How I Use Scrivener for Novel Writing

I’ve used a few different types of writing software over the years. The first program I used was simply the only option available to me at the time: Microsoft Word. It was the early 2000’s, and my family had one desktop computer and no internet access. Microsoft Word was the program I’d been taught to use in school, and I still use it often. It has the advantage of familiarity, which leads to ease of usability, but it also has some disadvantages when it comes to working on a novel.

As I began working on long form fiction more and more, I found myself getting into the habit of saving multiple versions of the same piece. Towards the end of my time using it this way, I had taken to a naming system reminiscent of software versioning. I had Working Title 1.0 and Working Title 1.1 and Working Title 2.0 and so on for as many different rewrites as I had wanted to create as separate documents. I didn’t want to delete my first draft, especially because I often wanted to just experiment with changes. I often created a version 1.1 in order to try a new approach, only to abandon it because it didn’t pan out. Later, when I did a full rewrite, it became version 2.0, but I didn’t want to delete my experiments either. They often had something about them that I still wanted to find a way to incorporate, and sometimes they had helped give me a better understanding of the characters or the world that I wanted to be able to go back and reference. The problem, of course, was that it became annoyingly difficult to keep track of which version was which, especially when returning to a project after a long break.

Another annoyance was that the files became so large that it was difficult to find the part I wanted to edit. Search functionality exists in Word, but often I couldn’t remember the exact wording of a specific phrase, and searches for character names or other commonly occurring words brought back many results to sift through. It certainly didn’t prevent me from working on my novel, but it did make the process more cumbersome.

Eventually, I shifted into using Google Docs, which has automatic version history, as well as features for easy collaboration. I still use this when I’m seeking feedback from a beta reader, but I no longer use it for versioning. Automatic is nice, but it results in so many versions that it again becomes difficult to keep track of which is which. I realize that it is possible to name certain versions, and I probably could make better use of it if I made the effort, but even then it would be inferior to the versioning capabilities that I found in Scrivener.

Version history in Google Docs, showing time stamps for each version of the document

Here in Google Docs, you can see that the document has been saved each time I’ve made changes to it. Times and dates are saved by default, and I can choose to name any that I choose to.

Version history in Scrivener, showing time stamps with titles for each

Here in Scrivener, on the other hand, I choose when I want to save a version. The time and date are filled in automatically, and I am prompted to add a title.

The biggest difference, however, is that Google Docs saves off a version of your entire document. Scrivener saves off a version of your individual chapter or scene. This particular image shows the versions (called snapshots) that I’ve taken of just chapter two of my current novel. The first snapshot shows me trying out a different character perspective. The second shows me keeping track of the version that I had sent to a beta reader as part of my official third draft. Any time I want to do so, I can restore an old version or click into it for reference, and it will affect only the one small part of the novel that I’m looking at. This is very different from Google Docs, in which I would often find myself scrolling through the entire document to find the changes when comparing to an older version. I also find that having to create the snapshots manually ensures that I actually do it when I want to start some major changes, rather than saying, “Ah, it’s saved off automatically, let’s just keep going.”

Since I started using Scrivener, I’ve actually been surprised at how much easier and more pleasant the writing experience has become simply because of having each chapter and scene split out into separate pieces that can easily be compiled together into one whole. I don’t just title my snapshots. I title my scenes, labeling them with the most important thing that happens in them. That way, when I get an idea for an improvement I could make to “that one part where…”, I can find it within seconds. I can keep even better track of things by adding keywords, labels, custom meta-data, and more.

An example of a chapter in the corkboard view of Scrivener. The chapter is shown as a notecard with labels and text.
Chapter One of my current novel, as seen in Scrivener

Here you can see my preferred setup, in which every chapter is represented by a folder and each folder contains one or more scenes. In this view, you can see each scene in the chapter visually represented by a notecard, which has a short synopsis of events, a label that I created to show which character the scene is focused on, a status that lets me easily find the parts I have flagged for updates, and keywords that I use to show which character’s perspectives are included. Because my book is told by an omniscient narrator and has many characters, I often find it helpful to be able to pick out the one character I’ve made a change to and hop through every part he or she is included in to make sure they’re consistent. Features like this make it easy to do exactly the kind of revisions that I want.

Another advantage to this format is that rearranging scenes and chapters is just as easy as a click and drag. No more scrolling through and highlighting multiple pages just to cut and paste. This is another thing that’s saved me more time and effort than I ever would have thought of, and it’s the little things like this that really add up. Since making the switch, I’ve found that every little annoyance I’ve taken out has increased the time that I spend working on my novel, simply because I’m enjoying myself more while I’m doing it.

Another thing that has increased time spent working on my novel is the fact that there are so many things related to my novel that I can work on from within the same file. From labeling, planning, and organizing to creating character sheets and notes related to worldbuilding, even when I’m not in the mood to write I can be making progress on something. And the real secret? Sometimes just working on a character sheet is enough to put me in the mood to write, and then the novel is right there, just one click away. Conversely, if I’m working on the novel and can’t remember how tall a particular character is compared to another or what the name of so-and-so’s second child was, I can pull up the character sheet with just one click and get right back to what I was doing.

A character sheet in Scrivener. Seen on the side are other types of notes.
A character sheet that I created in Scrivener

Scrivener lets you create different categories for your notes, create templates for things like character sheets, and generally store anything you want to keep track of. I have notes on all my characters, lists of magic spells and enchantments, a complete timeline of events, a family tree, a reference for a complicated plan that some villainous characters have in secret, and more. I even use this as a place to store the query, pitch, and synopsis that I created for querying agents, which is very helpful.

Honestly, I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the things Scrivener is capable of doing. It takes some time to learn, but I found that I was so excited by each new feature I discovered that the process felt like playing more than anything else. If you pick up on software really quickly the way I do, I think you’ll love how robust it is and how many options it gives you. I was wary to spend the money on it at first, especially when options like Google Docs are free, but I really have not been disappointed in it. It fits exactly with my writing preferences, and I would really recommend it to anyone who has a similar workflow to mine.

Author: Shannon Fallon

Shannon Fallon is an aspiring author currently seeking representation for her debut novel The Binding of Magic. She lives in Wisconsin with her cat Willowstripe, who loves to sleep on her lap while she writes... and pester her when not being given enough attention. She graduated from Cardinal Stritch University in 2014 with bachelor's degrees in writing and computer science. She currently works as a Senior Programmer Analyst for a property and casualty insurance company that creates much of the software used by its employees. When she's not wrangling unruly code, she enjoys reading a mix of modern and classic literature, exchanging feedback with other writers, and relaxing with a good video game.

One thought on “How I Use Scrivener for Novel Writing”

  1. Lovely. I enjoy seeing other writers’ creative processes, and Scrivener set ups are pretty cool too. I just discovered this Writing History feature that notes how many words I’ve written per day. Prior to this, I had to manually keep track. I love Scrivener!

    Liked by 2 people

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