Power Up Your Writing Workflow: Make Better Use Of Scrivener

Bakari Chavanu 12-05-2014

When it comes to getting a research paper, ebook or novel completed, Scrivener can help you stay organized and motivated — that is, if you know how to use some of its best features.


Our free PDF Guide to Scrivener Your Guide To Scrivener Read More  explores what the software can really do, and why many feel it’s the best writing program available for the Mac Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC Scrivener has been around since 2006, and it is a favorite application amongst novelists and screenwriters. Scrivener is not a desktop layout application like Word and Pages, but it helps you organize and export your... Read More . Today I want to go deeper and share with you four useful strategies and tools: importing OPML outlines, labeling sections, setting up collections, and syncing documents.

Developers Literature and Latte provide a 30-day free trial Scrivener download [No Longer Available] for both the Mac and Windows versions, so wait until your next writing project so you can learn about the project by actually working in it.

Outline Your Project

After you have done some brainstorming for your project, you will probably want to create an outline. Producing an outline provides a roadmap for your writing project. You can create an outline in Scrivener Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC Scrivener has been around since 2006, and it is a favorite application amongst novelists and screenwriters. Scrivener is not a desktop layout application like Word and Pages, but it helps you organize and export your... Read More , but I have found that creating outlines in OmniOutliner (reviewed here Brainstorm, Manage & Present Outlines With Style Using OmniOutliner 4 If you want to go beyond old school methods or limited Microsoft Word outlines and save time in the process, OmniGroup's OmniOutliner takes creating outlines to another level. Read More ) is faster and more efficient, because items in the outline can easily be reordered and numbered.


OmniOutliner also exports outlines to an .OPML format, which when imported into Scrivener automatically creates individual text files for each part of your imported outline in the Binder. If you’re new to Scrivener, you might want to start with a new blank document until you learn about how to use its template-based documents.


Scrivener Binder

With the outline setup in Scrivener, you can write and work on different sections in any order you like. I typically start with the easier sections and work my way to the more difficult and time consuming parts of my project.

Labeling Sections

Scrivener also includes tools for labeling sections of the document. Applying labels is not only useful for managing your project, but it’s also a powerful way to motivate yourself to get sections drafted out. I use color coded labels (in the right Synopsis panel) for my sections, and though I may not apply every color label at each stage of the writing process, what motivates me is writing and applying colored labels to files, which showcases my progress.

The Project > Show Targets option is another useful tool for measuring progress by typing a specified amount of words.


Scrivener Labels

You can customize and color code labels (as well as status headings) to fit your workflow by selecting the Edit button in the drop-down of the General panel. The labels you set stay with the project, so when it’s opened on another computer, the labels don’t need to be updated. You can also set which label gets assigned by default to each new folder or section.

Setting Up Collections

Scrivener is most useful for longterm projects involving multiple chapters and sections, which all reside in the Binder for easy access. But after a while, the binder can make your project seem overwhelming with too many folders and files. This is where the Collections feature comes in.

Collections can be created by manually selecting folders and files a creating a collection to hold them, or collections can be based on a smart search of a keywords, label, status, titles, text and so on.


Scrivener collections

The video below explains a little more about setting up Collections in Scrivener.

Syncing Documents

I always save my Scrivener project files to my Dropbox folder so they can be opened on both my Mac and laptop. I also really like being able to also read my Scrivener documents on my iPad Air, which truly feels as if I’m reading documents on sheets of paper.


To sync and share Scrivener documents to an iPad word processing app The 10 Best Word Processing Apps for Your iPad You can use your iPad to edit documents, compile notes, or even crack out a novel. Here are the best word processors for the iPad. Read More , select File > Sync > with External Folder… to reveal the sync preferences.

Scrivener export

Create a new folder in your Dropbox folder, which Scrivener can use to sync your files (the folder can only be used for this purpose, so always create a new one). You can then select to sync all the files in the Drafts folder of your project, or you can select a collection of files in Collections, which is what I do.

Scrivener will copy your selected files to an external folder so they can be opened in another supported word processing application. I use Textilus because it includes a feature for pulling in documents from a Dropbox folder, and because it actually includes a Scrivener folder icon for synced drafts. In the sync pane of Scrivener, you can enable the “Check external folder on project open and automatically sync on close” option so that syncing process happens automatically.

Scrivener will make a snapshot of the original documents before they are synced, then detect changes in the synced folder and allow you to approve the syncing process before it is carried out. You can leave this feature unchecked and manually do the sync until you feel comfortable about the entire synchronization setup and process.

Scrivener sync

After you open synced files in another app and edit them, be sure to sync those files back to your selected Dropbox folder. In Textilus your opened and edited Scrivener files will be automatically synced before the document is closed.

When your files are synced back to Scrivener, it will create and add changed files to an “Updated Documents” folder in Collections, so you can see which files have been changed. The updated files will also be in the binder.

Revisions With Snapshots

Another useful tool in Scrivener is Snapshots, which works by tracking changes you make to your documents. As noted above, Scrivener will automatically make a snapshot of original documents before they are synced to an external folder. So if there’s a problem between syncing, you can always roll back to the original document.

To manually take a snapshot, select a document (or multiple documents) in the binder, open Snapshots (the camera icon) at the bottom of the info panel, and click on Documents > Snapshots > Take Snapshots of Selected Documents. Now you can delete and revise text in your selected document with the confidence that the original is still there.

When you click the compare button in Snapshots, you can elect to see the changes made by paragraph, clause, or by word. Most importantly you can always preview and roll back to the original version when the snapshot was taken. So revise and edit all you want, Scrivener has you covered when you use snapshots.


Customize the Toolbar

As you can see, Scrivener is a powerful text editor and project mangers with hundreds of tools and features. So in order to make the most productive use of the application, I suggest taking some time to customize the tool bar (View > Customize Toolbar…). Remove unnecessary icons and add shortcuts to tools you use on a regular basis, and then you don’t have to remember lots of keyboard shortcuts or get lost in menus.

Scrivener menubar

Still The Best Tool for Writing Projects

I would be in tears if I had to write a book or long document without using Scrivener. So far I’ve used it for about a dozen writing projects, and each time I learn something new and sharpen my writing workflow using this genius application. I hope the above suggestions help you get more out of this excellent writing program.

If you have any questions and suggestions for using Scrivener, let us know in the comment section.

Related topics: Project Management, Writing Tips.

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  1. John
    May 13, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks for the excellent article, Bakari. Reminded me of features I'd forgotten and new ones I didn't know.
    Never could figure out Word's document map. It sure wasn't the outline methodology I needed, which is what I get with Scrivener. Index cards? forget about it. Besides, Scrivener can output to all the format types that I need (including doc, pdf, etc. etc.).

    • Bakari Chavanu
      May 21, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks, John, for your feedback. You mention other features that I still need to learn about using. With every project I work on in Scrivener, I learn about about the program.

  2. Mac W
    May 13, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    How well do the Mac and Windows version work? I have a some problem with Word between the OS maybe Scrivener is better?

    • Bakari Chavanu
      May 21, 2014 at 5:36 pm

      Mac W, there's no iOS version of Scrivener, so that's why I included the section about how to share Scrivener documents to another iOS text app. I haven't used the Windows version of Scrivener, but there's a Google+ community for Scrivener and several Windows users are members of it, so you might want to raise your question there. The Mac version has been very stable for me, with really no particular problems.

  3. michel
    May 12, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Bakari, Lola: Headings. Document map. just sayin'.

  4. Lola B
    May 12, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I will say that in Word, there is just way too much jumping around. My partner and I create help files for our website and we first edit these in Word so we can share the files, and then I take over the maintenance. There is just way too much jumping around in Word when you have one section that is related to another section at the end of the doc (and on the site, there will be hyperlinks to each other).

    Scrivener is where it shines in that you can jump around easily. Next time we do a major revision on the help section, I think I'll try doing the revisions and see how this works out. Hopefully in the future the L&L folks will figure out the collaboration issue.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      May 12, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Lola, I think it would great if L&L could create some sort of online version of Scrivener for collaboration, sort of like what Apple has done for Pages. But I assume that would a very costly feature and format. And for me, Word has for too many bells and whistles that I don't use, and it just feels down right clunky.

  5. michel
    May 12, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    I realize it has its fans, but no one's been able to convince me Scrivener is any better than Word for long-form writing. As a working writer, I have to collaborate with my editors on short pieces and novels, which means I have to deliver in Word anyway. Word handles outlines internally, and integrates them with the ms. Headings separate chapters and scenes and can be easily handled and arranged in the Document map. For organization (including outlining) and for research, OneNote integrates seemlessly.

    Honestly, I haven't seen Scrivener able to do anything Word can't already do. You can learn to use Word, or you can learn to use Scrivener and Word, and I guess an outliner too. Doesn't add up to improved workflow in my eyes.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      May 12, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      Michel, I agree that Scrivener is not very useful for collaboration purposes, unless you're working with someone who is also using Scrivener. But I couldn't imagine writing an entire book in Word. It's just too difficult to manage all the chapters and sections. I like how Scrivener allows me to easily jump around and work on various parts of a long document without having to scroll through pages and pages of text. However, I must be honest, I've never been a dedicated user of Word. Maybe if I explored it more, it could be equally useful. I only use it to deliver the final drafts of documents for editors who request it in that format. So I appreciate your feedback and alternative view.