10 reasons Scrivener is a great tool for new writers

I was once a new writer. I’m not so new anymore, but I can still remember those early days when I decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I had all kinds of ideas but when it came to sit down and write the story, I could always manage to find ways to distract myself. Some of the distraction came from the tools I was using to write (when I first started, that tool was Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS). Some of the distraction came from not being able to clearly organize my thoughts. And then, of course, there were my endless efforts to get the stories into proper manuscript format. Messing with the tools, trying to organize my thoughts, and producing a clean manuscript ate up large amounts of time that could have been used for writing stories. Looking back, the most important thing for a new writer is practice: that is to write as much as possible and not worry about the other distractions. This is what makes Scrivener1, in my opinion, an ideal tool for new writers. Here are ten example of how Scrivener can allow a new writer to focus on what is important: writing.

1. Focus on content

The most important thing for a new writer is to focus on writing, not on formatting. Scrivener is all about content. The (highly-customizable) interface is designed to let you write your story (or your novel, article, research paper, screenplay, etc.). When you have finished writing, Scrivener allows you to “compile” your manuscript at the click of a button, which in turn produces a clean manuscript in any of a variety of industry standard formats. If I had to guess, I’d say that in my early days, as much as 30% of my “writing” time was spent on formatting issues and making sure everything looked the way I wanted it to look. Today, I spend almost no time on formatting. The vast majority of my writing time is spent on writing.

2. Full screen writing

Too much stuff on the screen is a distraction for me. When I am working on the first draft of a story, I put Scrivener into its full-screen mode. My font size is set to 150% so that I can read what’s is on the screen clearly. I made the “page” appear wide. Then, I write, and it is just me and the screen. I like watching the blank screen fill up with words. I like the fact that I am not distracted by menus and tool bars and sidebars. Indeed, while sitting in my office writing, I can clear my head almost completely by putting Scrivener into full-screen mode, putting on my noise-cancelling headset, and just writing.

3. Easily organize your document and research

In general, I’ve discovered that I am a linear writer, but that is not always the case. And many writers I know are not linear writers. They write scenes as they come to them, and then rearrange them all later. I will often rearrange scenes in a subsequent draft, once I have the vision of the whole story in my head. Before Scrivener, this involved lots of cutting and pasting, a fair amount of frustration, and a decent amount of time. Scrivener makes this easy. I can put my project into “corkboard” mode. In this view, all of my scenes appear as index cards on a corkboard. I can then change the order of my scenes as easily as changing the order of the index cards on the board, dragging them from here to there. No cutting and pasting involved.

Scrivener offers additional tools that allow you to label scenes and color code them in a variety of ways. When you look at scenes laid out on the corkboard, you can see additional information by making use of this color-coding. (Maybe a different color for each point of view in the story; or each setting; or a rising level of tension.)

Scrivener also distinguished between documents that are part of the manuscript and documents intended as supporting material and research. You can add lots of supporting material and research without having to worry about that information accidentally showing up in the final manuscript.

4. Track your progress

Setting goals is an important tool for new writers to track their progress. Typically, fiction writers will count how many words or pages they’ve written in a given time period. Scrivener makes tracking this information very easy. With a simply keyboard combination you can get word counts and page counts. But Scrivener goes a big step further. For each project, you can set a word count goal. You can set an overall goal for the project, and individual goals for each scene document. As you write, you can, if you choose, see the progress bar move as you get closer to your goal.

If you are like me and prefer a clutter-free screen, you can configure Scrivener to alert you through a Growl message when you’ve reached your goal. I’ll be typing away and after a while, a little Growl message will appear in the upper-right corner of my screen alerting me that I have reach 1,000 words.

Scrivener also allows you to set calculated goals. For instance, suppose you are trying to write a 5000 word story in 10 days. You can tell Scrivener when you hope to finish, and how many words you want to write. Scrivener will then present a daily goal for you. If you don’t make your goal one day, the goal will be higher the next day to keep you on pace. You can even tell Scrivener the days of the week in which you do your writing and it will take that into account in tracking your progress.

The key point is that Scrivener does this for you so that you don’t have to. Once again, you can focus on writing.

5. Quickly search for that critical information

Did that character introduced in the second scene have brown eyes or blue? Was the car a Ford or a Ferrari? Scrivener provides a robust search capability that allows you to search within your project to find the information you are looking for. And it does so in a way that shows you all matches without getting in the way of what you are working on.

In addition, Scrivener provides the ability to have template sheets, like “character” and “setting” sheets that you can refer to again and again for information that you might need about a specific character or location in your story. This helps with consistency and continuity. I know that I had problems in both of these areas as a new writer. Scrivener provides these tools to help writers avoid these problems.

6. Easily annotate and revise

As a new writer, I would sometimes change a scene and then be frustrated because I liked the original better–but I had no way of getting it back. Scrivener allows you to take snapshots of your documents to prevent this very problem. I typically take a snapshot after I complete my first draft. My second drafts are where the story really comes alive and things tend to change rather dramatically. But if I ever decide I need to go back to something in the first draft, I have the ability to do that by looking at the old snapshot. I also make a snapshot when I start and finish the final draft. I make a snapshot if I make revisions that an editor requests. When a story is published, I mark the snapshot (name it) so that I know exactly which version of the manuscript was used for publication.

Scrivener also provides nice tools for annotating and commenting on a manuscript and I use this to a great extent when I am reading a first draft. I don’t do anything on paper anymore. Often times I will read the story on the screen or export it to my Kindle and read and annotate it there. Then I’ll mark the document up in Scrivener with my notes from the Kindle version and use those notes as the basis for the changes I will make on my second draft.

I also use this annotation functionality to capture comments from people in my writer’s group who critique the manuscript, so that I have a permanent record of their inline comments readily available when I am working on future drafts.

7. Generate manuscripts at the click of a button

Ultimately, you will have to generate a manuscript if you are going to submit your story. As a new writer, I probably lost countless hours trying to configure my document for submission, often times without even knowing proper manuscript format. Scrivener knows proper manuscript format. When you are ready, all you have to do is compile the document and it will produce it in manuscript format (short story, novel, screenplay, etc.) in a variety of document formats (Word, RTF, PDF, etc.). These days, I spend almost none of my time on manuscript preparation. That gives me back hours to spend writing, editing and revising.

Scrivener also knows all about various e-book formats and can export your document as an e-book almost as easily as it can produce a manuscript.

8. Use custom templates for common project types

Related to #7 above, Scrivener allows you to create your own custom templates instead of using the ones out of the box. This can save you time as well. I have customized Scrivener’s short fiction template so that I have everything I need in the project from the very beginning. I don’t even have to spend time adding my name, address, by line, etc. It’s all in the custom template. And of course, you can tweak the custom template to your own tastes. There are a variety of ways this can save you time and allow you to focus on writing.

9. Write away from home by syncing your project

As a new writer, I felt like I always had to be at my desk to write. But inspiration doesn’t always strike when sitting at your desk. As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve learned that harnessing that inspiration is key. But what if I am not near a computer with Scrivener on it? Well, Scrivener makes it easy to sync your project with a number of external applications. In my case, I use SimpleNote because when I am not at my home office, I usually have my iPad with me. SimpleNote is an iPad application and I can work on a story using my iPad and then sync it back up with Scrivener later. The syncing process is very easy, and like most things in Scrivener, takes only a mouse-click or two. It allows me to write anywhere I want and feel confident that I can get my changes into Scrivener with almost no effort on my end.

10. Great support and feature introduction

You can tell that the people who make Scrivener were writers. They think like writers. And they listen to writers. Many of the features they have added are a result of suggestions made by their user, the vast majority of whom, I imagine, are writers of some kind.

Scrivener has excellent documentation, and excellent support, but I have to admit I have rarely needed it. In all the years I’ve used Scrivener, I’ve never had a significant issue with the software. I’ve never head a crash, never had a feature not work properly. Scrivener does a specific job and does it reliably and very well. This is exactly the kind of tool a new writer needs, and it is why I think that Scrivener is one of the best software products I have ever used.


  1. My experience is with Scrivener for the Macintosh. Features might vary on Scrivener for Windows.

12 thoughts on “10 reasons Scrivener is a great tool for new writers

  1. I’m not a native Linux user, just one of necessity as my SSD problems continue.

    Holy crap, I didn’t know you guys were doing a Linux version, David. That’s very cool…and worh a separate license…

  2. @Jamie, har har. 😀

    There is a Linux version that is being developed along with and based on the Windows version. It occasionally lags a tad behind and the volunteer development community has to compile .deb files and such, but it’s comparable to its Windows counterpart. I’m a Windows and Linux guy myself, so I like to have cross-platform programs for those two OSes.

    For those times when you can’t or don’t want to load up a full-fledged writing suite like Scrivener, there are nice full-screen, distraction-free word processors for all three OSes. I think Darkroom for Mac? I like FocusWriter for Windows and Linux; it can be run from a memory stick too.

    Jamie, do you use Scrivener for the entire writing process? I think I recall reading that you use SimpleNote as well, but maybe that was somebody else. I’ve been using Zim Wiki for pre-writing notetaking and research and I plan to use it for post-writing “story bibles” as well. Very nifty program; cross-platform on Windows and Linux as well. I love being able to interlink all of my notes and research documents like a wiki.

    And, of course, I sync everything between computers and back it up online with Dropbox.

  3. Thanks for the comprehensive post. You mention reading your (or friends’) writing on Kindle then putting those comments into Scrivener. Do you do this manually, or is there a way to export comments made on a Kindle (on a file imported from original MS doc) to Scrivener?

    Thanks!
    Tony

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