then choose Documents -> Merge.

The Binder gives you the power to reorganize your work in myriad ways. No matter how much you have written, you can move files around in the Binder to change your narrative, splitting or merging them when it is useful, or arranging your files in a different order to see how that changes the way your work flows.

View and Edit Multiple Files

One of the most powerful ways of viewing and editing your work is called the Scrivenings view. It’s important to fully understand what this unique offers. Let me quote from the Editing with Scrivener section of the Writing and Editing chapter of the Scrivener manual:

The “Scrivenings” view mode allows you to edit multiple text documents as though they were one long document. This way, you can write in small chunks and then combine them in any way you like to see how they work together. For instance, you might write lots of small scenes for a chapter, and then view (and edit) them all together in a Scrivenings session to see how the chapter works as a whole.

To reiterate, with the Scrivenings view mode you can view any group of files as though they were a single file. Rather than clicking one file, editing it, then clicking another file and making changes to that one, you can scroll through a group of files as though they were one.

The best way to demonstrate this is with an example. The Moby-Dick project I’ve used for my examples in this book has been fleshed out from an outline of the first chapters so that it contains the full texts of those chapters.

Viewing two chapters simultaneously in Scrivenings view.

As you can see, I have selected two files—in this case, chapters—in the Binder. The Header View at the top of the Editor shows this by saying “Multiple Selection,” and the label for the View Mode control on the Toolbar changes to say Group Mode. Also, in the Editor itself, at the junction of the two files, you can see a horizontal rule. In this example, I selected contiguous files, but you can select non-contiguous files as well.

Organize Your Ideas with the Corkboard and Outliner

Not only can you organize chapters, scenes, sections and other items in the Binder, but two tools—the Outliner and the Corkboard—give you additional ways to brainstorm, outline, and rearrange your ideas.

Many writers use index cards to record notes and ideas, and they may pin them on a corkboard to organize them. Scrivener’s Corkboard tool is a virtual version of this age-old technique.

Don’t think of a Scrivener index card as a file that appears in the Binder. Instead, think of it as a virtual index card clipped to a file in the Binder, just like paper-clipping a real index card to a sheet of paper. Although you can use index cards in a variety of creative ways, the core purpose of a card is to store a brief summary of a file, or what you want a file to contain. That way, you can work with the card as a stand-in for the entire file. The card has a title at the top and a file synopsis in its body.

The Corkboard is ideal for brainstorming. Create some index cards, jot down some ideas, flesh them out, then rearrange them. As your project progresses, you can rearrange any of these cards—and the files that they represent in the Binder—to reflect changes in your narrative.

The image below shows index cards for the project that you saw earlier when I created a collection, but with changes that I’ve made on the Corkboard, such as adding a card for The Chapel. Each card has a title, and then a sentence or two describing the chapter.

This image shows two basic, but key, aspects of using the Corkboard:

In addition to creating index cards on the Corkboard, Scrivener has created corresponding files in the Manuscript folder in the Binder.

In the Inspector at the right, in the Synopses section, Scrivener shows the full text on the currently selected card—the card has a blue outline in the figure.

These basic points highlight a key feature of Scrivener: while the program provides different ways of entering and manipulating text, they are all related, and different views often show the same content in different ways.

Work with the Corkboard

At a Glance
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