Scrivener: the Ultimate Writer’s Tool.


So you’ve got a way to gather your research, a place to hammer out your 750 words a day, and a bunch of handy web resources at your fingertips. The next step, of course, is to write your project. And by many accounts, the best tool for that is a program called Scrivener.

Scrivener is a project based writer’s tool that aims to help you get past your first draft. It’s an organizer, a compiler, can build your manuscript into publisher accepted formats, and can export the final project into a number of file types, including an eBook. It’s a one stop shop for the self-publishing writer!

Now, I’ve only started using Scrivener, so I don’t as yet have a comprehensive view of all the tips and tricks. It’s a remarkably robust program; you could work in it for months and not use half the features that are available to you. The the thing is that, unlike a certain Microsoft based word processor, not knowing all these little features doesn’t get in the way of using the program–but when you find them, the program gets more and more convenient to use.

Scrivener is based on an framework set to help you organize your project. When you open a new project, you’ll see a series of folders on the left hand side, each of which represents a different chapter in your book. On the right is a corkboard, where you can “pin” index cards to outline the chapter or–if you click on the chapter in question–indicate separate scenes. These cards can be shuffled around in any order, labelled as concepts, ideas, first/revised/final drafts, or moved from folder to folder. You can outline your entire novel in one place, and shuffle things around as you please. This makes organization simple, but also means that one of the messier parts of editing–rearranging things so your plot flows smoothly–is solved with a click of your mouse. You can even run a search for specific keywords to filter a certain group of cards; if, for example, you have a subplot that weaves through your main story without interfering with it, you can pull all of those cards in sequence to see that it makes narrative sense.

The main corkboard

If that was where the program ended, it would be worth trying out. But Scrivener does so much more.

There’s a place for you to keep notes and plot lines for specific characters or places, and even general concepts so they are at your fingertips, but don’t interfere with the manuscript. There’s a pane for research where you can add images, text, full webpages, and even video to reference as you write. You can re-size this pane to show as much or as little of either side as you like. Likewise, you can bring up a pane to show your index cards, so you can write scene by scene and rearrange the entire structure as you go. I think that Debrief, shown earlier this week, is better at handling all your research in one place, though Scrivener seems to have more options in terms of including media. I’m still playing with both.

Scrivener research

You can do research in Scrivener too!

Scrivener can show you at a glance how many pages, words and characters are in the entire document, or just parts of it; how many pages it would be if it were printed as a paperback or 8.5X11 paper; it can calculate word frequency in the document; and you can add word count targets for each chapter, or the project as a whole.

Scrivener also gives you access to a few simple–but useful–tools, such as looking up a highlighted term in Google, Wikipedia or; translating the word into other languages; and even a name generator. (Though the name generator has a lot of options as to race, nationality, number of names, etc., I still found it to be a bit generic. Though I prefer character names that reflect character, so I won’t be using this feature anyway).

Of course, once your project is finished, you’ll want to do something with it. You can compile your project and export it in a variety of formats, including .pdf, .rtf, .doc, ePub and .mobi. Each format gives you a number of options as to what to include in the final output, and when you compile as an eBook you can edit the metadata. Conceivably, you could write a book, export as an ePub, and have it ready to upload it to sell in your favourite eBook store all with the same program.

Scrivener Compile

Compile your eBook with ease!

Because Scrivener is such a large program, it can seem daunting to use. As I mentioned, you could skim the surface of the program and be perfectly happy with it, but the deeper you go the more useful it is. Fortunately there are helpful tutorials at your disposal. These tutorials are set up as projects, so you can open one (for a novel, for example), and work through it as a hands on example of how to use all the program’s features. It will take a couple of hours to go through it, but it’s worth it to get the full scope of the program. For those who want a quicker look, there’s also a series of video tutorials on their website that will give you a good idea of how to use Scrivener.

Did I mention you can also take “snapshots” of different edits of your work and compare them side by side? Or type in full screen mode with no distractions–though you can add a background image for inspiration? Or (on the Mac) edit multiple pieces of text simultaneously, dragging and dropping bits into each, in Scrivenings mode? I’ve also figured out how to synchronize my files with Sugarsync so I can work on them away from home, even though I only have Scrivener on this computer.

Scrivener is available for the Mac (for which it was originally written) and Windows. There’s a lot more documentation about the Mac version, but the Windows version is catching up. It comes with a 30 day free trial, though to be honest, the $43 price tag ($48 for the Mac version) is a steal for as much as this program can do. If you’re serious about writing, this is a great program to help you achieve your goal.

Writer’s Tools: Online

I unfortunately wasn’t able to post yesterday–good argument for not promising to post daily, not enough time for that–but fortunately was planning a piece on some cloud based technology that will work well with today’s post: tools you can find online.

Nowadays, the internet is ubiquitous. You have it on your phone; you can get information almost anywhere, at the touch of a button. With the increasing prevalence of wi-fi Hot Spots at restaurants, airports and coffee shops, you can even bring your laptop with you most places and plug in. Which makes writing on the go a lot easier.

When I was in University, I had a Palm Pilot with a little fold out keyboard, and everything folded up into a neat wallet sized bundle. I did all my writing on this device–creative and schoolwork–and it was a godsend. But the one thing I always missed was that it was only a place to get my thoughts out; I couldn’t do any decent editing because the word processor wasn’t great; there was no dictionary or encyclopedia on the device; and research was no more convenient than bringing a notepad to the library and writing by hand. Then I got a laptop, and would bring that everywhere; I had a lot more at my fingertips, but still couldn’t connect to the internet for research, and the battery life wasn’t all that great.

Today, your average phone has more processing power than my laptop did back then, and you have a plethora of tools available for you whenever you want them. In fact, information is so readily available that, interestingly, it’s holding us back; in his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr posits that having so much information so easily available is causing us to only skim it for what we want right now, rather than digging deeper. But that’s a topic for another day.

The internet has a wealth of tools for writers, from forums where other writers will discuss issues with you, to how to’s on publishing, eBook building, getting an agent and so on, to myriad contests writers can enter to get their work off the ground. Here are a few of the ones I visit regularly: and are a must. Of course, nothing beats having a real Webster’s, but for quick reference, it’s a lot better than the options in Microsoft Word. The thing I like most about these online resources is that entries are hyperlinked, so you can click your way from one definition to the next very quickly. It might seem like cheating, but it’s a quick way to double check the spelling of your word or find an alternative to fit the story. You can also check out popular quotes on a variety of subjects.

Wikipedia is another invaluable “quickie” resource. Now let’s get this out of the way first: it’s an open to all platform, where anyone who signs up can edit an entry. This means you’ll find a lot of obscure information that won’t be in Encyclopedia Britannica–but more importantly that you can’t rely on the truth of the information you find. I use Wikipedia as a starting point, looking up a topic I think is interesting and exploring it from there. Each entry should include source material, and that’s where you’ll find the proper books to do some real research. It’s a great place to get the tip of the iceberg–but for real research, you’ll have to dig deeper. As a side note, there are wikis made for pretty well any subject you can imagine, some of which will have much more specific information that Wikipedia, so do your Googling.

One of these separate wikis is It’s a compendium of various well used tropes and ideas from all media–the site is quick to point out the difference between a trope and a cliche. This is a place where you can look up, for example, character archetypes. Or your basic plots. Or one of my favourite Sci-Fi devices, The Watson. This is the kind of site that’s worth just wandering around in. You’ll get lost for hours, but there’s so much to learn about the nature of entertainment, and how and why we enjoy it. Getting to know some popular tropes–and how to use them properly–can definitely make you a better writer.

Speaking of becoming a better writer, you can’t go wrong with studying The Elements of Style. This is the seminal grammar text from Strunk and White, and is a must-read for any writer. That website (which includes the entire text), says it best on the front page: you have to know the rules before you can effectively break them. Grammar is important for a creative writer becauseĀ you want to break it occasionally, whether it’s to fit the tone, alter a character’s dialogue, or create tension. But don’t do it blindly:here’s the road map.

Another way to improve your writing is to get in touch with your audience. That means building a fan base, but also paying attention to what others are writing in the same genres as you. Goodreads is a site where you can review books you’ve read, and see how others are reviewing the same books. By browning through the stacks, as it were, you can see which authors are acclaimed for what they do–and put them on your reading list. With some careful consideration about what types of books people seem to most enjoy, you can start thinking about elements you want to bring into your own work. Now, I’m not saying you need to write for the masses–that’s not what creative writing should be about–but it’s also not wise to write something nobody wants to read in the first place.

Almost any city, province, region or country is going to have a writer’s guild somewhere. Up here, we have the Writer’s Guild of Alberta. Any writer’s guild worth it’s salt is going to be a congregation of like minded–and geographically close to you–writers who can share their craft. You’ll find writing tips, editing services, constructive feedback, contest, and publishing information. If you haven’t already, find your nearest writer’s guild and sign up!

One of my favourite online resources is Sugarsync. Cloud based storage is the Next Big Thing, and Sugarsync got in early enough that’s they’ve got a really solid business model and great software. You can try Dropbox or iCloud or the new Google Drive; they’re all the same idea with different implementations. Now I admit that once I tried Sugarsync, I haven’t gone with anyone else–but that’s because I don’t need to. This program has everything I need–large storage space, easy access to the cloud, integration with Blackberry, and excellent customer service. There’s really no reason not to use them.

I find Sugarsync to be invaluable, not only because all my writing is safely secured in the cloud, but also because I can edit my work anywhere. I’m the kind of person who gets ideas out of the blue, normally when I’m not at my home computer. Sugarsync allows me to open up a document and edit it from wherever I am, even if the computer I’m using doesn’t have the software and isn’t hooked up to my own cloud. I can just go to their site and edit from there, and it’s the same on every other computer as soon as it’s synchronized.

And no, I’m not on their payroll. I just love this company.

So there’s a bunch of links for you to try out. It’s by no means an exhaustive list–there are dozens of great resources out there for writers. Share yours in the comments!


National Novel Writing Month is a website that encourages users to…well, write a novel in one month. Their term is from November 1 to 30, and they’ve got a strict set of rules to follow. The idea is to challenge yourself as a writer under these time constraints–and honestly, a month is a lot of time if you plan it well. Can you write a full novel in 30 days? I haven’t tried this out yet, but am considering signing up for this year’s trial. Hope to see all you other writers there!






Writer’s Tools: Debrief Notes

Yesterday we focused on a way to get into the habit of writing every day–today we’ll look at another important aspect of creative writing: research.

Research is essential to creative writing. One of the first things you’re told as a writer is to “write what you know,” but even then, you should be doing research to back up your work. (And yes, this counts for fiction as well as non-fiction!)
The kind and extent of research you do will of course depend on your own style, and the content of your writing. Someone like George R. R. Martin has done an incredible amount of research to make the Song of Ice and Fire series so realistic; Shirley Jackson probably did less when writing The Lottery. But whatever your focus, it helps to be organized, and that’s where today’s tool comes in.

I came across Debrief Notes while looking for a tool to help with research, and it’s a powerful–yet simple–organizer program. It’s not necessarily meant for creative writers, but it serves that purpose well.
When you open the program, you see three panes with a couple toolbars. On the left there’s a folder tree where you can create

The basic editing panes.

new folders for each research item; directly below that is a list of which notes are in each folder; and to the right is an editing pane for the current note. It’s easy to see how well everything can be gathered in one place, and to get from one note to another quickly and easily–which is, in fact, the central philosophy behind the product.

You’re also able to create different “notebooks” for separate projects. In the upper right hand corner, you’ll see a drop down menu where you can choose your notebook. The one open in the screenshot is called Weird, and this is where I’ll keep notes for all my short stories in the weird fiction subgnere. This allows me to have notes from multiple different stories all in one place, which will help with creating a contiguous universe for my stories. I also have notebooks for various novel projects.

Another useful feature is the Daily Notepad, which opens by default when you open the program. This is a sort of general notepad where you can take notes you’ll organize later–for example, when you’re actively researching something and don’t want to move back and forth between folders in the program, you can take all your notes in this pane sort them when you’re done. The Standard and Professional versions of the program have a useful tool called Debrief, with which you can drag and drop text from the Daily Notepad into various notes for easy compilation.

The daily notepad

The program is available in three versions: Basic (which is available for free), Standard ($29.95) and Professional ($39.95). When you first download the program, you’re given a free 30 day trial, at the end of which you’ll be prompted to either stick with the Basic version or purchase a license key for another version. The difference between versions is in the features; Basic just allows you to make notes, Standard adds features like the aforementioned Debrief and Reference windows (basically allowing you to view multiple notes at once); and Professional includes password protection, reminders and to-dos, and tracking of a Reading List and Library.
The Standard version does add some good value, and I’d say it’s worth the price. The main attraction for the Professional version is the ability to keep track of the various books and periodicals you use for research–which can make it easy to go back and check on a source or quotation. So if you’re doing heavy research–say a historical novel–that would be the way to go. For most projects, though, the Basic version should do fine.

Another plus for this program is that you can get a Portable version, which can be run off a USB key. I can see this as being incredibly helpful, allowing you to take your research with you wherever you go, and to continue your research on any computer. I’ve been able to install the portable version to my Blackberry and run it from there once it’s hooked up to my computer. Because it needs a Windows environment to run, I doubt you could run the program in the native Blackberry OS, butWindows based tables and phones might be able to pull it off.

The one big drawback I see for this software is that it doesn’t appear to be supported any longer. Each time I start it up, I get a pop-up window that warns me that I’m using an older version, and that I should update it. Sadly, I have the most recent version of the program, and it’s from 2009. I don’t see any updates forthcoming, and this could also mean no support.
Fortunately, the program is simple and elegant–if you don’t mind an older looking UI–so it doesn’t really need to be updated. I could foresee an issue if the program crashes and you need tech support, but it’s a light program and I haven’t had any issues with it so far.

Keeping all your notes in one place is imperative for a writer who wants to do any amount of research. Scrivener, which we’ll get to later this week, has similar features, but I believe that Debreif does it better. Even if you’re just going with the basic package and $0 price tag, you’ll get a lot of use out of this program. Try it here, and let me know what you think!