How I Write Pt. II (or, Scrivener: I Would Prefer Not To Use Anything Else)

So, last time I told you all how I start off my writing. Next step, phase two, is where I take it into the twenty-first century: the typing up.

What I use, in the main, is a program (or app, as we’re calling them nowadays, I guess?) called Scrivener. You might have heard of it. It’s amazing and after a year of having it, I wouldn’t use anything else. I switched over to it when I was about 100,000 words into my novel and I haven’t looked back since.

What it basically does is it takes your big ol’ rambling ride of a novel, or blog, or screenplay, or whatever — and divides it into scenes. Which makes it nice and easy to see where you are. Which sounds nice enough, if not really all that mindblowing — although you’d be surprised what a difference it makes when it comes to the editing stage, and you can just skip up and down using a ready-made contents that’s as detailed as you like.

But it’s what it does with the scenes that really sells it, and is why I couldn’t imagine going back to Word at all.

Firstly it gives them metadata. So you can give your scenes (whether you want that to be the length of a paragraph, a chapter, a viewpoint, an event, a length of time, or what) titles and synopses. You can add notes and give them colour coded labels to designate what kind of scene it is, what status it’s at, and so on. It also lets you drag and drop them around into various orders, subfolders and hierarchies, split them up, keep multiple copies and rewrites hanging around until you’ve decided for sure which way you want to take it.

Or you can keep some of them in folders out of the story entirely, for research or character notes — and they’re still right there, a click away from your word processor. Plus autosaves and auto-backups, split-screen views, three editing modes (index cards, outliner and editor), a fullscreen typing option to minimise distractions… not to mention the infinity – or near enough to it – of export options that it gives you, allowing you to conformificate your whole project (or just selected scenes, depending), formatting-wise, without forcing you to go through the entire project. And so on and so on.

Look: in case you can’t tell, I think it’s great. There’s a heap of blogs singing its praises and telling you all the stuff you can do with it, half of which I’m sure I don’t even know about. They probably do that better than I could. If you check out the Scrivener Twitter account it seems like they’re linking to at least five a day. That’s how good it is.

And if you’ve got a Mac, I understand that you get an even better and more feature-packed version than the Windows version I’m working with. So what I’m going to do is stop telling you what you can do with it (we’d be here a while), and tell you instead what I do. Why? Because you care. Or you don’t, in which case, stop reading here, but do stick around, because I’m planning another post soon (at least, relative to the glacial timescale that I’ve been updating on so far) that might be more to your tastes. But hopefully some of you are interested, and don’t see it as the height of arrogance to be making so many bloody posts about this when I’m still only one story into my published career (but be patient, gentle readers, be patient: hope springs etc. etc.)

SO. Without further ado:

Step one: I take the notebook from my last post (how long ago that seems), haul it up to my computer desk and get to work.

First thing is obviously to type up what I’ve written. If it’s a short story, chances are I actually already have a sense of the general outline — say five or six ~1,000-word scenes, though it can vary — so I create them in advance and type the handwritten sections directly in. For my novel, it’s a bit more fluid (and believe me, the number of times I’ve shuffled the entire structure up and down would have been impossible to do in a single word processor document without my brain melting like I’d seen the Ark of the Covenant), but on the whole a scene will correspond to a single block of time: a skip ahead, whether that’s an hour or a day or a month, means a new scene, means a double line break. Chapters alternate perspectives.

Again, it varies, but that’s the basic premise, and that gives me something that looks a little bit (or in fact exactly) like this:


When I use it for my blog, it’s a little different: I use colour-coding to set out my schedule; my “chapters” are individual blog posts; the whole thing looks absolutely nothing like what my actual blog (the one you’re reading) has turned out like — and I’m… multiple posts behind schedule, not to mention skipping over the scheduled themes and titles and — look, just shut up, I’m doing it my way.

So — I type up what I wrote back in Part I. A bit of editing on-the-fly happens if I think of a better phrase as I go, or I pick up on a plothole, or whatnot. Next, I Compile that motherfucker. That means turning it into a nicely double-spaced PDF in 12-point Times New Roman; paragraph and chapter breaks, all handily done for me by tweaking the relevant settings in the Scrivener window.

This gives me something that looks like this:


Now, here’s where I get hi-tech as fuck. Exports get saved into a Dropbox folder; I generally keep a month’s worth of them before making room for new ones. The idea is that if my computer blows up and if my other backups die, if it comes down to it, I’ve still got that PDF that I can type everything up from.

What I used to do at this point is get onto Dropbox on my iPad, read through the document — sometimes from the start, sometimes just a section I wanted to revise — and make handy notes in Simplenote, with page refs and a complex ASCII code of my own devising to let me know what needed changing when I got back home.

But then. But then. I discovered Goodreader for my iPad.

Goodreader syncs with my Dropbox and then lets me annotate directly onto the PDF, again either going through the whole document, or just skimming to sections I want to take another look at. I do this either freehand or using a stylus, to which end I’ve been experimenting with the Adonit JotPro, which I do like, although I’m yet to find one that feels quite like a pen; and in fact I’m getting pretty handy at fingertip handwriting (although my finger does sometimes go numb after a while of this; is that normal? Am I dying? Is it leprosy?). Again, the tactile nature of the process helps me to really get into the work in a way that typing just doesn’t do for me. I’m circling and underlining the words as if they were a printout (but a lot less expensive and bulky, in the long run) and makes it much easier to get instant ideas and responses down onto the virtual page. I even taught myself standard copyediting symbols just so that I could wind up with a file that looks like this:


Yes, I make a lot of changes. But still, looks pretty cool, right?

So the great thing about this is that I can do it anywhere: on the bus, in the living room, in bed, wherever. This then resyncs with Dropbox and, when I get back to Scrivener, I open up an Adobe window that I keep on the right hand side of the screen. Then I can just go through the changes I’ve made, side by side, and make the edits I want.

Aaaaand repeat. Again and again and again. Sometimes I get so caught up in this process that I forget to actually write new stuff. That’s the only danger, really: that it’s too easy to wrap myself in improving and polishing the piece that I forget the story itself is still unfinished, stuck idling at the edge of a ditch, and that I need to start shovelling word-dirt into that ditch if I want to get anywhere. As problems go, things could be worse.

So there you have it. Next up, at some unspecified point in the future: final drafts (and various drafts thereafter).

Well — possibly that won’t be the next blog post, but it’ll be the next and last one in this utterly fascinating series.

I’m planning another post in the next week or so talking about how I (entirely fail to) cope with negative feedback about my work, and why I think that might be. Hopefully kind of interesting? You’ll get glimpses into the darkest workings of my brain, and when you finish reading it, you will be a different person to the one you were when you started. Like, at least 0.5% different, minimum. That’s a guarantee.

Update (13/12/13)
Since making this post the previously incredible Goodreader has become near-unusable on iOS7 thanks to a couple of relatively infrequent (but potentially progress-resetting) bugs. The developer seems unwilling or unable to fix these issues in the near future so I have gone for the slightly more expensive, slightly less intuitive, mostly just as good and infinitely more stable PDF Expert.



  1. ah, you lost me at “PDF” which would have to be !?typed up?! if your backups failed?! Why not save it as an editable (Word) doc? You can still read and notate it anywhere, can’t you?

  2. Yeah, it’d be a nightmare if it came to it. But Goodreader doesn’t (as far as I can tell) let you do the freeform/handwritten annotations on anything except a PDF unfortunately. So I prefer to save it as PDF instead of Word. So the prospect of typing it up is kind of a back-up back-up back-up plan, where if all else fails, at least the words are still somewhere out there and haven’t gone forever (plus I’m sure there’s probably also PDF-to-text converters to do most of the heavy lifting).

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Thanks for the blog; I like the sound of using Goodreads to scribble over PDFs on the iPad – that could save me some serious paper. WRT the backup issue, why don’t you zip the Scrivener .scriv files (or use the backup files Scrivener creates) and use CrashPlan (or similar) to auto upload them to the web at the end of every day. Even if your backup fails or your house burns down, you’ve still got an online backup out there without any typing up needed and it’s pretty cheap. Also, curious as to why you don’t pull the PDFs into Scrivener and split the screen in there when you’re editing? Your edits are then stored with the project you’re working on in one file, only one app needed with no flicking between. Oooh and have you ever configured Growl for Scrivener? I damn well love this feature! When writing a novel to a deadline, Scrivener calculates exactly how many words you must type that day in order to stay on track. You configure Growl to notify you when you’ve reached the target for the day. I had mine throw this huge purple banner across the screen as Heather Small sang “what have you done today to make you feel proud?”. SCRIVENER RULES!!!

  4. Oh, wow. So many things I did not even know were possible. I had no idea you could import PDFs into Scrivener; totally doing that from now on!

    My Scrivener backups (the .bak files) do get shunted up to Dropbox automatically but maybe I should be putting them on another cloud host, since if they go down, chances are the emergency PDFs have too. Plus now apparently the NSA can read my first drafts on Dropbox, which is just embarrassing.

    But isn’t Growl only for OSX? And to be honest while I generally do pen-and-paper writing most days but I can be almost as bad at keeping on top of the typing as I am at updating the blog. A word count target’d just be guilt-tripping me 24/7.

    Glad you enjoyed it (and the other post) though, I hope some of my methods work for you too!

    1. They certainly have … I’ve downloaded Goodreader and can now scribble away on my ipad. I can’t find a decent ipad stylus though that writes neat and fine. Any advice there?

      Yes … not just PDFs, entire web pages too … so if there’s something really vital online and you’re afraid the web page may disappear or change, you can pull it in directly. They have to go into the research folder though.

      The other alternative is to zip your backups password protect them and email them to yourself. Gmail has so much storage and the files aren’t that big so that’s a quick, cheap easy way for offline backups. You must zip the scrivener files though, otherwise they can end up in a pickle where they’re built of many different files.

      Ahh … Growl/OSX … yes probably … I’m an Apple girl through and through.

      Yeah .. great blog! Keep writing! It’s only one word after another… after another ….

      1. The Adonit Jot Pro that I’m using is pretty good, not quite ink-pen level but most of the reviews I saw said it was the best one for handwriting – takes a little bit of practice to get a feel for how much pressure to apply and I couldn’t write a whole manuscript with it – but it’s definitely good and accurate enough for insertions/corrections.

  5. Wow, so late to this party. I just bought/downloaded Scrivener yesterday and I’m trying to get my bearings. I found your post by searching for ways to password protect what I save in Scrivener. I have it loaded on my work computer (ugh, corporate day job) and my home computer (both macs). I’m not sure what to do about my work one because I want it private … or I want to be able to have the autosaves be password protected or SOMETHING. Any help or advice you have is so appreciated! I really liked this post 🙂

    1. Hi, I’m really glad you enjoyed the post! This seems to be my most popular one, I should probably namedrop more applications.
      I’m not really sure how you’d go about password protecting Scrivener files – I save mine into a Dropbox folder which technically needs a password to access, but unless you signed out of Dropbox every time you quit Scrivener (which I’m not even sure if you can do), I don’t know how that’d work.
      From my old MacBook days I think I remember it being fairly hard to password protect folders – you had to create a separate disk partition or disk image or something like that. I never did it, so I don’t know how easy it’d be to use once you’d done that.
      Good luck, though! Scrivener only seems to get better and better the more I use it.

  6. I just bought Scrivener and it’s really a cool software. Having been writing hundreds of articles in the past this software really caters my needs. Just wish it has a password feature when you open your files.

  7. Well it appears that you either died or gave up nearly a year ago (I suppose you might be incarcerated), but in the event you ever write another post with pictures, it would be nice if you would make them “clickable”, so one might enlarge them and thereby be able to see them.

    1. Pictures? They say a word paints a thousand pictures, who needs pictures? But fine, if I must, in future I’ll try and use these so-called “clickable” and “visible” images that you speak of.

      I’m still alive and still a free man, I’m happy to say, but over the last year my Writer’s Block turned into Writer’s Self Loathing and my output fizzled in turn. It’s nice to know that people are reading the site, though, and that you at least enjoyed it enough to wonder if I died, so who knows, maybe that’s all the positive encouragement I needed?

      1. Hilaaaaarious!!!! Writer’s Block turned into Writer’s Self Loathing — I have the same thing. 😀 😀 (I, like Anna Lea West, found this post by trying to find a way to password-protect Scrivener on my Mac, partly due to my Writer’s Paranoia)

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