Using and Configuring Scrivener

Scrivener caught my eye years ago because of the flexibility it offered.  I didn’t need the kitchen sink of features (although Scrivener is that), we’re talking about my ability to configure it to bring forward what I care about the most.

Coming from a much simpler editor, Scrivener was a little overwhelming, but these changes helped me feel like I was in control.

What I need

When I’m pre-writing, outlining, or in the throws of storytelling, I need some basic information handy at any time:

  • Document words counts
  • Total word count for everything inside a folder
  • A running word counter for my work that day
  • Separate space for notes that doesn’t require me to leave the document I’m writing
  • Easy navigation between my book’s parts (my notepad-era writing is over, I can’t be bothered to scroll around or use Find for the exact wording of a chapter name)


This is where you could star in an episode of LOST if you start looking through them all, but let me point you at a few that I find helpful, relative to the bullet points above.

Document coloring

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-12-55-17-pmThis won’t matter unless/until you add Labels to your project, but this is inevitably an early part of how I set up a story with multiple viewpoints.  I make project labels for characters, assign a color, and then match that label to any document from the viewpoint of that character.  The coloration from the Icons setting becomes a quick way for me to see the texture of the story from the document list.

Default font and formatting

Before you go through the headache of changing the formatting on a real document, visit the main settings and see if you can’t get a sane default.  You can actually interact with the toolstrip buttons above the sample text, the first button being the font changer.  I like to make sure I have a proper indent set up.  The other notable setting here is line spacing, the last item on the toolstrip.


If you want, you can play with all of these same settings in a real document to try them out, and then come to the program settings and the Use Formatting in Current Editor will be enabled for you to import as the new global default.

Scrivener will never retroactively apply your global default to existing documents, however, so don’t spawn a lot of documents if you’re not ready to commit to the defaults you’ve got set up.

Page settings

I hate losing my cursor, so I drop in to the Editor settings and select Highlight current line, and I set the typewriter scroll style to Middle of screen.  I hate losing my cursor.

I hate losing my cursor.


The color of the line highlight can be changed over on the Appearance tab of the settings, at the bottom:


Window layout

This might seem like a picky time to talk about layouts, but I’ve found that I keep coming back to the same system:  Outline sidebar on the left, a second faux-sidebar just beside that locked into the Research folder, then the editor itself.  I also like using the info sidebar for scene-specific notes, and often I throw the Project Notes off to the side so I can track problems I find with the larger story.


Now, for someone that came from using a glorified Notepad editor, this looks like a lot.  It is.  I’m getting comfortable with my workflow, however, and so I’ve gotten particular about it.

You can set something like this up by splitting the layout vertically, drill the left panel down to your Research folder, and then locking it into place so that clicking on scenes causes the right-hand editor to change (left click on the Research icon in the banner next to the back/forward arrows).


To get the most of the Research sidebar, I turn off all of the column headers except for the title and synopsis.  The synopsis is easily edited directly from the list view!


I saved my layout so that I can bring new projects into the same layout very quickly.


I tend not to open documents in the Research sidebar for editing, but by right-clicking one that I need to investigate or change, I can choose to view it in a floating Quick Reference window.  The documents in Research tend to represent notes, so I’m not usually using the real Notes section on such a document, and Quick Reference fits that use case pretty well.

Project structure

I personally like starting from the blank template.  Once I’ve set up stuff like my default font and paragraph spacing (blah blah), the blank template is all I want.

We have Draft and Research, and my first order of business is to add a document in Research that I call Concept.  I start unloading my overarching ideas into that document.  I may never really look at it again, but it helps me solidify the tone that got me excited in the first place.

I make a folder in Research called Characters, too.  This starts off as a loose collection of sub-folders titled after character names, but often I don’t even have that much, so I name them after the occupation.  Not much else has to go here just yet.


At this point, I open my Meta-Data Settings and throw down some labels named after my characters.  Again, because I might not have settled on the character’s final name, often the colors are all that matter right now.


For a big story like the one I’m using in these screenshots, I’ll add labels for storylines, too.  I apply those to whole chapters (except for chapters that have things from across both storylines—I leave those alone).  This helps me see in the outline view how much time I’m spending on one world versus another, and I can plan more effectively how to weave the two storylines.

For Draft, where the actual story goes, I make folders for the various parts, then documents for chapters.  I’m rarely putting anything in the chapter document itself, but I put scenes inside named after the location where the scene is taking place.


These scene names aren’t something that will ever be seen in the final export, but they help me see into what I’m doing, and it definitely helps me navigate when I’m looking for that one scene.

The icons get colored based on the viewpoint label assigned to it, and as you can see, I allow for scene breaks even if the viewpoint isn’t changing.


Gee, Brain, what do we want to do tonight?

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-2-16-47-pmThe same thing we do every night—we write!

To keep track of how I’m doing, I make sure the outline view has the Total Words column turned on.  This will show me sums for any sub-documents, which is actually what I care about so that I can check on chapter lengths when I have a group of scenes.
screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-2-24-22-pmFinally, if you need to see how much you’re
writing in a sitting, turn on the Project Targets overlay.  I like to set the word tracker to only reset manually (rather than at midnight, etc).

There’s a lot more that you can mess around with, but this setup goes a pretty long way for my productivity.

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