‘Writing a novel’ seems to be one of the default items on most people’s wish-lists. Most never start it, and most of those who start it never finish it, but if you want to make a serious attempt, using Scrivener would definitely be the biggest favor you could do yourself.

I must admit that the idea of specific software for creative writing stuck me as on odd one when I first encountered it. What’s wrong with Pages or Word? It was only once I tried it for myself that I understood.

What Scrivener does is bring together in one place all the resources you are likely to need to plan, research, write and either submit or self-publish a novel. Outlines, pen-portraits of characters, web pages, photos, notes, PDFs … absolute anything and everything that might help you create your opus magnum is right there all within a single app … 

The app is currently available for OS X (with a much-lagged version available for Windows), and there’s an iOS version in the works. I refer to it as an app for novelists, as that’s probably the most common usage, but it can be used for anything from a college thesis to a screenplay.


Scrivener is such a flexible tool, and so customizable, that it’s hard to even provide an overview without a dozen different riders saying “if you choose to” and “this is just one of several ways of doing this,” but with that understood, I’ll give an overview based on the way that I use it.

The corkboard view is intended for planning, and for rejigging the structure when your plan doesn’t quite work out the way you thought it would. By default, it looks like an actual corkboard, but Jony Ive threatened to come round to my place and confiscate both my Macs unless I changed it to something neutral. I’m not going to show you my novel, so this is just some nonsense I threw together to give you the basic idea.


You write yourself some crib notes describing what happens in each chapter. You can drag-and-drop cards around the board to restructure things, and double-click on a card to open the actual chapter text. You may notice that chapters 2 and 3 show multiple cards – that’s because any card can become a folder, with smaller-chunk cards within them.

The card titles are reflected in the left-hand column – what Scrivener calls the binder – so that you have an overview of the structure while you write. In this example, we also have a photo showing the setting of the scene. This can be used both to put you in the right mood, or to show something specific that you need to describe in detail.


And a closer view of the binder, on the left:


That, then, is the basic idea. Do your outline planning first, on the corkboard. Break things down into manageable units (I have each scene as a separate document). Shuffle things around as required by simply drag-and-dropping cards. Then when you are writing, have that overview of where you are in the plot by having the binder visible on the left.

Need to remind yourself of what happened earlier? Just click on that scene in the binder, and flick back-and-forth between the two.

Non-manuscript sections

You can see beneath the manuscript itself are sections for characters, places and research. In there, you can put anything you like: notes, photos, PDFs, webpage grabs … anything at all that you might need to refer to while writing

For example, some people like to have photos of people they are using as inspiration for characters. My novel is a technothriller, so I have a whole bunch of photos of equipment and aircraft that feature in the story, as well as PDFs and webpages with facts & figures.

You can open any of these and have them appear in a column on the right, as in the above example, or as a floating window.


Floating windows (which Scrivener calls Quick Reference windows) can be resized and repositioned as desired.

Choosing how much or little to see at a time

There are times when you only want to see the section you are writing at that time, clicking back and forth into other sections as required, but there are other times when you want to see how an entire chapter is flowing – or several chapters, or the entire manuscript.

Scrivener makes this easy. Just select as many documents as you like in the binder on the left, and then click on ‘Scrivenings’ mode. Scrivener puts a fading line between each section, so you can see where they begin and end.


Note that sections viewed in scrivenings mode need not be contiguous: you might, for example, choose to put key scenes together to check for continuity – so there could be copy from chapters 1, 4 and 7 in one view.

There may be times when you are referring back to something that happened earlier, and want to keep referring back to it as you write. No problem, Scrivener allows you to have two sections side-by-side (or one above the other, if you prefer). Both are editable, so if you change details in one, you can immediately do so in the other.


It doesn’t have to be another section of the novel you display to the side: it could be character notes, a PDF, a webpage … well, I’m sure you get the idea by now.

Conversely, there may be times when you want to focus on the scene you are writing right now, without any distractions. Again, no problem, just select Composition Mode, and everything fades away except the actual section on which you’re working.


You can choose between plain black or any degree of transparency you like.

Exporting your work

You don’t need to worry about committing your work to some proprietary standard. While Scrivener pretends to save everything into a single .scriv file, this is purely for neatness: it is really a disguised folder with all your sections as RTF documents.

You can also export your work at any time into virtually any format. This is, of course, also what you do when you finally complete your masterpiece. If you’re self-publishing, you can create your ebook right from within Scrivener – no need for any external converters – and can compile to both .epub and .mobi to cover both iBooks and Kindle formats.


Alternatively, if you plan to submit to an agent or publisher, you can select Paperback Novel to output in the correct format (double-spaced, wide margins and so on) and choose between printed output and a bunch of different document types:


If you’re writing a screenplay, choose Script or Screenplay from the first drop-down and then Final Draft or Fountain from the second, and you’ll get something which is both correctly-formatted and editable in the two main screenplay-writing apps.

All compile options allow you to choose exactly what gets included. By default, it’s everything in the Manuscript folder (so excludes character notes, research documents and so on), but it’s all configurable.

Progress tracking

If you have set yourself a particular goal – writing so many words a day, or week, or completing your novel by a particular date – Scrivener will track your progress for you.

If you give Scrivener a target wordcount, a deadline and tell it how many days a week you are writing, it will automatically calculate the wordcount you need to hit each session to meet the deadline. In this example, the target wordcount is 145,000 (technothrillers are long, but I intend to cut it down a lot in editing), the deadline is the end of February and I only write on Wednesdays, so Scrivener has calculated that I have 11 writing days left and thus need to write 979 words each session.


When you hit your session target, it pops up a notification.

Everything is customizable

There is almost no limit to how much you can customize Scrivener to suit your needs. I don’t want to show content to the world, so I’m blurring things here, but compare the default Scrivener view here:


with my (blurred) actual novel here, with my chosen customizations:


and you’ll get the general idea. I’m a very visual person, so I use color-coding: green = a completed section, orange = section in progress, yellow = notes for the section written, black = major sections or dividers, red = more research needed or a section with a problem I need to figure out.

There’s much more

There’s much more I could write. For example, most writers can procrastinate for a good ten minutes naming a minor character. With Scrivener, you pull up Writing Tools, choose male or female, optionally choose a nationality and then let it generate a bunch of names. Choose one and you get straight back to writing.

But writing more about the app starts getting into tutorial territory, and there are lots of those around – starting with the one included with Scrivener, which is itself a Scrivener document.


I’m a huge fan: I wouldn’t even think about writing a novel in anything else. It keeps everything you need in one place, is a brilliant planning tool, allows you to restructure at will and allows you any view of your novel you could possibly wish for – from a clutter-free writing environment through a clickable link to every section in your novel.

Although it’s a massively-capable app, you can get up-and-running with the basics in half an hour. You are then free to use as few or as many of the features as you like. I’m a power user compared to many I know, but I still reckon I’m only using about 30 percent of its capabilities.

The big test for me is this: I’ve recommended it to many other writers, and every single one who has tried it is still using it. (By the way, if you end up recommending it to Windows users, be aware that the Windows version lags a long way behind the Mac version in terms of both polish and features – it’s still good, but not the same.)

The app costs $45, which might seem a little pricy compared to some apps out there, but it’s worth every penny. There’s also a free 30-day trial, which is valid for 30 days of actual use, not just one month, so if you’re writing once a week it will last you 30 weeks! More than enough time to decide whether you want to buy it. Once you do, download the paid version and just carry on from where you left off.

If you’re serious about writing that novel, Scrivener is, to me, a must-have app.

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36 Responses to “Review: Scrivener, the must-have software for would-be novelists everywhere”

  1. Completely agree. I swear by Scrivener, as does my wife. Also, $45 is not expensive for quality software. The team does amazing work, and it’s a brilliant app for writers. Easy sell.


  2. I use Scrivener all the time. I wrote my entire 350 page dissertation using it and I use it for articles and everything. It is a fabulous application. It doesn’t fully eliminate the need for MS word but it comes close. For an academic the ability to have your notes, endnotes and everything else right on the side bar is amazing. Not to mention you can import literature into the application as pdfs and bring up a two pane view. Scrivener gets at 10/10 from me. Only improvements I would imagine are on the graphics inclusion side. But beyond that it is great.


  3. What about a must-have for iPad?


    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Scrivener, when it finally arrives. In the meantime, I’ve used PlainText, which syncs with Scrivener via Dropbox, though as the name implies, limits you to plain text. It does, though, give a Scrivener-like view.

      Since the Haswell MBA, I haven’t needed it – I use the MacBook Air instead when mobile.


  4. If it doesn’t have an iOS app though, it’s not that useful for me. I find Scrivener a little too precious also, the inclusion of pictures especially. The card metaphor is also great for when you are just planning the thing, but once you start the actual writing I find it quickly loses any utility.

    I think it’s a program for people to *plan* to write a novel but never ultimately write the novel because you can use the software to muck around planning for years.

    I use Mellel on OS-X which is a far superior version of the same kind of “planning” thing, but it’s focussed more on non-fiction and scholarly work, so it doesn’t work for novels much.

    For novels I use Pages on iOS because to write a novel all you really have to do is keep writing and the focus and ever-presence afforded by the iPad can’t be beat for that IMO.


    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      I agree the cards are most useful for planning, and I rarely use them beyond that, working directly in the binder instead. But when you want to change the sequence of something, cards still give the clearest view (though I have mine minimised to just two lines each, and use inline annotations rather than notes on the cards themselves).

      “to write a novel all you really have to do is keep writing” – if only that were true! A lot of planning goes into most good novels.


    • Exact opposite experience here, Mr. Grey. I didn’t do a whole lot of planning in Scrivener, but I wrote the novel in the program. The choices and process of outputting is a bit mysterious and convoluted at times, though.


  5. hmurchison says:

    I’d like to see a comparison with Ulysses III which does have an iPad front end with Deadalus.


    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      To me, the whole ‘plain text with markup’ ethos of Ulysses has never made any sense. It clearly has its advocates, so some must see value in it, but to me it’s like going back to the 1980s, before WYSIWYG.


  6. Jeff Allen says:

    Ben: There is a technical error in your review. It is minor, but important: a Scrivener project (a .scriv file) is not a zip file (there is no compression involved). It is a *package*, which is simply a folder that the operating system presents as a file (only available on OS X — on Windows it appears as a plain folder). If it actually were zipped, Scrivener would not be able to edit the contents, so it is an important distinction. Otherwise, this is a great overview of what Scrivener is and what it can do!


  7. Owned it for YEARS. Far too convoluted to be useful to a serious writer. Never completed anything with it. Serious time-waster of an app.


  8. Adam Bernard says:

    I love Scrivener! I bought it a week or so ago and actually just gave it a rating yesterday


  9. iol2 says:

    I also use Scrivener and I do like it. My biggest gripe is the fact it offers no easy way to compare past and present versions of what one has written. It does offer ways to save and compare versions of individual writings, but not the whole outline and all it encompasses. Many people will say otherwise, and then they explain how this is done and it’s a mess with the risk of old versions being saved as the newest version if one letter is changed. I believe this is a limitation of the way the software was designed to start with, and I wish more focus would be placed upon correcting this by the design team. They would benefit from finding a way to improve this instead of adding new features. It is a very serious flaw to the usability of the software, and it’s one I believe they do not respect enough, or show enough concern for. It will always be the white elephant in the middle of the room which they are choosing to ignore, and it will continue to leave room for another company to start a similar app from the ground up which does not have this flaw. It is a big enough flaw that a new company could remedy this, talk up this remedy, and go on to supplant Scrivener to a large degree! Takers?
    Of course I prefer they change this themselves since I do like and respect them, and I would like to remain a loyal user.


    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Clearly an important feature for you. It’s not one I’ve ever had a need for myself – the only thing I need (in principle, at least) is a way to revert to the previous version, and automated backups give me that.


  10. iol2 says:

    So Ben!, How do you choose an older version to revert to when it is difficult to go back and look at older versions? Especially since it will save an old version as the new one if you accidentally make a space or add a letter anywhere while you are looking at it! You can save copies to a different folder, but that is confusing, shouldn’t be required, and if you are not careful you may mess everything up. This may not be important to you, and I never said it was. It’s important to me, and I have seen many people asking about how to do this when I have been on the forums discussing Scrivener. Scrivener is designed for more than one person, and I am glad you like it, but many people seem to care about this.

    Glad you wrote an article about it since it an excellent program, and I hope it thrives, and addresses this issue! :)


    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Scrivener automatically creates a backup every time you exit the app (and on demand at any time), so you can simply open any backup you like.


      • iol2 says:

        If you open a backup to look at it, and you move even one character anywhere while you are looking through it, which is bound to happen, then it will change the opened back up to the new version when it saves. You may be looking at something a year old, and only wanting to look at it, and Scrivener will make it your newest version as a result. The more you look at old versions the more you may change a character and have old versions saved as the newest. You will end up with a mess of epic proportions, and there is no defense for the program working this way. You are defending this simply to defend it, and not because it is defendable, because it is not. It appears you have rarely tried to go back and look at old versions so you are unaware of the potential problems and limitations. If you don’t understand it or have experience with it then how can you defend it?


      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        All you have to do is rename the backup to anything else before you open it. Or do the same to a Time Machine version.


      • iol2 says:

        Sounds simple enough, but with so many versions saved and only dates separating them, this can become confusing and messed up in a heart beat. Many people are also not as adept as some at understanding folders and saving processes, and can mess their projects up as a result. For myself and some other users Scrivener needs a better way to organize this effort and not leave people to fend for themselves in such a disorganized manner. You will never agree and this has been clear from the start. Many people simply feel their opinion is the only one that counts, and don’t see where their is room for other people’s. Others have matured and respect the opinions of others. Great thing about living in this country is we both get to have our opinions and others can decide what theirs are. I have seen other people also express concern over the lack of an organized way to go back and safely look at older versions of their writing, so clearly I am not the only person to not care for how this works.
        It still is a good article and I appreciate the fact you wrote it.


      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        Indeed, we have different views on this, but the developer seems responsive to features requested by sufficient people, so I’d suggest dropping him a line. If enough people agree with you, it’s likely to happen.


  11. Craig M says:

    I thought Index Card was the companion iOS app created by the Scrivener guys?


    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      As far as I’m aware, Index Card is a third-party app unconnected to Literature & Latte (Scrivener developers), but which can be synced with Scrivener. You can do the same with Plain Text. The official Scrivener iOS app has been delayed but should be available sometime next year.


      • Craig M says:

        Oh ok. It very much has a similar look with the cork pinboard metaphor.


      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        Yes, I think it was very much designed with Scrivener companion app in mind as a key user-case. I’ve been waiting impatiently for the iPad version of Scrivener, as there are definitely times I’d write a few paragraphs here and there when I don’t have a MacBook with me.


  12. Great article. Scrivener is certainly a revolutionary tool for writers. I’ve found it to be equally as beneficial for blogging, organizing, and academic writing as well. So many possibilities!


  13. Susan Sheehy says:

    You mentioned this is downloaded like an app. Does this mean you can only access it from one ccomputer? Not a Mac user so I would have to see the lag issues anyway.


  14. jeffisme says:

    I have been using scrivener for a complex non-fiction book, and it is marvelous. I love attaching research to specific chapters, the floating notepad, the snapshot function, split screen, and I keep finding new things it can do all of the time. If there is a downside, it is that there can be a learning curve which can sometimes get in the way of your work. It is well worth it, though and after a few days it does all come together naturally.

    There is an iPad app called Textilius, which I believe handles scrivener files. It might be of some use until scrivener for the iPad is released.


  15. James Anglin says:

    I’m writing a first novel (as a hobby) and wondering about Scrivener. I’ve messed around with the trial version but I’m not sure whether I want to load my whole document into it. I’m mainly concerned with what Mr Grey and Israel Anderson have said, because I can see how Scrivener would be very useful in writing a novel — endlessly. It gives you so much to tinker with, adding notes on this and that, ordering things in folders, pinning cards to cork. In the end, though, your product has to work as simply one long text string.

    So far I’ve just stuck to Pages. Pages seems fast and perfectly stable with quite a long document, and it hasn’t really been a big problem finding things. I like the fact that Pages shows me the hard truth of how much text I’ve written, and doesn’t pad my apparent progress out with all my notes and plans. For notes and plans, I just use other Pages files, and they’re all there on iCloud.

    I’m beginning to wonder now, though, whether I might be ready for Scrivener after all. I did get a 135,000-word first draft done in a year, so maybe I’m not at such high risk for getting bogged down in endless tinkering. But for the second draft I decided to shorten the book’s first half and revise the third quarter drastically. This is turning out to be as big a job as writing the whole first draft, and it’s quite a different job, because I’m cutting up and reworking an existing book, instead of just expanding onto blank pages. Pages is in some ways awkward for this, but on the other hand, I have to tinker now, so the danger of getting bogged down in tinkering may be greater.

    Many of my second-draft revisions are about pumping up boring characters, so it might be useful to have character notes attached to my project; but I’m less sure about this. My task is to make the characters really be interesting in the story, and not just say that they are. I have to remember that my reader will only read my story, not my notes. And I can always just open a short Pages document in a second window. Then again, I’m changing some things but keeping lots of other things, so keeping my characters consistent isn’t entirely trivial, especially for minor characters who aren’t central but still shouldn’t be stupidly inconsistent.

    Where I think Scrivener might mainly be helpful is in letting me shuffle scenes around and in and out. My book is an action adventure, so it’s basically a long series of scenes. I need to look at a lot of individual scenes and decide whether they’re pulling their weight or should just be cut. I need to eliminate a couple of chapters and redistribute their good scenes among other chapters. I need to compare different revised versions of scenes, and I have a number of new scenes and snippets that are experimental; I have to see how to fit them together, and decide whether they really fit the rest of my story.

    If that sort of scene shuffling is the main point of Scrivener, and it does it really well, then I might be sold. The cost isn’t the obstacle here, but rather the effort in cutting up my long Pages file into Scrivener scenes. That’ll be a pain, and I’d be grateful for any advice as to whether it would be worth it.