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Using Scrivener for NaNoWriMo: A quick & dirty guide for beginners

So, you’re going to attempt NaNoWriMo this year and you figure now is a great time to also try out Scrivener, cuz, hey, they have discounts and free trials this time of year. Sounds pretty sweet, huh?

Then you open Scrivener and realize you have no idea how it works.

Pretty much everyone who has tried Scrivener has had this moment of overwhelming doubt. A lot of people give up and never learn to use the software. But those who do usually find it’s absolutely worth the fumbling. I see this scenario play out every year, and I figured it was time to offer some hard-earned guidance.

I’m still using Scrivener 1 for Windows, so pardon my not-as-shiny screenshots. I’ll update to Scrivener 3 where necessary after I get my hands on it.

Getting Started

Honestly, a blank document is not the best way to start learning Scrivener. I suggest you take an existing document (even if it’s not a novel) and use it to learn on. Barring that, a novel project that’s in development will do. If you’re determined to start from scratch, I suggest using one of the pre-installed templates or downloading one online (I include one in the downloads for The Monster Novel Structure Workbook and I really like the one derived from Story Genius).

For the purposes of this tutorial I’m using a pre-installed template, from New > Fiction > Novel (With Parts).

Screenshot of new file window in Scrivener

Let’s start with the basics of the Scrivener interface. Here’s my template-based project.

Screenshot of Scrivener interface

From left to right, the major sections are:

Left: The Binder – File organization

Center: The Editor – Where you edit the text of the file (mine has a green background to reduce eyestrain, yours will be white by default)

Right: The Inspector – Details pertaining to the selected file

The Binder

Screenshot of a Scrivener binder

On the left of the screen is the Binder (you can reveal it under View > Layout > Binder). The Binder is a cross between a physical three-ring binder, a file browser, and a tiered outline (As in I, II, III, etc.). At heart, it’s just a way of listing and arranging (primarily) text files.

In the screenshot, take a look at the top where it says Manuscript. “Manuscript” is a folder containing two folders, each labeled “Part”. Within the first Part folder are two “Chapter” folders. And inside the first Chapter folder are text files labeled “Scene.”

If your manuscript won’t have Parts then you can skip that level of nested folders and just have Manuscript > Chapter > Scene.

You can create new text files and folders using the icons at the bottom of the Binder  (see below) or using keyboard shortcuts (CTRL+N or CTRL+SHIFT+N, respectively).

Screenshot of Scrivener new file buttonsTo rearrange files and folders, just drag and drop. Voila.

Below the Manuscript you’ll see there are other folders like Characters, Places, and Research. These are sample areas for you to store files related to your novel. You can create folders and text files within them. For instance, you might want to organize your character notes by family.

Screenshot of binder in Scrivener

Now, if you’re just starting a new novel, you may not be sure how you want to set up your Binder just yet. That’s okay! This is why I suggest playing around with an existing document, so you already have a vision for the structure. None of this is set in stone so keep playing around until you’re satisfied for now.

The Editor

The center of the interface is the Editor. It’s basically a simple word processor area. You can bold text, change the alignment, all that good stuff.

The Editor will display the text of whatever you’ve selected in the Binder. So if you choose one of the Scene files it will show you just that scene. If you choose a Chapter with multiple Scenes it will show you all the Scenes from that chapter, in order.

The Editor is one of three ways of viewing content, the other two being the Corkboard and the Outliner. Those are very useful tools but you don’t need to know much about them to write your novel this month so we’re skipping over them. The only thing you need to know at this point is that you can switch between the Editor, Corkboard and the Outliner using these buttons:

Screenshot of Scrivener menu buttons

The Inspector

On the right is the Inspector. If you don’t see it, press the blue “i” icon in the top-right, choose View > Layout > Inspector, or CTRL+SHIFT+i. The Inspector is a powerful way of viewing all kinds of extra information associated with a file or folder. By default you should see what looks like an index card, labeled Synopsis.

Screenshot of the Scrivener inspector

The Synopsis is where you can take notes about what happens in that scene. These words DO NOT AUTOMATICALLY COUNT TOWARD YOUR DOCUMENT WORD COUNT.

The General Meta-Data section isn’t essential for your first NaNo project in Scrivener, but know that it’s where you can apply labels, set a file’s status (in progress, draft completed, etc.), and determine if you want to include the file in your word count/final compiled document.

Document Notes is a global note-taking area that will be visible no matter what file you select. Handy!

The Inspector has multiple modes, which you can move between using the icons at the top of the panel. Eventually you’ll want to learn Keywords and Custom Meta-Data. If you don’t already have a good backup system in place then Snapshots can be a lifesaver. Snapshots allows you to make a record of a file and restore it later.

Writing Your Novel in Scrivener

When you’re ready to write,  select a text file in your Binder. It’ll open up in the Editor, and you can start writing.

By default Scrivener’s footer bar (if you don’t see the footer go to View > Layout > Footer) will show the number of words contained in the files that are selected in the Binder. So if you choose one scene file it’ll show the words in just that file, but if you select a chapter folder it will count all the words within the chapter’s scenes.

To check how many words are in your manuscript in total you can go to Project > Project Statistics or CTRL+. (that’s the period key). This will open a window that shows the total word count, including the titles of your scenes and folders.

Screenshot of the Scrivener Project Statistics window

This window shows the Manuscript’s total words, total characters, and estimated number of pages. The bottom half shows the same stats for only what you’ve selected in the Binder.

IMPORTANT NANOWRIMO TIP: When you do a word count in Scrivener, by default, it will only count text within the Manuscript folder. That means if you want material in your Characters folder to count toward your monthly total you’ll have to drag the Character folder inside Manuscript.

You can set rules about which files should count and which shouldn’t, but that’s again outside the scope of this tutorial. We’re just trying to get you started here.

At any time you can rearrange the files and folders. If you’re thinking, “Oh, cool, I’ll put my written scenes in one folder and….” Stop! There are tools for that!

Using MetaData to Organize

There are a number of ways to mark each file or folder’s status.

The official way is to set a Status for each item. In the Inspector on the right you’ll see a dropdown labeled Status.

Screenshot of Scrivener's Status dropdown

You can edit the terms provided to suit your needs by clicking Edit.

What I don’t like about the Status setting is that it doesn’t change anything in the Binder, which is always open and thus a quick reference point.

Instead, I like to use the dropdown above Status: Label. That’s because Labels can be associated with a color, and that color can show up in different ways across Scrivener.

I like to open the Label dropdown, select Edit, and then change the provided settings to something along these lines:

Hahaha, I kid. Only mostly.

Actually, I usually set my labels up to indicate how finished the item is, like this:

Screenshot of the Labels dialogue in Scrivener

Then I go to View > Use Label Color In > Binder (F5). Voila!

Screenshot of a Scrivener binder with Label colors on

Now I can see that most of the book is Red: Unwritten, I have two progress currently in progress (Orange: Drafting) and that the first draft is done in three chapters (Yellow: Draft Done). I also know that the Epigraph is Blue: DONE. This is immensely helpful for having a sense of the overall status of the project, and if I wrote out of order it would be an absolute necessity.

Getting Your Novel Back Out of Scrivener

This function is called “compiling.” You can compile a Scrivener project into a multitude of other formats, from ebooks to Word documents to HTML pages and more. The NaNoWriMo site will verify using some kind of standard text or word processing file, most likely .txt, .rtf, .doc or .docx.

Compiling is a powerful function that can take a while to master. For now we’ll use preset options.

To compile your project into another file type, go to File > Compile, hit CTRL+SHIFT+E, or use the Compile button.

Screenshot of the Compile button in Scrivener

That will open the Compile window. It should be this simplified version to start:

Screenshot of the simple Compile dialogue in Scrivener

For your first run, change the dropdowns to match the picture. (Format As: Standard Manuscript Format (with Parts), and Compile For: Word Document .docx, or whatever file format you want.)

On the other hand, you might get the expanded Compile window (you can toggle between them with the blue arrow).

Screenshot of the full Compile dialogue in Scrivener

The full Compile options are complicated. You can play with them AFTER November. Total timesuck. All you need right now is a document that you can upload to verify your NaNoWriMo win.

If you hit “Compile” the compiler will run and you’ll prompted to save your new file. If you hit “Save & Close” you can save your Compiler settings without generating a file. “Cancel” won’t save the settings.

There’s SO MUCH more to learn!

But this should get you started to feel comfortable. Use these basic elements for a few days to get to know them, then you can start getting curious and Googling how to use other features.

I suggest your next steps include (with starter links):

It took me years to learn to use most of Scrivener and I’m still learning new tricks. Don’t be discouraged if it takes you a while to feel comfortable. If you’re drawn to a given feature, like the Corkboard, keep trying. It will be worth it.

Getting stuck in the Muddy Middle of your novel is no fun. But there’s a scaffolding for how your novel should be built–that’s what makes it a novel.

The Monster Novel Structure Workbook: How to Plot Without Getting Stuck comes with downloadable worksheets, examples, and even a Scrivener template.


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