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Scrivener Tips: UI & Workflow

My NaNoWriMo regional group talk occasionally about writing software, and the prevailing feeling about Scrivener is that we all know it’s powerful and few of us feel like we can get the most of it. Let me show you the bits I like.

A massive detailed screenshot of Scrivener, with one of my massive and detailed projects open.
A full-screen shot of Scrivener, with one of my projects open.

I considered annotating the screenshot, but there’s so much in it that I’m going to need detail shots for particular options anyway. I’m afraid this isn’t going to be a great article for screen-readers (although I suspect Scrivener might be a strain on them anyway).

Unfortunately I can’t remember what the default settings are, and unless someone really needs it I don’t want to risk trying to reset it. Scrivener is a strange beast, and when I last came back after a break it took quite some time to remember how to get my setup back.

I don’t know if you can change keybinds but I’m pretty sure I haven’t. Quoted keybinds are probably the defaults. Also I’m on Windows. YMMV.

About Trees

Because Scrivener keeps your documents in a folder tree (like the computer operating system does) it will help if you also can think of it that way. I’m going to talk about trees quite a lot: a tree is just all the files/folders descended from a particular folder.

Incidentally Scrivener differs from the operating system in that files and folders are basically the same thing, with a mostly cosmetic difference. Files can have child objects (other files or folders) beneath them in the tree (watch out for the ‘stack of papers’ icon), while folders can have text inside and can have synopses, labels and other metadata.

So I mostly talk about ‘files’ when I mean documents and ‘folders’ when I mean containers, but in Scrivener they’re almost the same thing.

Main Layout

First, a quick look at the overall layout:

  • I use the outliner for an overview in the left editor, to keep an eye on the shape of the manuscript, especially the word counts for scenes, chapters, acts and whole books.
  • I edit a scene or chapter in the right editor, having selected it from the outliner or the binder.
  • I keep the binder open in case I want to open a research file (since the outliner only includes the manuscript).
  • I keep the inspector (rightmost panel) open for the synopsis and project notes.

In the layout manager (‘Window’ menu) my only layout is called ‘main’, but I suspect I haven’t saved the current one and ‘main’ will be put back to stock. Everything about it is actually determined by smaller options in the view menu or spread chaotically around the interface.

View Menu

I don’t want to go blow-by-blow through the menus, especially not View (which is a monster). Suffice to say most of the things I’m going to refer to are either in this menu or duplicated here.

The View menu, with the Layout submenu open.
The View menu, with the Layout submenu open.

In this screenshot you can see the layout submenu, with the ticks I need for my layout (my editors are ‘split vertically: the splitter bar is vertical, so the editors are side-by-side). Some things (including the top three and the Editor submenu) depend on which editor is active.

Later on I’ll call out more things you’ll need to come here for. If you find yourself using something a lot you might want to memorise its keybind.

Basics

If you’ve tried any Scrivener tutorial (or just paid attention to the promotional descriptions) you’ll have seen the three modes.

The scrivenings, corkboard and outliner buttons
The scrivenings, corkboard and outliner buttons

These buttons can be found in the middle of the main toolbar. The options are also the top three in the View menu, and bound to Alt+1, 2 & 3 respectively.

Scrivenings are your writing mode. If you select a document with no children it behaves like a normal rich text editor (and the button above changes to show a single page), but if you select something with children you get all the documents appended, with clear breaks between.

Scrivenings are very handy for writing a chapter at a time while keeping scenes separate: Ctrl+k is your shortcut to insert a scene break; it splits the current document at the cursor, but if the cursor it at the end of the current scene it will still jump you into a new on. Note that it first moves the cursor into the new document’s name field, as seen in the binder, so you’ll have to press return, after giving a title or accepting the guess, before you start the next scene.

The corkboard is very nice if you are working only at one tree level (e.g. your chapters, provided they aren’t in acts), and want a good view of titles and synopses. The lack of other information means I normally prefer the outliner.

The outliner can be seen in all its glory in my main screenshot: a tree view of your documents, like the binder but with optional columns of additional data. To customise the columns, tick some rows in the “View > Outliner Columns” submenu. You’ll want to start with ‘total word count’, which for a single file gives the direct count but for a chapter/act/volume gives the total for all descendants.

Outliner & Editor

Key to my workflow is having the two editor panels doing what I want. I will try to remember all the steps it took to get them working.

A close-up of the header bar for the left editor, with its dropdown menu open.
A close-up of the header bar for the left editor, with its dropdown menu open.

If you have only one editor, look to the right-end of its header bar (or in “View > Layout” as seen above). There are three possible settings, but the header will not include the button for the active one:

  • Vertical split (editors are side-by-side, split by a vertical bar)
  • Horizontal split (editors are one above the other, split by a horizontal bar)
  • No split (only one editor)

Personally, on a 1920*1080 display I definitely want two editors and I definitely want vertical split, but if you are in 4:3 you might want letterboxes, especially if you have the binder and notes open.

In the image above I’ve opened the dropdown menu and its ‘go to’ submenu. You can set the document for the editor (which is the root of the outliner, in my case Manuscript) by clicking it: unlike many Windows applications you can click an item even when there’s a submenu under it (so take care to open submenus by hovering rather than clicking).

The ‘Lock in Place’ option is important for me because I don’t want to accidentally navigate away from my overview (lock in place is why the header is red in the screenshot). Lock in place prevents changing which document is in the editor (but not editing the document or changing anything else about the view) by any means, so you’ll need to set the correct document first.

That’s about it for that image. You also have left/right arrows for next/previous documents in time (like an undo stack: useful in case you accidentally navigate to another document), and up/down arrows for the documents that are before/after in the tree structure. For some reason the left/right buttons ignore (and disable) lock in place, but the up/down ones respect it (but will still move the highlight in the binder).

The last step in the left-outliner/right-editor combination is making sure that documents get opened in the correct editor:

  • Set “View > Binder Affects > Right Editor” so that files clicked in binder are sent to the right editor.
  • Activate the “Automatically open selection in other editor pane” button from the footer of the left editor:
The bottom-left corner of the editor footer
The bottom-left corner of the editor footer

If you miss those steps (but have locked one editor in place) you’ll just seem to lose clicks sometimes: you won’t be told that your document wasn’t opened because you requested it for a locked editor.

My Outline

My ‘Labels’ are mostly viewpoint characters (although some of my projects have one called ‘Part’ or other meta division that can’t be owned by one viewpoint). By turning on “View > Use Label Colour in > Outliner Rows” the outliner rows get highlighted in label colour, so I can see at a glance which scene (or sometimes chapter) is in which viewpoint.

For more about file structure, see below.

Binder & Inspector

I don’t have much to say about either. I have the collections view open as well, but only to get back from search results; I haven’t made any collections.

Besides the other things the inspector can show (the buttons across the top are also in the “View > Inspect” submenu), note that you can switch between project notes and document notes using the notes header bar, partway down the inspector. The project notes are the very easiest place to throw a few lines that you’ll need from anywhere (like the edit TODO: list you can see in my screenshot).

Take care, you can Find a document note if you remember some distinctive text from it, but otherwise it can be a huge pain to remember which document had a particular note.

Other Options

From this general structure there are various things you could change. The other day I was outlining volume 2 (which you’ll notice in the main screenshot contains no words: I’m going to write it for Camp NaNo), so I switched the left editor to the summary document (unlocking first and relocking after) and switched it to scrivenings. That way when I pick a character bio or other notes file out of the binder it opens in the right panel (as always) and I can keep typing in the summary in the left.

Later on I will put the manuscript back in outliner (or chalkboard) in the left, lock the summary in the right editor, then read from the summary while I add synopses to the chapters.

File Structure

The stock templates for a new project include different folder structures. Don’t worry if you don’t like the one you’ve got: you can rearrange as you need and update the compile settings to match (compile settings are a topic for another day).

The main requirement is that (without a lot of messing around) the main body of your text should be one subtree: i.e. there must be one folder or document you can point to that contains all the text (either in itself or in combination with its descendants). This does not need to be the automatically provided “Manuscript” folder but can be anywhere within it: you’ll notice that my big screenshot shows three works in this project, the ‘Sampler’ short story and two novels.

The other requirement is that you are consistent about how deep files are. For example, if the volume contains parts that contain chapters, putting a chapter straight into the volume without a part will really confuse the compiler.

I mostly use “Volume > Part/Act > Chapter > Scene”, but you might notice the short story is “Volume > Chapter > Scene” with no acts. It makes compilation a bit fiddly (because the short story needs different settings to the novels) but it’s worth it to keep all my notes for the setting in the same project. (It would be easier to put the short story into a dummy act folder; I didn’t think of that and might do it next time I need to compile it.)

Although I said above that Scrivener makes files and folders almost interchangeable, the compiler can be told to treat each separately, so you may save a little hassle by being consistent about those, too. In my examples above scenes are always files and everything higher up are folders.

If there is a user-facing structure I recommend representing it in the folder structure: for example, another series I’m working on has visible part headers (for seasons, in that case). However, you don’t have to, and the project in the screenshot uses act folders that the reader will never see, to help my organisation and give me more visibility of pacing.

Similarly, you can choose in the compile settings which text is included in the manuscript. The other project prints the names of parts; both projects are configured to use ‘Chapter <number>’ as chapter headers, so the chapter names are for my reference (and scene names are mostly nonsense, because I can rarely be bothered to name them).

Non-manuscript folders

The non-manuscript folders are mostly ignored by the compiler and can be whatever shape you need. (Leave the Front Matter folders alone unless you understand what effect they have on compilation.)

I put the pregenerated notes folders (characters, places) into the Research folder, to minimise the number of things visible at the root of the binder. It’s not always easy to find something in the binder, and I find it helps if there aren’t foo many things to choose from at each level.

I also keep a folder of ‘offcuts’: prose that is no longer in the manuscript but that I might want to look at or retrieve something from later. (To date, I never have.)

Other Goodies

Find

The find box in the top right corner searches in all your files and switches the binder over to showing results. You only see the file names, so this is a time when you’ll wish you’d given scenes sensible names, but it’s an occasional headache for which I wont’ got out of my way.

You can drop down some options from the magnifying glass icon to search only titles/synopses/notes.

The search results are a sort of temporary collection: if you have trouble switching back to the binder, make sure the collections panel is open.

Back it Up

With the exception of a few settings (and apart from compile settings they’re ones you now know how to fix), your project lives entirely within one folder on your hard drive.

Sign up for Google Drive, Dropbox or another cloud storage provider, install the sync app for your platform, and save the project into a synchronised folder.

Hey presto, it’s now automatically backed-up whenever the sync app is working, and easy to work on from multiple computers (provided you keep them them synchronised).

Template files

Templates are deceptively simple: Any file in your project’s “Template Sheets” folder is a template, available in the “Add > New From Template” context menu. In the big screenshot you might note that I’ve added a Character Summary and Bible to my templates folder and made an ‘old templates’ folder to keep the ones that came with the project. (You can even use “Add > New From Template” on a folder in Template Sheets, in which case you get a complete copy of that folder with all its template descendants!)

So the easiest way to make a template:

  1. Make an empty file in the “Template Sheets” folder (or in a subfolder there).
  2. Put into it the headings, prompts, or whatever else your template needs.
  3. You’re done! Your template can be found, either in
    • “Add > New From Template” if you right-click the binder, or an outliner or corkboard view
    • “Project > New From Template” from the menu bar (but pay attention to what’s in focus when you do, because it might not appear where you expect).

Although you can update your template files any time, the files made from them are now independent and won’t inhereit any improvements, so it’s often worth taking a little extra time to make the best template you can before you start using it.

Project Templates

Project templates are a little fiddlier than file templates, but still not too hard. Take care with the following instructions because, unless they’ve made it smarter since I last did it, a good template is a copy of your excellent project with all the non-reusable stuff torn out and thrown away.

It’s possible but unlikely that you don’t need all these steps, that the software is smarter than I give it credit for, but another blog agrees with me (and goes into a bit more detail, should you need it). The official site has a video guide, which of course I can’t be bothered to watch because I want to read something.

  1. Open a project with a structure you’re happy with (I’m talking mostly about file structure, plus any common research and template files)
  2. Use “File > Save As…” to make a copy with a distinctive (temporary) name.
  3. Your copy should already be the active project, but check the project name in the title bar, and if necessary close all projects and reopen the temporary one.
  4. With your temporary project open, strip out all the files a new project wouldn’t need.
    • This includes the manuscript and most or all of the notes, but leave in enough stub folders to remember what the structure of your manuscript was supposed to be.
    • Be sure to leave in anything reusable. My research folder includes a couple of pages of aide-memoire for my favourite structure and outlining techniques.
    • I don’t know if the trash can is included in the template. Probably not, but once you’re absolutely sure you gutted the right project, empty its trash.
  5. Hit “File > Save As Template…”. You’ll be prompted for a name, category, description and optionally an icon, and the template will be available in the ‘New project’ window for future projects.
    • You can delete the temporary project now.

Arguably steps 2-4 are optional (or maybe Scrivener now somehow automates them, but I doubt it), but this we we know you won’t have to take anything out of a new project from your template.

If you ever wonder where templates live (to back one up or give it to someone), bring up the “File > Save As Template…” dialogue box and it’s written in there.

Round-up

A very long article, I know, but I wanted to get the day-to-day UI and workflow covered. If anyone is interested in compilation I’ll cover that another day.

Name of author

Name: Matthew

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