Or, how I stopped pantsing and got down with outlining.

This week, I’m going to start the first in a series of posts about Scrivener, an invaluable tool for writing fiction. Maybe you’ve wanted to try or have done National Novel Writing Month and wanted to up your game. Maybe you write novels or screenplays and have heard about this great piece of software writerly types talk about. Or, maybe you’ve opened it, looked at the interface and Noped away because of all the buttons. Well, here’s how I’m using it for outlining and structuring after using it for a year. It has absolutely taken over the way I approach writing books and short stories, and it’s a lot more organized and useful than Word/Pages/Google Docs and a stack of notes or other apps. Though I still use the little bits of paper occasionally.

Getting Started

If you’ve never used Scrivener before, the first time opening it can be a little daunting. It’s not like regular word processors that put you on a blank page and flash a cursor at you. You have to think about your Project a little bit first. Once you’ve selected a template, you need to know how to move around.

Protip: Take the time to learn the keybindings! Ctrl+Tab moves you between the Binder and the Document area. Cmd+Alt+cursors (on Mac) moves you between files in the binder area, regardless of where your cursor is. The document area behaves a lot like a web browser complete with history: Cmd+[ and Cmd+] to go backwards and forwards.

Opening Scrivener, you’re presented with a Project Templates window. If it is your first time, I’m going to insist you go to the Getting Started section and pick the Interactive Tutorial. It walks you through the various parts of the application and explains how to get around. Expect to spend a couple of hours in there, and figure out how to use The Binder and the different writing modes.

I’ll wait for you here.

Welcome back! Now that you have a handle on Scrivenings vs. the Corkboard modes (yes, these are real things), you’re ready to start a new Project.

A Project in Scrivener consist of a series of folders and files. Scrivener takes care of organizing all that for you into a single bundle you can move around on your computer, but in the fiction templates, you start with a Short Story/Manuscript folder, a Research folder, Character and Places folders and a couple others like the Templates folder and Trashcan. Depending on which project template you chose, you may have some default containers under the top-level folder, but for the most part, these things are all interchangeable. The Story (Manuscript in Novel templates) is the thing that contains all of the Scenes and Chapters that make up your book, er… short story.

The Short Story Template only has one sub-level, called “Story”, and it may contain Scenes with each of your story’s sections, depending on how long you make it. As a rule of thumb, if you’re breaking your story up in Chapters, it probably deserves to be in a Novel template, whether it’s 15k words or 150k. Novel (with Parts) is useful for larger books with another level of nesting, like Part 1 or Book 1, or whatever you want to call them. They all contain the Research, Characters and Places folders as well, but Short Story is missing out on some of the additional templates that go along with a Novel, like covers and ebook front-matter.


I’m going to use the Short Story template for starters, just because it’s a bit simpler but still provides a useful work flow example for getting down to writing. The process is the same across all of them. When you first open a template, you’re treated to a document that explains a bit about how it works and what’s inside.

The Binder (that thing on the left with all the folders) contains a top level Short Story folder. You should see another page under that called First Page Header. That contains a template for your story’s first page, and will get prepended to your document when you export it. Tweak it to taste.

Under that, you should see a “Story” folder. If you click it, you’ll see a blank page in Scrivener’s Editor area. The white page space to the right of the Binder. You could just start writing here, but I want to show you the Cork Board first, as pictured above. With the Story folder selected in the Binder, click the Corkboard button in the Group Mode toolbar area.

Aside: Your Corkboard view may look different depending upon how your prefs are set. I’ve got mine setup with a graph paper background and some tweaked fonts. The most important change to the prefs is, double clicking in the Cork Board area creates a new card. I’ve optimized it for rapid brainstorming. The preferences are deep here, and there are a bunch of changes I’ve made to the defaults, in the Editor and Formatting sections. I’ll go into the other sections in a later post.

Outlining and Organization

Right. Those cards in the Story folder: I’ll use one of these for each scene in my story. I’ll give each one a title and a blurb of text inside describing the scene at a high level. Create four or five of these, and you’ve got yourself a short story. Notice how each one shows up in the Story folder in the Binder? Each one is a separate file. Right click on the card to assign them a Label (the little colored tags in the corner of each of the cards in the picture above). In Short Story, these are either a Chapter, a Concept or a Scene. I stick with Scenes mostly. I’ve also added a few entries under Characters and Places where I did my Super Serious Thinking.

Outline mode lets you arrange the cards you were just dropping around into the structure you want your story to follow. You can create new scenes and chapters in here as well, it’s just a more structured environment for organization. When I’m brainstorming, I tend to use the Corkboard to just drop scene ideas in any old order. I use Outline view when I’m getting serious about structure.

Select one of these cards in the Binder, and you’re taken into Document mode. This is where you can get down to writing. There are not one, but TWO different distraction-free editing modes. The first is Full Screen mode, which you’ll be familiar with from your operating system. It’s just that, a full sized window covering your screen.

The more interesting of the two distraction-free modes is Composition Mode. You’re dropped into a single file (scene), in full screen and have the option to change your window’s background to something relaxing and appropriate. I spend a lot of time in this mode when I’m deep in the groove writing.

It’s great. Also, not pictured because of my giant monitor. You can see the document editor with the Inspector displayed on the right side instead.

Last, with the top-level “Story” folder selected in the Short Story folder in the Binder, clicking the Document View button in the toolbar again will show you Scrivenings mode. That’s where all the contents of each file is displayed in a single document editor. Yes, you can edit the entire contents of your book or story in a single view, see how many words and characters you’ve typed.

And those are the basics of getting around in Scrivener. You can write your first story using these tools. When you’re done find Compile in the File menu and dump your story out to Word or ePub and you’re on your way.

I’ll try to do another one of these in a week or two and talk about Formatting and some of the other tools Scrivener has to make your life easier.

If you’re using Scrivener and have some tips or questions, feel free to drop ’em in the talk hole.

Happy #amwriting!