Winning NaNoWriMo with Scrivener

From Writer Unboxed:

Whether you’re plotting in advance or completely winging it, Scrivener can help you win National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Here are some of my favorite features to help you hit 50K in November, or whatever your writing goal is, any month of the year.

Handling Ideas, or the Lack Thereof

When you’re writing for speed, you can’t afford to be slowed down by ideas for future scenes, or get stuck trying to conjure the perfect piece of dialog. Nor do you have time for additional research.

Instead, make a note and get back to writing. Scrivener offers several options for leaving notes.

Annotations and Comments: These are notes you can leave at a particular point in your text, which makes them great for reminders about fixing a bad description, looking up precise medical details for an injury, or anything else that’s spot-specific.

. . . .

Documents: For manuscript-level notes and ideas, you might instead create a document to jot down things as they occur to you. I also like the idea of having a Change Log document for notes on scenes I’ve already written, so I’m not tempted to fix them when I should be writing new material.

Another use for documents is to create one when you have an idea for a future scene, and use it as a placeholder. You can enter a brief description of what you think will happen in the Synopsis card, or maybe quickly write out the conversation or piece of action that came to you before you forget. When you get to that point in the manuscript, the scene will already be waiting.

. . . .

Synopsis: For those who plot—either the whole book in advance, or each scene immediately before you write it—the Synopsis . . . is a great place to keep a reminder of what’s supposed to happen, in case you forget. If you don’t plot at all, you can add a short description of what happened after you write the scene, to help you keep track as your story builds.

The Corkboard lets you view the synopsis cards storyboard-style. If this is your thing, I recommend not grouping your documents into folders until you’re done using the Corkboard to view, plot, and reorder your story.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG hadn’t thought about Scrivener for a long time.

Long ago, he tried out an earlier iteration for creating legal documents, but decided it wasn’t going to improve his efficiency.

PG would be interested in what real authors think about Scrivener these days (if they think about it at all). Feel free to comment.

23 thoughts on “Winning NaNoWriMo with Scrivener”

  1. I’m very curious as to what authors think of Scrivener. I get the concept and have used it a teensy bit. I can see the possibilities. I get hung up on one main thing: no autocorrect function (that I’m aware of – have they built one in?). I make quite a few typos and Word is very helpful in that regard.

  2. One must wonder how one “wins” NaNoWriMo. Just think about that for a moment.

    The biggest problem that I have with Scrivener and similar programs is that they require a certain linearity to the output that is actually quite rare in non-expository and multiaspect writing — which is to say just about anything longer than a feature article in The Atlantic. Parts influence each other; Scrivener and similar linear-output programs and memes* try to deny that.

    So no matter how “good” the software, it’s very much a case of a software hammer (with lots of gadgets) presuming that every fastener used in good writing is a nail. Since I’ve built nice bookcases (and some pretty effective legal briefs) with no nails at all, I’m not too enthusiastic.

    * Kate Turabian and her roman-numbered hierarchical outlines, as taught throughout the American education process (and pretty much demanded in legal writing), are the greatest enemy of complexity and nuance in writing… after refusal to recognize complexity and nuance in the first place.

    • I hear you.
      Now imagine a series of interlocking standalones being developed in parallel.

      I’m a minimalist myself so Word with a custom style sheet is all I need.
      (Though I miss the editable Reading Mode of older Word releases.)

    • I’ve used it. I’m generally a linear thinker/plotter, so maybe that’s why it works for me. However, the ability to shift around the cards, note changes in a side-box, and otherwise tinker with my work is easy enough.
      I’m not sure what you mean about autocorrect – there is a built-in spellcheck function – it seems to work well enough. As I often use new words (I also write sci-fy and technical things), an actual autocorrect would be changing words I DON’T want changed.

  3. I spent too many decades, since the 1980s, both at work and at home, converting word processing files to the “current” program or format to put all of my eggs in one basket.

    – No matter how great a program is, someday it will go away.

    Word is a perfect example. I could make Word sing, now it’s a boat anchor. I’ve shifted to LibreOffice which is acting similarly to Word of two decades ago.

    Look at George R.R. Martin, he is still using a DOS program. Look at Harlan Ellison, he stockpiled the same model typewriter so that he had parts to keep going.

    – I am the word processor.

    I use a Mac, so the simple word processor is Text. That can do simple text or RTF, I use both depending on the need. It can spell check and do basic grammar check better than the earlier word processors that I started with. I also use a browser to view the file when I don’t want to change anything, but I digress.

    If you look inside a Scrivener file it is a set of folders filled with RTF and other files. I can duplicate that process manually. I like how Scrivener can show 3×5 cards, and let you move them around to rearrange the text, but I can live without that.

    When the story is done, I put it all in LibreOffice to assemble the book block. It was designed to produce books. The program is open source, so will hopefully be maintained for decades.

    I am doing all that I can to remain flexible in the software I use, so that I do not panic when my “preferred” software becomes “vaporware” or only exists in the Smithsonian as a display.

    • As long as you can export your work into a well-understood and supported format, the tool to create and manipulate the file is irrelevant.

      These days the list of these formats is extensive ranging from plain ASCII text to Open desktop format to Word formats (RTF, DOC, DOCX) to ePub and Old mobi.
      Once upon a time the tools to convert formats were expensive commercial products but today there is a wide variety of free or affordable programs than can easily deal with most of the.

      To anybody working with ebooks, Kovid Goyal’s CALIBRE is a go-to file management and conversion tool. While it has ebook formats at its heart it also supports most of the primary general purpose open file types and pretty much renders the format question meaningless.,Book%20RAR%20Archive%20%2038%20more%20rows%20

      The key ones, of course, are doc, rtf, html, and txt.

      Just avoid PDF as much as possible. It was designed and intended as a one-way digital paper solution and to this day it remains a roach motel format. Plenty of products try to extract information from its files, with varying degrees of success. None is yet 100% successful 100% of the time.

      If you care about digital information archiving outside of dead tree pulp, stay clear of pdf. Most everything else can be losslessly accessed regardless of your system of choice ( Mac, Unix/Linux, or Windows).

      Which, returning to tbe OP, leaves the choice of work environment up to your preference. The key is staying with broadly supported formats.

      • Two side points:

        (1) Harlan did continue to use, and write on, his beloved typewriters… in public. By 2006, though, much of his work was done in plain text on a simple text editor. On the other hand, much of his work by then was introductions and such for publishers, so they could be sent back and forth by e-mail attachment from The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars. (I kept trying to get him to at least use a primitive word processor with italics, but he generally disdained italics so he refused. It was one of our friendly little wrangles.)

        (2) Allynh, I cringed as soon as I saw “Mac.” Whether it’s intentional strategy or not, the Mac is obstinate in ensuring aspects of incompatibility with the rest of the world. For example, if you take a Mac Word created .doc or .docx file and try to read it in either Windows or native-Linus Libre Office, it will generally look fine until you run across either a non-US-keyboard character or “smart” punctuation. If a Mac and a Windows/Linux machine are set on different native character sets and they exchange files, the fun is only beginning! Back when I was on the Dark Side of the Editorial Desk, this combination created lots of FUN (old-school acronym for “fouled-up nonsense” or something sounding a lot like that) when converting author manuscripts to the office, Windows-based systems… and when sending them down to the Mac-based layout department. The less said about change-tracking and metadata in archival files, the better!

        That said, RTF — regardless of machine or program — should be the format of choice for archival purposes, for three reasons. First, it actually can be read as munged-up plain text, because unlike all of the proprietary file formats and XML formats it only uses ASCII 0 the right way — as the end-of-file marker. Thus, it’s recoverable, even from a partial file. Second, RTF can’t embed nasty (or indeed any) macros, so it’s safe to exchange with others, or read on a machine that doesn’t like reading stuff from unknown machines. Third, RTF (when implemented properly — which early non-Microsoft word processors on the Mac did not) enforces character-set integrity, so that, say, Cyrillic characters don’t become Classical Greek when transferred to another machine (a problem that led to lots of snickering back in my Beltway Bandit days when intelligence summaries became even more unintelligible).

    • I, too, like Libre Office for the simple stuff – and, Open Office, as well. But, for things that are going to have to be put into Kindle/Smashwords/Kobo format, Scrivener just makes the whole process easier.

  4. I happen to like Scrivener but it’s just a tool. It won’t let you ‘win’ NaNoWriMo; sitting in the chair and dedicating time to writing is how you do that – regardless of your writing method.
    The main thing I like about Scrivener is the individual segments it lets me make that can be rearranged or moved aside until needed. I write each scene as a separate piece and then if I decide to rearrange things, I can. Stuff like that was a lot harder in a single document such as Word presented. I also like having my notes, outlines, and research sitting in the same master file as my story where I can quickly click to check that I’m not misremembering something rather than opening a separate file.
    If Scrivener ever fades into obsolescence I’ll just find the next tool, I’m not a fanatic about anything, the writing comes from my mind, not my tools.

  5. I write fiction in a linear fashion, and I find Scrivener an excellent tool for manuscript creation. I do all my writing there.

    Of course, eventually I’m done, and then I move it to Word so that I can do a markup of all the special characters and font styles (italics, etc.) that I will want to survive in markup form. Word is good at that, since it can do a search/replace on styles as well as characters.

    After that markup of the completed manuscript in Word, I don’t return to Scrivener. The marked-up Word version then bifurcates: one goes on to become the print version, and one becomes the ebook version. In both cases, I convert the markups to their native versions (Word styles in the one, HTML in the other). Those become the master versions for final formatting, and any content or format correction in one requires a correction in the other.

    Scrivener gives me a major head start for books in a series. For each new title I can copy index sections, overall character/location/etc. info, my publishing house styles & rules, etc., so that I don’t have to do much of anything to start a new title. I keep one Scrivener file just for overall information for the entire series, which gets updated with new title content (growing lists of characters, maps, etc.), and a separate Scrivener file (copied from the preceding novel) to start the new one, erasing the raw content first (but not all the supporting material).

    You could do something artificially similar in any word processor, of course, but I find Scrivener just the right tool for it. I’ve written 10 novels and several short stories using it, for a total of circa a million words.

  6. I’ve poked it. It’s a useful way to keep all your parts in one place, maps, images, notes, etc. I didn’t care for actually writing in it. and it is hard to have a good opinion of something they’ve been promising a major Windows update to for literally years.

  7. I have Scrivener. I love Scrivener, but you have to be prepared to learn Scrivener. That’s a bit of a fag, but once in, you can get down and dirty with what the program provides.

    Spelling and grammar correction is available and it’s biggest asset is organizing the story. You can shuffle scenes and chapters, insert scenes and chapters, and keep it all from being an absolute monster that sprawls across many separately saved word files.

  8. I confess to being amused by some of the comments above. I wrote my first magnum opus with a pencil and Big Chief tablet. (I tended to rip holes in the paper when I got really excited about where the story was going and wrote too fast. Ball pens cost too much to hand one to a kid and no way my mother would ever have let me loose with a fountain pen!) I graduated to a spiral notebook, then my mother’s forty-year-old manual/portable typewriter, then to an electric portable typewriter, to a DOS program on a “portable” computer that weighed “only” 25 lbs and used two 5.5″ floppies–one for the OS, one for the files. From there I moved to a super modern computer with 8K of RAM (I had to argue with the guy building it because he swore it was an insane amount and I should be happy with the 2K he advised for everyone else). Then came Windows and Word. And now I have a much loved and decrepit laptop with a paltry 8G of RAM and a 500G hard drive…with Word and Scrivener. And an 11″ laptop with the same (the laptop in between the two died and hasn’t been replaced). Not to mention two iPhones, also with Word and Scrivener.

    I wrote my first three or four novels and countless stories and poems on paper and on those old typewriters (all now mercifully lost–including the typewriters). I moved on to publish 25 books with NY publishers, all written in Word, which could only manage a chapter per file (the MS Master File or whatever they used to call it was a nightmare). Worse, in the beginning it could only manage file names with 8 (?) characters, so chapters had to be “chpt1” etc. If I’d written A River Runs Through It, I would have named the master folder ARRTI and kept a separate paper notebook that would have informed me that chpt9 was about this stuff and chpt10 was that stuff because otherwise I would have to open every danged file in a range to figure out which one had the scene I wanted to work on. Talk about linear! Hah!

    Now I’ve written and published another 7 books using Scrivener, not to mention worked on a number of other book projects that are in various stages of completion. I write on whatever tool I have to hand–big laptop, little laptop, iPhone, or somebody else’s computer if mine aren’t available. If it’s electronic, everything I write is automatically synched via Dropbox, instantly available to me on whatever tool I happen to use next. If I used paper and pen, I have to type in everything….and pray I can still read my own scribbles. With Scrivener, I can write in any order, and do. I can throw in ideas, write whole chapters, move those to the front of the manuscript, back of the manuscript, break it up and drop it anywhere in between that suits however the work is progressing at the time. I’ve cut out whole chapters and dropped them in another book, then moved them back when I changed my mind. And I can keep lots and lots of notes, links, photos, videos…all sorts of research that I used to have to write down by hand, or copy in a separate file. And I can do all of that with a few keystrokes. None of it is ever lost (though some should be and a lot more is granted a merciful DELETE). All of it is available on multiple devices. And I can easily print it out in case I fear the apocalypse and and an EM surge that wipes out the world power grid. I have Word and Libre Office and a couple of other programs on the laptops and Word and a couple of writing apps on the phones. Not one comes anywhere close to Scrivener in terms of flexibility, stability, and platform availability. (And, yes, I’ve been yearning for the Windows upgrade for a long time, but I don’t complain because, when it was only available on Mac, I yearned for any Windows version at all for a whole lot longer.

    Scrivener is a tool. It can be used linearly. Or not. (I write linearly….until I get another idea that might, maybe fit somewhere or that MUST be included…but needs to be written down NOW before I forget it.) It does require a certain level of comfort with computers and a learning curve to figure out its particular quirks. I found it fairly intuitive. Others do not. I still use Word (it has a better spell check and I like the style facility better), but for writing… comes nowhere near the flexibility and usability of Scrivener.

    To me, the tools you use are like the process you follow to write your books–you do what works best for you. And like learning to write a book, it takes a while to figure out what helps, what hinders, and what just plain drives you nuts. Now….back to writing an actual book. And laughing about the fact that so many of us here have been so verbose on the subject. Discussions of software are right up there with what used to be impassioned diatribes on exactly what sort of pen and paper were required for the Muse to emerge. Writers are…strange.

  9. I use Scrivener every day of my life. It is my main composing, research, everything tool.

    Just the text surrounding how I write can be many thousands of extra words per scene, and Scrivener doesn’t even hiccup. My TEXT files are over 60MB for PC1, and getting there for PC2.

    It is really what they call an information management system: think of it as a vast file room, where you can subdivide things as much as you need (bookcases, shelves, boxes, folders, files) – and easily find anything any time just by what you remember, or looking at the formal organization.

    I have folders one file deep, and others with many levels.

    It is not quite a wordprocessor, but maybe 98% of a wordprocessor (and they don’t even call it a wordprocessor).

    Mine is unbelievably deep in random directions.

    The only thing I store in a different Scrivener project is images – otherwise they take up a lot of space (the old saw, a picture is worth a thousand words, is actually an image takes up a MB of space if you want to keep high resolution).

    Any time you have a new idea, bingo, and a new thread is added or put under an older heading, and you keep moving forward.

    Easy. And the individual files are easy to make whatever you want.

    I’m still operating in Scrivener 2; haven’t had the time to implement 3.

    But it’s amazing, and Mac native, and seems to organize like I think.

  10. The usefulness of any tool depends on the work habits of the user and his objectives. There is no right answer.

    I spent a long time in major project management and learned how to use Microsoft Project. It’s not made with writing in mind, but many books can be written and very well managed using it. There are extensive CPM diagramming tools with multiple forward and backward dependencies for any cell. It does an extremely good job of managing stories with multiple independent streams that influence each other at various points. Word files can be attached to each diagram cell, and the cells can be easily moved and inserted where needed.

    It’s certainly not for everyone, but for those who want to map out the whole book scene by scene, add and subtract scenes, move them around, and then write each scene, it works very well.

    • That… gave me an image of a hammer being used as a socket wrench.

      Definitely “out of the box” thinking!

      • Sometimes its amazing how well a hammer does. If you look at the tools designed for writing, they are specialized project management tools. The project is a book rather than a pipeline.

        All the features of a PM system are way beyond the forum here, but I found one useful, and doubt it is in any writing system.

        Suppose each cell is a scene. You can indicate how long that scene takes. Maybe 20 minutes for a conversation. Then you can give a lag time until the next scene can start.

        Now, go to the leftmost cell on the diagram, and give it a specific date and time. Push a button and each individual scene is stamped with a date and time. Move one around, and all the rest change. Add or delete one, and they all change.

        Click and get a horizontal bar chart. Clock again and get a chart of the Tokyo scenes. Click and get a chart of all scenes with Tom, Joe, and Lucille. Click on any cell and get the word doc.

        Depending on one’s work habits and thought processes, the hammer reveals lots of hidden wonders.

    • I have a friend tbat *lives* in Microsoft’s ONENOTE.
      Everthing online tbat catches his eye gets “scrapped” for later retrieval.
      Lots of students use it to run their college lives.
      The primary appeal is how it transparently and seamlessly links to the Word, Excel, and the other personal productivity tools in MS OFFICE in an adhoc manner; no upfront work required.
      It can as easily hold a work in progress novel as a pen-written scribble to pick up milk on the way home. If the Microsoft NEO ever ships it will be an optimal host for it.

      Its approach is akin to the old paper journals in movies but but digital and searchable.

      It takes all kinds and all kinds of tools.
      People should use whatever suits them–back in tbe day, people used Lotus 1-2-3 as a word processor.

      But they should be careful to archive their work in transportable formats.
      (Yes, I see RTF as the lowest common denominator. HTML is workable but it’s internals can get…odd… DOC is pretty safe, too.)

      Nobody wants to end up hostage to a dead app.
      And sooner or later everything dies.

      • Slight disagreement, Felix.

        .doc is inappropriate for archives because it’s already a dead format, even if it is being supported. Plus it’s proprietary, and almost everything we know about the way it is “supposed” to work is from reverse engineering. And .doc is the original vector for macro viruses; it’s also one of the worst offenders for inappropriate hidden metadata storage. At that, it’s better than .docx, which has all of those problems plus the foolishness of politics and cultural imperialism of anything based on anything from W3C (example: you knew that <i> is “obsolete” and to be replaced by <em> mandatorily in a few years, didn’t you? do you always use italics for “emphasis”? meanwhile “small caps” are not a part of the W3C spec at all, they’re strictly a CSS styling meme).

        .rtf will not die. It has the US Navy behind it; the US Navy specified it long, long ago, continues to maintain that specification, requires all programs to read and write it, and continues to use it archivally. Look, this is a service* that still operates all of its shipboard routines as if the ship was an 1840s sailing frigate… and every morning at reveille to this day announces the need to trice up (hammocks haven’t been used this century… or the last century…). The trivial length of a term of copyright is no challenge to the Navy’s ability to cling to obsolete traditions!

        Besides, I have batch programs to convert WordStar files (and the working hardware to read them from 3.5″, 5.25″, and 8″ floppy disks) to RTF. I never got around to doing the same for .doc, though. (Yes, I have author/estate clients whose electronic files require that sort of attention.)

        * A little interservice rivalry never hurt anyone. Well, aside from a few contusions off-duty at off-base bars.

        • I don’t even know how to put a virus in my doc files. 😉

          Doc may have been superceded by docx but it is broadly supported in all my writing tools on Windows and Android.
          (And if I dust of the old ST I have tools tbat support it.)
          No converters required.
          And what I use it for is stuff I create.
          It never goes far; just my working computer/tablet and my regular backups.

          As I said, choice of tool or format is a matter of preference.
          RTF is fine but doc works a bit better for me as long as Wordpad exists. I’ve found it compresses files nicely, too.

        • I agree with the safety of using RTF or pure txt for archive. I had so many old word docs from the 80s that I could no longer read. Most annoying. Luckily LibreOffice added the capability to read older versions of Word, so I was able to recover the older files.

          CE Petit said: example: you knew that “i” is “obsolete” and to be replaced by “em” mandatorily in a few years, didn’t you?

          Say it ain’t so.

          I hand code html in my notes, just simple web pages, so that I can have them in a browser to read, but not accidentally change. The fanciest I get is change the background color to let me know what version the file is(ivory, gold, silver, etc…), or use “mark” for highlighting.

          I used to have a java string that would open a browser window, narrow and tall, then the java stopped working. I decided to work with the browser rather than code complex pages that will cease to work as time passes. When I use css, I keep it barebones.

          I have many different browsers on my system. I use one to only read text files and simple html. I have the browser widow sitting on the side, tall and narrow, so that a text file from Gutenberg fits comfortably.

          That way I can have chapters and notes sitting in a browser window so that I can’t easily start changing things.

          When I cycle through editing the text, it never fails that I start adding stuff that I already have two pages later, so I make it harder to just change something.

          – I try to think of the process as “hand written” pages rather than easy to change/corrupt word processing files.

          When I’m in txt or RTF I use *stars* around words as italics, until it’s time to format the book block. I constantly change my files to txt, stripping away any formatting.

          – My rule is, if it doesn’t survive in a txt file, I don’t use it.

          Also, I refuse to use “smart quotes” or em dash or ellipses using anything fancy, just straight dashes and periods. If they sometimes look wrong on the final text block, I embrace the flaws.

    • *agrees with this*

      I get too many people proselytizing on word processors (and particularly specialized ones, like Scrivener). The tool that works for you is the tool that works for you, and not necessarily for other people.

      Scrivener didn’t work for me: it’s trying to be too many things, and encourages thinking in a certain way. I find it limiting to try to conform to its way of organizing data. Other people might find it fits their internal schema perfectly, and those people are often baffled that it’s not a one size fits all tool.

      My goal is never to get so fixated on a tool that it prevents me from working, so the simpler the better. *shrug*

  11. PG got behind on approving comments yesterday and apologizes to first-time commenters for the delay.

    TPV is set up to require that PG approve the first comment a visitor makes on the blog. This, along with an app or two, is designed to help avoid spam in the comments.

    Once the first comment is approved, all following comments by the same person should show up without delay.

    That said, if someone does a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing thing and starts spamming, PG will lock them out.

    PG elaborates on his comment policy at

    If any visitors to TPV discover any comments they think don’t belong here, they can contact PG at

    This blog has been around for a few years and collected over 300,000 comments during that time. PG can count on one hand the number of times he’s felt some intervention has been necessary to keep things friendly and avoid bar fights.

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