Scrivener software – what is it and what’s the big deal?

When it comes to writing prose, I was for a long time a Word-only girl, and to be honest, I still write my short stories mainly in Word, unless I am putting together a collection and needed to start moving things about. But it was when I started thinking about doing exactly that, and about the larger prose projects – novels, non-fiction – I wanted to embark on, that I first became aware of Scrivener as the  must-have tool for writers. In the same way screenwriters wax lyrical about Final Draft, many of my writer friends were telling me that Scrivener had revolutionised their lives, particularly the way they were able to organise their work. So what’s the big deal?

First of all,  a note on what Scrivener is and isn’t. Scrivener is not a “novel-writing system” – it won’t write your novel for you, or even give you tips on how to write. It’s not about guidance. Rather, it is a project organisation system built directly with writers in mind. As such, it has been developed with practical features that are specific to the needs of writers of both fiction and non-fiction.

It has so many great features that it’d be impossible to put them all in one post, and the inbuilt user-guide that comes with the Scrivener software is therefore pretty hefty and complicated, but for ease, the following are the key features I’ve been finding most useful:


You can create your own  to suit the way you work, but Scrivener comes complete with ready-made templates for various writing formats. For example, it has templates already loaded for a Novel, a Novel-With-Parts, General Non-Fiction, Non-Fiction with Sub-Heads, Research Papers, BBC Radio Play Format and many others.

It also supplies basic templates for character sketches and setting sketches, that you can fill in and save with the project. Plus you can pull in any photos or media links as well as adding research, including websites etc. so you have it all in the same place for reference.

Allows you to write in any order – in sections or scenes –  and move stuff around

Because the templates encourage you to write headed scenes or sections to be able to get the most out the tool, you can easily jump around when writing your manuscript as you wish, You can also move chapters, scenes and sections around with no trouble, just by dragging them to a different position. I personally find this preferable; I don’t tend to write larger projects in a linear way, so if I’ve set up my template the way I want it, I can write my scenes fairly randomly and first and move things and fill in any gaps later.

Corkboard/Index Card view

Giving users the option to view their project at many levels, from the big-picture to the granular, is one of Scrivener’s very best features. You can view all your scenes onscreen as a full run-together manuscript, for instance; or you can view them on a virtual corkboard as index cards, to which you can add synopses, to be able to see the project and its components in its entirety. You also have an ‘Outline’ view, of the basic headings, and to which you can add any features you want to highlight, like word-counts etc.


You can colour code every section and also label it, as to whether it’s a chapter or a scene, a character note etc, whether it’s first, second or final draft, for example. That way, when you see the whole thing in overview, you can clearly keep track of what you have and what you’re going to want to keep and not keep when you export your final version.

Composition Mode

Even though you can type your text in the main screen, sometimes all the sidebars and features can get distracting. So Scrivener allows you to go into what it calls “Composition Mode”, where you get just the page you are working on up on the screen to type in, much as you would do in Word, to allow you to focus totally on what you are writing. Obviously, you can also copy and paste any material you already have in Word straight into Scrivener if you want to. While in Composition Mode, you can have a black background – or you can choose a background from any images you have imported. For instance, for the novel I am working on at the moment, I have my background as a photo of my setting, which I find helps me get back into my story quickly whenever I begin a new session.

Project Targets

Scrivener allows you to both set and track word-count targets, as well as set yourself deadlines. For example, you can set how long the full novel will be and the ultimate deadline date for finishing your current draft. You can also set what they call a “session target” – say, 1000 words every time – and it will track your progress toward that and also toward the overall goal, and tell you how many days you have left to achieve it.

Export Tools

Scrivener gives you loads of format options for exporting your final masterpiece. It is set up to show “front matter” (things like the title and your name and address if you are exporting into manuscript format, and title pages if you are exporting to paperback pdf format). Using its “Compile” feature, you can export into manuscript format, various e-book formats, paperback formats, pdf – you name it. You can even export it as a synopsis document based on the contents of your index cards.

In short, having used Scrivener for a while now on my own projects, I can definitely see why other writers have fallen in love with it, and I use it on all of my bigger writing projects now. I can see also how it might not be for everyone though, depending on your requirements and way of working.

Consider Scrivener if you:
  • Have a big project – like a novel – where you have a lot of material and scenes that you might want to move around, and you want to be able to view it all in different ways onscreen.
  • Are looking for a project-management tool for your writing
  • Write in random sections and want to be able to move things about later
  • Want somewhere to keep all the material together – like research, character sketches, photos, reference websites – as well as the actual drafts for a project
  • Need software that can export your work to numerous formats including manuscript, formatted print-ready PDF and e-book, which is great for self-publishers
  • Would like a one-stop-shop for all your writing needs around one project
Don’t go for Scrivener if you:
  • Want a novel-writing system
  • Are looking mainly for a screenwriting formatting tool (Scrivener does have screenplay templates, but personally I’d use Final Draft for that kind of formatting)
  • Are an old-school, hands-on writer, and prefer to organise your work physically rather than onscreen e.g. with physical corkboards and index cards all around your room
  • Need to keep things simple. Scrivener’s great but because of all the little features it can feel a tad overwhelming at first.


Freedom: The Best Writing Tool Ever!

Oh Freedom, I have found you again!

I was delighted to see how one particular service has upgraded since my ancient  laptop gave up the ghost and with it, aside from the laptop itself, one of the best writing productivity tools I have ever had. Even if it was, in the early days back when I first learned of its existence, a little basic.

So what was this miracle tool? What was I genuinely aghast to find had been removed from my desktop when I switched from my cranky old machine to my lovely sparkly new one?

Well, sometimes the simplest things really are the best. It is:

The ability to switch off my internet completely for fixed periods of time

Yup! And that’s what this Freedom app thing does. Crazy, no? And yes, “freedom” really is the right word for it. I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.

And alright, so you may be a whizz at self-mastery and able to focus like a pro for long stretches of time, but I, I’m afraid, with my little creative jump-about-everywhere brain that goes “ooh, look!” at anything that seems new and bright and shiny,  especially when I’m bored, am somewhat prone to distraction.

I find when I have major work to do, or I am slogging through a difficult draft, or my writing speed is about half a word a minute or fewer, there are a million ways I can find to do – well, just about anything else online. For example, I can:

  • Go and browse through threads full of crazy and less crazy people on Reddit
  • Go and browse through other forums and/or post and get into an argument
  • Read loads of writer’s blogs
  • Look at other people’s lovely Instagram or Pinterest pics.
  • Watch clips of shows I love on Youtube
  • Browse for books I don’t need – but might one day
  • Googlestalk a celeb crush (or two, or five. Yes, I still have them). Plus all my also supposedly grown up friends’ crushes, just to check. Learn said crushes’ entire imdb histories plus those of all their co-stars. In case I need this info later
  • Read celeb gossip sites and find self saying things like “See? Knew all along that xxxxx was a wrong-un”
  • Play pointless online games. For hours. I’m not sure it counts as writing just because it’s a word-game. It definitely doesn’t if it’s e.g. Candy Crush
  • Check my Facebook feed
  • Check my Twitter feed
  • Check my emails
  • See what new stuff is out on Netflix. Ditto Amazon watch, BBC iplayer, iTunes Curzon Cinema…(should point out I am in the UK and do not own a TV). Start watching anything interesting. ‘Cos it’s art, innit? All art counts!
  • Read reviews of anything interesting. Books, movies, exhibitions….
  • Follow a random internet trail of general interestingness in the name of supposed “research”, except not really when you end up at Reddit again and three hours have gone by.

Seriously, just being able to turn the frickin’ thing OFF for a bit has changed my writing life. I look back at my pre-internet days now (the net wasn’t even around back in days I was first a student) with a kind of stunned wonderment at a life free of all these  – devices and screens and “things” popping up all over the place. All the bloody time. Sure, I know it’s great to have easy access to all and any info at the hit of a button and I do love it but sometimes – it’s just too much. And it’s not what you need to get your writing done when you hit a rough spot, trust me.

OK, then. What are the best things about Freedom?

You can set the timing of the session where your access to the internet is blocked.

So if, like me, you are a fan of timed focus sessions like, for instance, the Pomodoro Technique, you can just set up the exact number of minutes or hours you want to be offline – and away you go. When the session is over, you can get back online again quickly and with no fuss whatsoever.

You can pre-book time slots for yourself to be offline

A great new addition to the Freedom tool, this – the ability to set up your offline time slots in advance. You can also set them to recur. Get you, you super-organised little thing, you!

You can choose what programmes and apps to block and not block

What’s your poison? It might be the whole internet you need to free yourself from. It might just be your Facebook, or Twitter, or Reddit that distracts you when you need to be Doing Other Stuff. Freedom now gives you the option of choosing exactly which of your personal distractions you get to block – and when.

You can choose which devices to block

Yeah, yeah, I know that old trick. My laptop’s blocked – ah, but I have the urge and I just have to just check and read this thing right now and – oh yeah, so I can check my phone, I can check my iPad… Ha! Well, not so fast there, missy. With Freedom, you get to shut off all your devices if you need to, in order to keep yourself productive and focused for your session. Thus giving yourself – no excuses.

So who’s it for?

It’s worth taking a look at Freedom (which you can try out for free, btw) if:

  • You’re struggling with focus on your projects
  • You are getting distracted by net-surfing and the various online rabbit-holes you can dive into
  • You NEED to focus for fixed periods of time in order to get things done – but just aren’t and are wasting time
  • Other members of your household will have spectacular tantrums if you so much as hint at switching off everyone’s internet connection at the source for a while so you can “work”.

Freedom mightn’t be necessary for you if:

  • You are already smugly self-disciplined and are never lured away from the task at hand by the tempting delights of the internet and all it has to offer
  • The idea of being removed from your constant stream of info, communications, and cute kitten pics fills you with existential dread. You couldn’t create without all that stuff flying around you, quite frankly.
  • You are the kind of person who “doesn’t believe in email” or “those bloody computer things” and still handwrites all your invoices and gets their personal secretary to type up anything that cannot be handwritten.

So – if the former sounds like you and you want to get some serious work done – check this out for a sec  (yeah, instead of that argument going on on your Facebook timeline) – and give yourself the choice for once. Switch it off – and GET PRODUCTIVE!


Review: The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

The Anatomy of Story     John Truby

Screenwriting guru and script consultant John Truby goes in-depth about how to build a satisfying story, level by level. The book is designed primarily for screenwriters, and I have used it for screenplays, but I have found the exercises invaluable when writing prose fiction too.

Highly practical, the book focuses on getting the writer to build a coherent story that works at all levels – including working out its particular  “designing principle”. This is the overall strategy you’ll use for telling the story, a concept which takes the whole thing into deep structural territory.  Truby focuses on more than just the basic three-act structure approach. Chapters cover key elements such as how to find your premise, the seven crucial steps of story structure, character, moral/thematic argument, the world of the story and its symbols and how these all work together to create a coherent whole. The book then takes you through Truby’s screenwriting  plotting method (The 22 Steps) which brings everything together step by step.

Although readers will find many of his movie examples outdated (he bangs on about Tootsie, for example) I have  certainly found his story exercises some of the most useful in my arsenal, particularly when I am planning a story or when I am stuck. As a result, The Anatomy of Story has turned out to be of the most well-thumbed and practical writing books in my  collection.

Use if you:

  • Are struggling to isolate the premise of your story
  • Want a step by step process to help you build your story
  • Like getting analytical with practical exercises at the same time
  • Are looking for practical ways to pull your story into a coherent whole
  • Would like to really go deeply into your story

Don’t use if you:

  • Can’t bear screenwriting gurus or writing “systems”
  • Prefer to be a pantser and work without outlines or too much analysis
  • Need your movie references to be modern
  • Are already a master plotter

What’s the point of feedback? Isn’t it all subjective anyway?

Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers, the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair on the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery…

 Virginia Woolf,  A Room Of One’s Own