‘Writing a novel’ seems to be one of the default items on most people’s wish-lists. Most never start it, and most of those who start it never finish it, but if you want to make a serious attempt, using Scrivener would definitely be the biggest favor you could do yourself.

I must admit that the idea of specific software for creative writing stuck me as on odd one when I first encountered it. What’s wrong with Pages or Word? It was only once I tried it for myself that I understood.

What Scrivener does is bring together in one place all the resources you are likely to need to plan, research, write and either submit or self-publish a novel. Outlines, pen-portraits of characters, web pages, photos, notes, PDFs … absolute anything and everything that might help you create your opus magnum is right there all within a single app … 

The app is currently available for OS X (with a much-lagged version available for Windows), and there’s an iOS version in the works. I refer to it as an app for novelists, as that’s probably the most common usage, but it can be used for anything from a college thesis to a screenplay.


Scrivener is such a flexible tool, and so customizable, that it’s hard to even provide an overview without a dozen different riders saying “if you choose to” and “this is just one of several ways of doing this,” but with that understood, I’ll give an overview based on the way that I use it.

The corkboard view is intended for planning, and for rejigging the structure when your plan doesn’t quite work out the way you thought it would. By default, it looks like an actual corkboard, but Jony Ive threatened to come round to my place and confiscate both my Macs unless I changed it to something neutral. I’m not going to show you my novel, so this is just some nonsense I threw together to give you the basic idea.

You write yourself some crib notes describing what happens in each chapter. You can drag-and-drop cards around the board to restructure things, and double-click on a card to open the actual chapter text. You may notice that chapters 2 and 3 show multiple cards – that’s because any card can become a folder, with smaller-chunk cards within them.

The card titles are reflected in the left-hand column – what Scrivener calls the binder – so that you have an overview of the structure while you write. In this example, we also have a photo showing the setting of the scene. This can be used both to put you in the right mood, or to show something specific that you need to describe in detail.

And a closer view of the binder, on the left:

That, then, is the basic idea. Do your outline planning first, on the corkboard. Break things down into manageable units (I have each scene as a separate document). Shuffle things around as required by simply drag-and-dropping cards. Then when you are writing, have that overview of where you are in the plot by having the binder visible on the left.

Need to remind yourself of what happened earlier? Just click on that scene in the binder, and flick back-and-forth between the two.

Non-manuscript sections

You can see beneath the manuscript itself are sections for characters, places and research. In there, you can put anything you like: notes, photos, PDFs, webpage grabs … anything at all that you might need to refer to while writing

For example, some people like to have photos of people they are using as inspiration for characters. My novel is a technothriller, so I have a whole bunch of photos of equipment and aircraft that feature in the story, as well as PDFs and webpages with facts & figures.

You can open any of these and have them appear in a column on the right, as in the above example, or as a floating window.

Floating windows (which Scrivener calls Quick Reference windows) can be resized and repositioned as desired.

Choosing how much or little to see at a time

There are times when you only want to see the section you are writing at that time, clicking back and forth into other sections as required, but there are other times when you want to see how an entire chapter is flowing – or several chapters, or the entire manuscript.

Scrivener makes this easy. Just select as many documents as you like in the binder on the left, and then click on ‘Scrivenings’ mode. Scrivener puts a fading line between each section, so you can see where they begin and end.

Note that sections viewed in scrivenings mode need not be contiguous: you might, for example, choose to put key scenes together to check for continuity – so there could be copy from chapters 1, 4 and 7 in one view.

There may be times when you are referring back to something that happened earlier, and want to keep referring back to it as you write. No problem, Scrivener allows you to have two sections side-by-side (or one above the other, if you prefer). Both are editable, so if you change details in one, you can immediately do so in the other.

It doesn’t have to be another section of the novel you display to the side: it could be character notes, a PDF, a webpage … well, I’m sure you get the idea by now.

Conversely, there may be times when you want to focus on the scene you are writing right now, without any distractions. Again, no problem, just select Composition Mode, and everything fades away except the actual section on which you’re working.

You can choose between plain black or any degree of transparency you like.

Exporting your work

You don’t need to worry about committing your work to some proprietary standard. While Scrivener pretends to save everything into a single .scriv file, this is purely for neatness: it is really a disguised folder with all your sections as RTF documents.

You can also export your work at any time into virtually any format. This is, of course, also what you do when you finally complete your masterpiece. If you’re self-publishing, you can create your ebook right from within Scrivener – no need for any external converters – and can compile to both .epub and .mobi to cover both iBooks and Kindle formats.

Alternatively, if you plan to submit to an agent or publisher, you can select Paperback Novel to output in the correct format (double-spaced, wide margins and so on) and choose between printed output and a bunch of different document types:

If you’re writing a screenplay, choose Script or Screenplay from the first drop-down and then Final Draft or Fountain from the second, and you’ll get something which is both correctly-formatted and editable in the two main screenplay-writing apps.

All compile options allow you to choose exactly what gets included. By default, it’s everything in the Manuscript folder (so excludes character notes, research documents and so on), but it’s all configurable.

Progress tracking

If you have set yourself a particular goal – writing so many words a day, or week, or completing your novel by a particular date – Scrivener will track your progress for you.

If you give Scrivener a target wordcount, a deadline and tell it how many days a week you are writing, it will automatically calculate the wordcount you need to hit each session to meet the deadline. In this example, the target wordcount is 145,000 (technothrillers are long, but I intend to cut it down a lot in editing), the deadline is the end of February and I only write on Wednesdays, so Scrivener has calculated that I have 11 writing days left and thus need to write 979 words each session.

When you hit your session target, it pops up a notification.

Everything is customizable

There is almost no limit to how much you can customize Scrivener to suit your needs. I don’t want to show content to the world, so I’m blurring things here, but compare the default Scrivener view here:

with my (blurred) actual novel here, with my chosen customizations:

and you’ll get the general idea. I’m a very visual person, so I use color-coding: green = a completed section, orange = section in progress, yellow = notes for the section written, black = major sections or dividers, red = more research needed or a section with a problem I need to figure out.

There’s much more

There’s much more I could write. For example, most writers can procrastinate for a good ten minutes naming a minor character. With Scrivener, you pull up Writing Tools, choose male or female, optionally choose a nationality and then let it generate a bunch of names. Choose one and you get straight back to writing.

But writing more about the app starts getting into tutorial territory, and there are lots of those around – starting with the one included with Scrivener, which is itself a Scrivener document.


I’m a huge fan: I wouldn’t even think about writing a novel in anything else. It keeps everything you need in one place, is a brilliant planning tool, allows you to restructure at will and allows you any view of your novel you could possibly wish for – from a clutter-free writing environment through a clickable link to every section in your novel.

Although it’s a massively-capable app, you can get up-and-running with the basics in half an hour. You are then free to use as few or as many of the features as you like. I’m a power user compared to many I know, but I still reckon I’m only using about 30 percent of its capabilities.

The big test for me is this: I’ve recommended it to many other writers, and every single one who has tried it is still using it. (By the way, if you end up recommending it to Windows users, be aware that the Windows version lags a long way behind the Mac version in terms of both polish and features – it’s still good, but not the same.)

The app costs $45, which might seem a little pricy compared to some apps out there, but it’s worth every penny. There’s also a free 30-day trial, which is valid for 30 days of actual use, not just one month, so if you’re writing once a week it will last you 30 weeks! More than enough time to decide whether you want to buy it. Once you do, download the paid version and just carry on from where you left off.

If you’re serious about writing that novel, Scrivener is, to me, a must-have app.