Overwhelmed with Scrivener? Let me help!

When I first started writing seriously, I was floored by seeing screenshots of amazing authors with fantastic, complicated, color-coded rainbows of beauty and organization in Scrivener. I bought the software right away, opened the 300+ page user manual, and ran back to my Google Docs crying. Since then, I’ve muddled through the tools that Scrivener has to offer and written two whole manuscripts with the software. I’m still nowhere near an expert, not even on all of the fiction manuscript tools, and I haven’t even touched stuff like screenplay formatting or footnotes. However, I think this might be a good place to start if you’re overwhelmed or confused by the features that Scrivener has to offer.

This is by NO MEANS a full tutorial! There are a GAZILLION features in this program, and I feel like I make use of maaaaaaybe half of them. But there are also so many features that it can get overwhelming and many people give up on Scrivener before they even scratch the surface. I’ve used it for drafting two different manuscripts, and I personally LOVE it and I feel like the program absolutely adds to my productivity.

To start, we make a new project. Scrivener has a lot of great templates that are perfect for starting out. I have a bunch of projects that I started once just to do some free-writing or note-taking about an idea and have never opened since, and they’re still there for me whenever I’m ready.

I like to start with the Fiction Novel preset (and I highly recommend using Dropbox or any other cloud-based storage in case of Computer Disaster), and you can see what that looks like below. 

This is an example of a WIP of mine, so obviously when you first open it you won’t have words written. I added documents for my first 14 chapters. I like to put my outlines in the notes (I’ll get to that in a bit!), and I’ve already decided I don’t need chapter 6 from my outline (I just folded that action into chapter 7), so you can see that that 6 is already missing. Scrivener allows you to make as many sub-sections as your heart desires, whatever works best for your brain. For me, I like to make each chapter its own special document. I know some people think more in scenes, and they might have a folder for each chapter and scenes within the chapter as individual documents. Whatever works! The other great thing is that, once you’re ready to compile all of your beautiful chapters into one big document, it’s really easy to just compile all of the text in the Manuscript section. That means the other sections near the bottom, like Characters, Places, and Research can be filled with whatever stuff you want to have access to conveniently while you’re writing (so you don’t tab out to do research and then suddenly it’s two hours later and you’re still on Twitter). Those sections are ALSO exempt from your wordcount tracking, which bring me to my favorite feature. The target icon that I’ve circled is locked onto my toolbar (I had to customize this, but if you want it, go to Tools > Customize Toolbars and it’s super easy). Which leads me into discussing the Project Targets popup!

Someday, you’ll be beautiful and green.


This is my #1 favorite thing to look at when I’m drafting. I’m very wordcount motivated, and I like to watch the little red bar grow and grow until it turns green. You can set a Session Target, which means that Scrivener will track the new words written since you last opened the document, and that will be your daily wordcount of new words written. You can change this at any point if you have different expectations for yourself on different days, and if you keep the window open over the course of multiple days, you can reset the session target back to zero. As I mentioned before, this tracks the words inside of your manuscript section, so it’s not going to read all your messy worldbuilding notes or any of your outline notes as part of these words.
Side note: there is also a way to track wordcount at the bottom right corner of your screen:


Clicking on the target will bring up a popup to set a wordcount goal for the specific document you’re working on, and you can set yourself a goal for the chapter/scene that reads out at the bottom. I personally don’t use this feature much because I try to just let chapters be as long as I need them to be, but it might be super handy for you!


Remember when I mentioned all your messy lovely outlining notes? Well, this brings me to my second favorite Scrivener feature: the Inspector. It even SOUNDS cool, y’all. I circled where you can open it up:

And it brings up a handly dandy panel on the right side of your text, where you can store a TON of information about the chapter/scene without having it in the actual text of the document. 

The first section, Synopsis, will show up in notecard and outline views (which I’m going to talk about a little later). The Document Notes section is what I personally get the most mileage out of. I like to copy and paste my outline notes into this section when I’m drafting, so that I can refer back to it and make sure I’m actually writing the chapter I told myself I was supposed to be writing. Often times, when I’m done drafting the chapter, I’ll delete the outline and then put actual notes inside of it. Usually, I’m replacing it with editorial notes, which can be especially helpful if you know that things need to change when you’re doing your first pass of edits. Sometimes the notes are just “something is wrong with this chapter but I don’t know what, pay special attention when you’re editing it”, other times it might be more specific. Keeping good notes about my thoughts on each chapter as I’m drafting REALLY helps me from getting caught in an infinite loop of editing and re-editing chapters I’ve already written. I can write down the changes I want to make and then keep moving forward in writing more chapters.
You can also see in the center that there are two different meta-data labels you can put on each document! The status options are below:

Status is generally used to mark if something is complete or not, and can be helpful if you’re editing. It can also be great if you jump around a lot and want to draft or edit chapters out of order, or if you end up writing half of a chapter and then leaving to go eat some soup and when you come back you work on a different chapter. If you mark it as To-Do or Incomplete, you won’t have a surprise later when you think your manuscript is finished but you have a half-finished chapter in the middle of your story, all because of that soup.

Thanks a lot, soup. 


The more fun and exciting way to organize your work is with the Labels. The pre-set labels are kind of weird, so I’m gonna show you how to customize them:

These are garbage nonsense labels, but yours don’t have to be!


The best part about these labels is that they’re COLORFUL. I can’t stress enough how I just need to look at rainbows in order to pay attention to anything. If you’re writing a story with a bunch of POV characters, this can be SUPER helpful to keep track of all of them. You might be thinking, “Um? No? I’m writing a VERY STRAIGHTFORWARD serious contemporary all about soup.” (I’m sorry about the soup thing, y’all, I’m really hungry.) Well, guess what? You can STILL use this. You inevitably have multiple plot threads, different places or characters that come in and out of the story. This will really help you zoom out and see the big picture of your manuscript. How? Well, once you have labels that you want for your chapters, you can go into the Outline view. (View > Outline, then select the Manuscript rather than any one document) 


BOOM. Check that out! If you have labels that work well for you, you will be able to see if you have five chapters all in a row about one character, and then they disappear for the rest of the story, or if you have a cool chapter in an ice cream shop that you set up as important, and then your character never goes back. Whatever you need to be tracking, you can track it with this view. You can see here the Synopsis you have in the Inspector (remember when I said I would get back to it?) as a summary of each document. You might want to put a bunch of detail, or you might want to keep it really big-picture, but this view has REALLY helped me when I’ve struggled with figuring out if I need to re-order my chapters.


You might be ready to say, “But Ezrael! This looks like a spreadsheet! I don’t like it!”. First I would say, how dare you, spreadsheets make the world go ’round. But If this truly isn’t for you, go to your menu and click View > Corkboard (and keep it on the Manuscript selection). 

This might be easier for your brain to digest! Here we can see each chapter and the color-coded push-pin as well as the status, but it’s in a notecard format. I think this is a little easier to use if you have your Label colors tied to specific characters because you can track which way your POVs are leaning and make sure everyone gets enough time in the sun. I personally don’t love this view, but it might be exactly what you need! Life is a rich tapestry!


So now let’s say you’ve got your manuscript organized. Maybe you’ve completed all of it, maybe just a part, but you’re ready to send it to someone, or maybe you want to print it out. Whatever the case may be, you’re ready to compile! Click on File > Compile. A dialogue box is going to pop up, and it’s going to look deceptively simple. Click on the blue arrow to the right of the box, and you’ll expand it into a fuller look at your work.

Here, you can choose which chapters you’re compiling, if you’re putting it into a .pdf or a .doc, and how the chapters are formatted. This is especially great if you want someone to read just your first few chapters, and when you’re ready to query, you’ll want to export to get an idea of what is happening on which pages. You can put page breaks between chapters, choose to export or ignore the chapter titles, and even do super fancy stuff like remove all highlighting or replace certain words. 


Now, you might be thinking that you should export your document, and when you’re ready to edit, you should edit in another program like Word. If that works for you, fine! But personally, I have done that before, and I really had a hard time. I made changes in an exported document using Word, but then when I wanted to move chapters around, those edits weren’t in Scrivener, and I felt like I was working on a totally different story just from the slight change of scenery. There are pros and cons to each tactic, and I’d personally suggest doing whatever feels most comfortable and doesn’t hurt your brain. I really enjoy the Track Changes function on Microsoft Word, and sadly, Scrivener only offers a function like that to Mac users. If you’re used to using Track Changes and the MS Word comments, don’t disrupt your own flow! However there are a few features that Scrivener can offer in a similar way.


I’m going to be real with you. I think it’s fun to read my own work. When I have the satisfaction and joy of finishing a manuscript, I want to sit down and read through it in one sitting, even though I’m tearing it apart and looking for all of the possible issues. I spend so much time clicking through each chapter and seeing the story bit-by-bit, that when it’s finally done, I want the satisfaction of putting it all together. You can still get this within Scrivener without exporting your document! Instead of going to the Corkboard or the Outline views like we did before, go to View > Document.

Viola! Now you have the ability to scroll through your entire manuscript in one go, without having to click through to each chapter. There is a page-break line between each document, and the Inspector will automatically change to show your notes for each individual text file as you scroll along. This gives you less of a drafting view and more of a reading/editorial view, and I think I really benefit from the slight change of perspective.


I mentioned previously that there aren’t always features that track changes, which might be a bummer for some of us who are used to editing in Word. However, all users have an option for comments. On the Inspector view, there’s a tab with a speech bubble on it where you can see existing comments and add new ones.

If you hover over the highlighted text, the comment will pop up underneath your mouse, which I think is super handy. This has been especially helpful in later edits and read-throughs where I’m looking for awkward sentences, typos, and small errors. Often times, I use the document notes section for this instead, where I write down what I want to see in a larger edit pass, and when it comes to small stuff like word and sentence tweaking, I usually just change it on the spot. I do have to admit that there’s a certain amount of satisfaction I get from closing out all the comments, like I’m extra fancy and great at accomplishing things.

My final bonus note is a little known fact that Scrivener contains a random name generator. Finally, you can stop subconsciously naming characters after people you know! You can select Tools > Writing Tools > Name Generator, and you’ll find this:

You can specify origins, gender, and keep a shortlist. When you’re ready, you can export a shortlist to the Character notes section for safe-keeping!

Let me know in the comments what helped and what didn’t or if you have any help! I know it’s an overwhelming program, but I swear, Scrivener makes me a better writer.

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