How to Use Scrivener to Write Your Novel

How To Use Scrivener

The first time I tried Scrivener, I wasn’t ready. The second time, I hated it. But, as it turns out, the third time really is a charm! If you want to learn how to use scrivener (and possibly stumble through it like I did), then you’re in the right spot.

My Journey with Scrivener

When I say I wasn’t ready the first time I tried to use Scrivener, it was very a much an “it isn’t you, it’s me” situation. It was a few years back, and when I downloaded the free trial I was about halfway through the first draft of a novel. I was overwhelmed almost immediately; I stared blankly at the software with no clue of where to start. (No, of course I didn’t do the tutorial. I wanted to dive right in!) I remember spending a little time halfheartedly pasting my WIP in there before giving up. I told myself that I’d do much better starting with a brand-new project than trying to learn it with something that was half-finished. So I let the free trial expire and that was that.

Lesson learned: The tutorial is your friend! It keeps you from staring at the screen with rising panic. Also, it’s best not to start your Scrivener experience with a 30,000+ word partial draft.

Take Two

I tried again about a year ago to learn how to use Scrivener. Downloaded the NaNoWriMo free trial to my shiny MacBook Air and this time I was determined to make it work. I spent a good day going through the tutorials and reading up on tips and tricks. And once again, I found myself staring at the program with wide-eyed terror. But I calmed myself down and started working on a new story I’d been planning. I used the information I’d learned in the tutorial, and set up my chapter folders, with scenes underneath. Color coded things, because color coding makes everything better, right?

Disaster. I realized that’s not how I write. I write scenes, and eventually I figure out where I want to put chapter breaks. Pre-dividing up the scenes into chapters the way I did was like shoving me into a too-small box, and I was banging up against the sides. What if that wasn’t where the chapter was going to end? What if I put a chapter break mid-scene for more dramatic effect?

I wanted to flee back to Microsoft Word and that blank, un-split-up page. I had visions of Jack Kerouac, who was known to write his novels on long rolls of paper. I wanted that long roll that I could get on Word, and not the pre-chopped-up chapters I struggled with in Scrivener.

 How To Use Scrivener Kerouac

Photo credit: Tom Palumbo from New York, NY, USA — Jack Kerouac, CC BY-SA 2.0

Lesson learned: While the tutorial is important, it doesn’t need to be gospel. Don’t limit your creativity by using features that clearly don’t work for you. Jack Kerouac wouldn’t let Scrivener boss him around, and neither should you.

I moved back to Word, where I realized the story I was working on had no spark, and it didn’t matter what program I was trying to use to write it—it wasn’t happening. So maybe I was wrong in blaming Scrivener. New story idea in mind, I decided to give learning how to use Scrivener another go.

Third Time’s the Charm

I thought about what went wrong this last time, and went with a new approach. I like bullet-point outlines. So I turned each bullet point on my outline into a notecard in the notecard view. I got rid of the chapter folders altogether, so it was just me and the list of scenes I wanted to write. Okay, I could work with this.

I’m about 25 percent of the way through this first draft now, and my whole attitude toward Scrivener has changed.

I’m focusing on what I know how to do and not worrying about which bells and whistles I’m not taking advantage of yet.

As I refine my outline, each new plot point gets a card, and it’s slotted in where I think it’ll go. I’ve already moved scenes around the outline a few times, something I’d never be able to do in Word!

I’m still learning how to use Scrivener and what I can do with it, and now that I’m going at my own speed I’m having a much better time. All my “research” pictures of hot pirates and dudes in kilts in one place! Websites saved for easy reference without opening up a web browser!

But I think my favorite thing about Scrivener right now is compose (or full-screen) mode. In this mode, when you type, the cursor stays in the middle of the screen, and what you’ve typed scrolls up and away. I got my Kerouac-esque roll of typing paper after all!

How To Use Scrivener Full Screen

Full screen mode. I’m still learning how to create background pics, so for now the woods serve as inspiration for my Renaissance Faire-themed novel. And I love those target bars.

I also just learned how split-screen works, so I was able to pull up two scenes side-by-side and move text from one to the other seamlessly. This works similarly, but more smoothly, to pulling up two separate Word documents and snapping them to opposite sides of the screen.

To avoid feeling trapped in those chapter-break boxes, I learned to just build the box later. As I get to a point that feels like a natural chapter break, I create a chapter folder and throw those scenes in there. So that might be a little backward, but it works for me. So far, the Scrivener police haven’t broken down my door.

How To Use Scrivener Folders

I know full well that I’m using roughly 0.5 percent of the features that Scrivener has. The secret is, I don’t really care. I’m using what I know how to use, and not stressing about the rest. I’m sure it’s going to be quite some time before I’m a “power user” of Scrivener, but the more I use and the more features I discover at my own pace, the more I’m convinced that this third time truly is a charm, and Scrivener is going to be my writing software of choice for a long time.

Lesson learned: Go at your own pace! Use what works for you, and don’t worry about features you don’t understand/don’t want to use yet. You’ll get there!

How to Use Scrivener for Writing

So if you’ve been wanting to try Scrivener but have felt intimidated by it, my best advice is to:

  1. Start with a new project.
  2. Sit down with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and watch the full tutorial—it’s worth the time.
  3. Don’t expect to be an expert all at once. Use it for the basics at first. Just write. The rest will come.

Do you have a favorite Scrivener tip? Share it in the comments below.

Jen DeLuca
Jen DeLuca grew up in Virginia, but she needed more alligators and hurricanes in her life, so she relocated to Florida as soon as she could. As den mother to a house full of rescue pets, Jen spends her free time picking dog hair off her clothes and arguing with a cat about who gets the office chair. (Spoiler: it’s the cat.) When she’s able to sit at her desk, Jen likes to write stories full of snark, angst, kissing, and occasionally ghosts. Her short story, “Hunted and Haunted” appears in the anthology Rough Edges, published by Pen & Kink Publishing.
Jen DeLuca on Twitter

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  • Avatar
    Tricia Lynne

    Jen, thank you! I’ve been considering a switch to Scrivner and from the above, I can tell we have similar writing styles. I’m a bullet point girl, too. I’ve heard a new version is coming out by the end of the year so I’m waiting for the release, but you’ve convinced me and I’m jumping on the Scrivner train. 😉

    November 10, 2017 at 11:14 am Reply
  • Lindsay Hess
    Lindsay Hess

    This is wonderful! I’ve always been so terrified of Scrivener because, frankly, it’s overwhelming. But I love how you use the features you want and don’t worry about the rest. I should follow your lead! PS Your scene list alone has me excited about this book. ?

    November 10, 2017 at 4:37 pm Reply
  • Adele Buck
    Adele Buck

    I think the biggest misconception about Scrivener is that there’s a “right” way to do it. If you’re using it and it works for you, great! It’s an incredibly flexible piece of software (one of the reasons it’s so daunting for so many, I think, but also one of its great strengths). And when you’re outputting that novel into a perfect draft format? FANTASTIC.

    November 10, 2017 at 11:16 pm Reply
  • Avatar

    Hi Jan, it`s nearly midnight here in rainy old England and my tears of frustration are just adding to the damp conditions.
    All I wanted to know at first was how to paste my, 98% finished, first ever novel which I have `Grammerlyed` up beforehand.
    I have been here for two days and many hours trying to paste the words in such a way that I know the paragraphs will be
    replicated into Scriverner as a mirror to how they look in Open Office Writer, the word processor I use.

    September 28, 2019 at 6:44 pm Reply
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