Scrivener, Scrivening, Scriverastic

[This is a guest post by Ryan Cordell, whose post on Things previously appeared on ProfHacker. In the interval, Ryan's gotten a job (beginning in the fall) at St. Norbert College, in De Pere, WI. -- JBJ]

It seems I’m becoming the Mac software guy on ProfHacker. I’m cool with that.

Today I’m writing about Scrivener, an enhanced word processor from the folks at Literature and Latte. If Things is an important part of my daily workflow, Scrivener is essential. In fact, more than any other program Scrivener ensures my loyalty to the Mac platform and helps me quash my desire for a netbook (I’ve yet to find a comparable composition tool for Windows or Linux, but please let me know in the comments if I’ve missed one). I don’t remember how I wrote before discovering it, and I can’t imagine writing without it.

So that’s high praise—perhaps a bit overblown—but this software changed the the way I think through, organize, and perform my professional writing. As with Things, I won’t aim to give a complete tutorial: Literature and Latte hosts a series of video tutorials on their website that will walk you through most of Scrivener’s features. Instead, I’ll try and detail why I find Scrivener valuable for academic writing and teaching. (Note: Click on any of the images to view a larger version.)

1. Writing as project

In Scrivener you don’t create a document, you create a project. That project, in turn, has a binder divided into two big categories: “Draft” and “Research.” You can also create additional categories.

The drafts category can only contain two things: folders and documents. This is the place for your writing. What I love about Scrivener’s binder metaphor is that I can compose each chapter not as one huge file, but as a series of shorter documents grouped under a folder or master document.

As the texts required of me have grown longer, it’s become harder and harder to keep them mentally organized. Remembering how the sub-sections of a chapter fit together, and then how those chapters fit together into a book, is difficult to do when looking at one continuous stream of pages.

Scrivener fixes that problem. By allowing me to compose in short sections, rather than 40-50 pages at a time, Scrivener allows me to better visualize the arc of of a long piece. Scrivener’s “Corkboard” view (shown above), displays for visual thinkers the synopses (more on that shortly) of each document in a given folder or folders as index cards on a corkboard. The outline view—

presents the shape of a folder or folders for more linear thinkers. In either view I can click-and-drag elements to reorganize my project, as I can in the binder itself.

Most importantly, the binder approach allows me to write in bits and pieces, stops and starts. When I have an idea, however small, I create a new document in the relevant chapter and write it down. That snippet won’t sit in the middle of a longer document, taunting me, but I also won’t forget it. I can return to it when I have time to flesh it out.

I also have a folder in my binder called “Fragments” in which I collect ideas, ranging from a single sentence to a few paragraphs, that I have yet to find a home for in the larger project. Many of these never find their way into the main document, but Scrivener’s ability to collect and organize all of my thoughts about each project has proved invaluable. When I get stuck in a chapter I immediately browse through my fragments, and often I find just the right prompt to break my writer’s block.

2. Research at hand

The second main category in Scrivener’s binder is “Research.” Here you can collect folders and documents, but also images, webpages (which can be retained as web archives or converted to text), PDFs, Office documents, and even audio and video files. I could list more file types here; I’ve not encountered many source files Scrivener won’t import. For my dissertation, I mainly collect PDFs of articles I’m working, notes on print sources, and scans of primary sources, which are for me mainly images of 19th Century religious periodicals.

A Scrivener project file is really a folder, and the formatting of items you import is preserved. These files can be viewed/watched/listen to within Scrivener, or opened in an external editor using Scrivener’s contextual menu. What’s more, any changes you make in the external editor will appear in Scrivener if you save the file (so, if I add notes to a PDF in Preview, after I save the file those notes will appear when I view the PDF in Scrivener’s viewer). If I want to export a file from my Scrivener project—if I want to send an article I’m working from to a colleague, for instance—that’s also easy. I can either open the file in an external editor and use the “Save As…” command to save a copy elsewhere on my harddrive, or I can use the “Export file” command in Scrivener’s File menu.

What makes this collected research especially valuable is Scrivener’s split-pane view.

By clicking the button in the toolbar, I can display two items from my binder simultaneously (Option + click will alternate between a horizontal and a vertical split pane):

When working from sources, then, I don’t have to flip constantly between the document and my screen. Instead, I can transcribe directly from the source within Scrivener. When working from my notes—

—I can copy and paste directly from the notes document into my draft.

The split-pane view is the most valuable feature of Scrivener to my daily work. In fact, Scrivener is rarely open in single-pane mode on my machines. There are many uses for Scrivener’s split-pane mode beyond those I use. One of the tutorials on Literature and Latte’s site, for example, discusses using the split-pane mode to transcribe from audio files.

One note about collecting research items in Scrivener: it’s not designed to serve as a large-scale database, and it can be overloaded. When I first started my dissertation I collected everything in Scrivener, and as the project file grew above 1 GB the program started to crawl. I’ve since ported my comprehensive database to DEVONthink, and bring into Scrivener the most relevant images and PDFs to what I’m currently working on.

3. Document Metadata

You’ve already seen Scrivener’s synopses in the screenshots of the outline and notecard views. Synopses for each document or research item are edited in the info pane that can be opened along the right side of the window. Here you can also label items. Labels change the color of the item’s index card and (if you set this as a preference for the application) the items icon in the binder. Label names are also customizable. Again, for visual thinkers labels can help distinguish what’s in your writing cue from what’s finished or what’s set aside.

Below the label you can set the item’s status: to-do, first draft, revised draft, etc.

At the bottom of the info pane you can do three things: add notes to an item (the notepad icon), compile references for an item (the bookmark icon), or assign keywords to the item (the key icon). I honestly rarely use the notes feature here, as there are so many other spots to take notes in Scrivener. I don’t use keywords much either; they’re essentially a tagging system within Scrivener that I’ve not found much use for, though I know others rely on them for finding things.

I do use the reference pane, though. Here you can compile references internal to the project, either by clicking and dragging them from the binder or by clicking the “+” and navigating to them. You can also include external links, which can be files elsewhere on your harddrive or websites. Clicking any of an items references will open that item, in Scrivener for internal links and in the appropriate program or browser for external links. By building my reference list as I work on a given section, I can quickly return to cited works.

4. Full-project search

Following on metadata, by compiling all of my writing and current research on a project, Scrivener allows me to search my drafts, notes, and PDFs. Searches pick up on terms in documents, synopses, notes, and keywords.

5. Distraction-free writing

Many folks swear by Writeroom as a solution to the distractions of writing on a computer. Scrivener’s full-screen mode offers a similar solution. When I click the full screen button the rest of my desktop (and even the rest of Scrivener’s interface) fades to black, highlighting only the document I’m working on:

Full-screen mode can be styled, so if you prefer green-on-black hacker text you can make that happen.

6. In-line footnotes and annotations

You no doubt noticed the strangely highlighted text in the above example. While composing in Scrivener, text can be tagged as “Annotation” or “Footnote.” When exporting a draft into Word or another format, I can choose what to do with each kind. I can treat annotations and footnotes differently, ignoring one and exporting the other. Annotations can be exported as comments within Word, and footnotes can be exported as either footnotes or endnotes.

Some writers might find this distracting, but I’ve found that I prefer the in-text notes during composition. I don’t have to page from my spot in an argument to the end of the document in order to check a reference or annotation, and so I’m not distracted from my writing by the mechanics of its presentation.

7. Tracking variations and other riffs on a project

Scrivener makes it very easy to track my revision process. I can duplicate a document or folder before revising, and save the old version in my “Old Drafts” folder. I can use the split-pane feature to keep my old draft side-by-side with a new revision. Scrivener also has a “Snapshot” feature, so I can take a snapshot of a document at one point in my revision and then, if the revision goes horribly wrong, restore to that snapshot.

I also keep any riffs on a project in its binder: paper or panel proposals, conference papers, or lectures that grow directly from that project go in a separate folder for easy reference. Again, this allows me to refer directly to the text as I write, say, a paper proposal.

8. Robust options for composing and exporting

Scrivener allows me to compose a number of different document types. I tend to write rich text documents that I export to Word to send to my readers, but Scrivener supports other kinds of writing projects that should resonate with the Prof. Hacker crowd. Documents can be created and then exported in plain text, rich text, .doc, .docx, HTML, and even Multimarkdown formats. As I said above, individual files can be exported using File–>Export, but longer drafts (which may include many documents from the binder), can be prepared using File–>Compile Draft:

Here I can choose which documents from the binder I want to include in the draft, what metadata I want exported, and the file format of the draft (I didn’t mention all the possible formats because, honestly, I’ve not experimented with many of them).

Under “Text Options”—

I can tweak even finer settings, such as how my footnotes will be represented in the exported document.

9. Keeping a class together

So far I’ve written only about how I use Scrivener for research projects, but it’s also become a valuable part of my teaching. Whenever I begin teaching a new class, I create a new project for it:

In these project I collect all the documents I create or gather for that class over the semester: class outlines, quizzes, final exam questions, sometimes even student papers (remember that Word files can be viewed and edited within Scrivener). I find this a much better solution than a Finder folder packed with documents. By collecting the class in a Scrivener project all of its materials are organized and searchable.


I’ve not covered everything Scrivener can do in this article, but I hope I’ve given you an idea of why I think it’s such valuable scholarly tool. I was fortunate to discover Scrivener early in the dissertation-writing process, and to pass it on to a number of my colleagues. Literature and Latte offers a free 30-day demo, and once you decide to buy it charges an astoundingly-low $39.95.

I know there are some other Scrivener users in the ProfHacker audience. Please use the comments to offer your own tips and tricks.

10. Bonus Tip

This bonus tip, like my last, depends on Dropbox. If you use this magical folder-syncing software, then you can keep your Scrivener projects in your Dropbox and access them across multiple machines. I love using Scrivener’s split-panes view on my home iMac (on the large screen both panes are as large as my entire laptop screen), but when I’m on campus I write on my laptop. Using Dropbox, my Scrivener files for both research projects and classes are always at hand.

To doubly repeat myself—Make sure that you close your Scrivener project on one machine before opening it on another. Because of the incremental way Dropbox syncs files, keeping the same project open in two places risks losing changes made in one place or the other. Unlike Things, though, Scrivener will actually alert you if you try and open a project that is already open elsewhere, so you have to work hard to make this mistake in Scrivener.

[Image by Flickr user Markus Rödder / Creative Commons licensed]

[See larger versions of all Ryan’s screenshots here.]

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