How to Write Effectively Using Scrivener (A Comprehensive Guide)

What is Scrivener?

Scrivener is a writing system software, tailored to suit various forms of writing.

Novelists, academics, screenwriters, book authors, auto/biography writers all benefit from Scrivener’s unique writing features.

Scrivener is compatible with Windows, iOS and macOS.

Getting Started with Scrivener

Whether you are starting out a new writing project or want to edit an existing one, Scrivener has unique features tailored to suit your needs.

Here are essential concepts behind this writing software:

  1. Scrivener acts as your typewriter, ring-binder, journal or scrapbook that you would use when creating your writing projects.
  2. Scrivener enables you to synchronize your writings between your Windows, macOS and iOS gadgets, hence you can write from anywhere you are.
  3. Writing is more than putting words together. Scrivener is customized for long-form writing that allows you to create texts in any order. For example, you can work on small sections, jot down any ideas that spring to mind and compile them later. This ensures your original ideas are captured.
  4. With Scrivener, you can switch between texts and overviews while writing. You can zoom out one section and only view the one you are working on.
  5. With its drag and drop feature, you can interchange chapters. For example, you may want Chapter 3 to be Chapter 5.
  6. Scrivener is flexible enough to enable you to either restructure your draft to perfection or plan your outline first and fill in the text later.
  7. You can organize, store and access all your referencing materials.
  8. Compile your final document for printing, sharing or publishing as per your desired format.

Now that you are familiar with Scrivener, let’s delve deeper and navigate our way around it.

Scrivener’s Main Interface

The main interface has all the elements you will use anytime you are writing.

When creating a new project, click on the ‘blank’ template and select where to save it. Click on ‘create’ and Scrivener will open a new window.

The new window displays the following: A menu bar at the top, a toolbar, binder on the left, the main editor (from where you type or view) as well as formatting options above the text field. Here is a brief description of each.

The Menu Bar

It contains all essential functions such as

  • File
  • Edit
  • Insert
  • View
  • Navigate
  • Project
  • Documents
  • Format
  • Windows
  • Help

Clicking on any of the above opens more functional options.

The Toolbar

Contains clickable buttons for common features like search, add, trash, compile or customize.

With the customize button, you can add more features that you prefer to use on your project, for example font type or styles.

The Binder

Is found on the left side. It displays the contents of your entire project. You can easily navigate between different sections, rearrange contents or flip between numerous documents.

By default, the binder contains 3 folders namely draft, research and trash. You can add more folders as you work.

  • The draft is your storage folder for any documents you want to include in your finished manuscript. Do not store images you will use in your manuscript here.
  • The research folder contains all media files like videos, images, audios as well as documents you refer to when writing. You cannot drag images into the draft folder. You can only insert them into text documents.
  • The trash folder is for unwanted files or documents, just like the recycle bin on your desktop.

These 3 folders can never be deleted. However, you can rename and re-position them. For example, you can rename the draft folder as a manuscript, the research folder as files and images, etc.

The Main Editor

Here is where you type from or view your projects. Any item you click on the binder is displayed here.

By default, the editor displays documents as continuous scrolls. This means that there are no page breaks or defined margins.

However, you can use the ‘view’ button from the menu bar to add a ‘page view’. This enables you to toggle your documents as you wish.

Above the text field, there is a ‘Header bar’ which shows your document’s title. Anytime you edit the header, it also changes in the binder.

The header bar appears as a clickable ‘document icon’. When you right-click this icon, it displays more options, the most notable one being, ‘Reveal in binder’. This option allows you to locate the current document you are working on from a larger project’s structure.

At the bottom of the main editor, you will see a ‘Footer bar’. When you right-click on it, you are able to get more information about the document on view. For example, word count, character count, reading time, average sentence length, number of paragraphs as well as sentences.

Also at the bottom of the editor is the zoom icon. Use it to control your text’s zoom level. This ranges from 50% up to 800%. You can also customize the percentage by clicking on ‘other’. Note that zoom level does not change the selected font size of your text.

How to Split the Editor

Sometimes you may want to view two documents at a go. To do this,

  • Click on the ‘split’ icon located at the extreme right of the header bar.
  • Alternatively, click the ‘View’ option on the menu bar. Select ‘Editor layout’. From here, you have several options such as ‘no split’, ‘split vertically’, ‘split horizontally’ or ‘swap editors’.
  • The keyboard ALT button also allows you to either choose a vertical or horizontal split.

With the two editors in view, the one you are working on will have a blue header bar. Only the in-focus editor will be affected by the binder. The other editor will remain unaffected.

You can also drag a document from the binder into either of the two editors. This displays the document’s content.

Click on the ‘corner’ icon on either editor. This expands the document to take up the full editor window, hence eliminating the split windows.

Format Toolbar

Above the editor, you will find the formatting toolbar. If you have used a Word processor before, this should be easy to use as they are similar.

The format toolbar allows you to adjust font size, change style, add bulleted lists, numbered lists, highlight text in various colours, set alignments, bold your text, etc.

The Inspector

Access this by clicking the ‘blue i icon’ on the top-right corner of the toolbar. The keyboard shortcut is Control+Shift+I.

The inspector has different tabs that contain information about the current document on the editor. For instance, you can view footnotes, metadata and comments. You can also add synopsis, notes, bookmarks and snapshots.

How to Hide the Interface

Sometimes, you may want to get the interface out of the way. Here are two ways to do this:

  • Click on the ‘compose button’ located at the top-right of the toolbar. It will prompt you to enter composition mode.
  • Use the keyboard shortcut F11.
  • To return back to interface mode, either hit the ‘escape’ button or hover your mouse at the bottom of your screen. You will see display options.

How to Use the Binder

As we have already given an overview of the binder, here is a more in-depth look.

  • To create a new document, click on the plus (add) icon located at the top-left of the toolbar or at the bottom of the binder. Another quicker option to create one is the shortcut Control + N. Once you click on it, you will be prompted to name the document.

Since you will use numerous documents, use folders to organize them.

  • To create a folder, click on the ‘new folder’ icon at the bottom of the binder. Alternatively, use keyboard shortcut Control + Shift + N. Name the folder accordingly.

How to move and group documents in binder

  • To move your documents into folders, simply click on the document, drag and drop it onto the folder.
  • Rearrange documents also by dragging and dropping where you want. A thin line will appear, which indicates where the documents moved to.
  • Use the ‘Edit’ menu at the menu bar. Select the ‘move’ sub-menu and choose your desired option.
  • Create sub-documents by dragging and dropping one document onto another. Then indent it beneath the main one. This is possible because all Scrivener documents can act as storage containers for others. When you do this, the binder document icon changes from a single icon to become an icon showing a stack of documents. This indicates there are sub-documents.
  • To avoid stacking documents as above, press the ALT button continuously while rearranging. This only allows you to drop documents into folders.
  • Another option when moving items inside their containing folder involves the following – select item to move, hold CTRL (control) key, use the up or down arrows to move the item around.
  • To either move the items outside their containing folder or indent them as sub-documents of above items, select the items, hold the CTRL key and use either the left or right arrows respectively.

How to Group Documents

  • Select the documents. Go to ‘Documents’ at the menu bar and right click. Click on the ‘New folder from selection’ option.
  • Alternatively, use the keyboard shortcut of Control + G + U.
  • A new folder will be created with the selected documents inside it.
  • To view or hide documents, click on the arrow next to the folder or stack of documents. This expands or hides the contents, allowing you to remember exactly where to get documents.

How are folder items and text documents different?

Documents can act as folders. However, when using the editor, folders and documents appear differently.

By default, folders open in group mode on the editor. This displays contents as a continuous scroll. On the other hand, text documents show texts.

How to Customize Document Organization

You may have your own preferred ways of organizing documents for your writing projects. Do this by creating more folders on the binder.

You can customize the folders by using other folder icons. To do this,

  • Select the folder, go to ‘Documents’ then ‘Change icon’ sub-menu. Alternatively, select the folder, right-click on it and select ‘change icon’.

How to View Documents

There are four view modes in Scrivener. Use the ‘view mode’ selector from the toolbar to select any.

1.Scrivenings Mode

Is displayed when you select multiple text documents from a folder. The Scrivenings mode displays them as a continuous scroll, but divided by a faint dashed line.

This mode allows you to edit multiple documents as though they are a single one.

2.Corkboard Mode

Allows you to view multiple documents as index cards displayed on a corkboard. Each card shows the title, synopsis or preview of document text.

This mode gives you a more detailed overview of documents.

You can add more folders in the corkboard using the ‘new folder’ icon at the bottom of the view mode.

However, when you move documents from the binder to the corkboard folder, they won’t be displayed in the corkboard view mode.

Corkboard mode allows you to rearrange index cards as per your project’s structure.

In case you want to view multiple documents selected from the binder, use the CTRL key to select all folders.

All documents from the folders will appear on the corkboard, with a dividing line between the contents of each folder. You can then choose a preferred outline, either horizontal or vertical.

Use the ‘view’ option from the menu bar for more options in this view mode.

The freeform mode icon in corkboard comes in handy when you want to drag and drop index cards wherever you choose.

Unlike the usual corkboard view, index cards on freeform are not fixed. Nonetheless, this does not affect the order of documents in the binder. Use the freeform to experiment on your documents.

The ‘arrange by label’ option in corkboard comes in handy when you want to match up documents for specific sections.

It allows you to color-code your documents. You can then group the texts as per their context. For example, similar storylines. You can then outline the labels either vertically or horizontally.

3.Outliner Mode

Displays multiple text documents in rows. Additional information is displayed as columns. You can add more columns to display more data about the texts.

Just like the binder, the outliner allows you to rearrange, move documents, add folders and documents.

To declutter your outliner, you can hide columns by right-clicking the arrow on the extreme top-right of the viewer.

4.Single Document Mode

You know it as the main editor. When you select a text document or an image from the binder, it is displayed as it is in a single document mode.

How to Use Project Templates

Anytime you start Scrivener or a new project, a ‘New Project’ dialogue box appears. Here, there are project templates to choose from, depending on your project.

  • On the left of the dialogue box, you will see a list of project types, each with several templates. These include blank, fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting and miscellaneous.
  • When you click on any of the project types, there is an example structure in the binder. You can use this structure for your writing right away.
  • However, you can always remove unwanted sections of the templates or even rearrange the folders.
  • Use the blank template to customize your own templates. Before sharing such templates, always remove personal documents that you included there.

How to Customize your Documents

Scrivener has numerous custom icons that can make your documents stand out.

In case you have large projects, using custom icons allows you to easily group your documents and locate them quickly in folders.

To add custom icons to folders,

  • Select the folder. Go to ‘Documents’ from the menu bar. Select ‘Change icon’. From here, you can choose your preferred icon.
  • Alternatively, once you have selected the folder, right-click on it, select ‘Change icon’ and pick your taste.
  • The ‘Manage icons’ option from the ‘Change icon’ menu allows you to use your own images as icons.

How to Use Metadata in Projects

Your Scrivener’s writing projects already contain some metadata. However, if you want to add more fields, custom metadata is suitable for this.

To add custom metadata,

  • Go to ‘Project’ from the menu bar.
  • Open ‘Project Settings’. Select ‘custom metadata’.
  • From the pop-up window, click the ‘add’ button at the top. A new field will be added. The drop down list allows you to choose the type of metadata. For example, text, checkbox or list.
  • Type in the title of your metadata and click ‘OK’.

To use your selected metadata,

  • Open a document you want to add the metadata.
  • From the inspector on the right, open the metadata pane.
  • Check the ‘complete’ box after verifying your metadata.
  • When you right-click on the arrow in your editor’s top-right, these options will appear. Select all of them. The metadata will then appear as columns in your outliner.

How to Tag Documents with Keywords

Keywords are phrases that help you keep track of your document content. They also simplify your searching process.

The ‘Keywords’ section appears on the metadata tab in the inspector. Alternatively, access it from the ‘Project’ toolbar and select ‘Project Keywords’. The keyboard shortcut Control+Shift+O also works.

To add new keywords,’

  • Select the document you want to add keywords to.
  • Select the ‘plus’ icon from the keyword pane.
  • Type in your keyword and click on ‘Add New Keyword’.
  • You can create both parent keywords as well as sub-keywords.
  • Select the main keyword. Click on the second ‘plus’ icon on the keyword pane. The new keyword will appear below the main one.
  • You can also change the keyword colors. Double-click on the keyword chip and a color pane will appear.
  • All the tagged keywords can be viewed from the binder.

How to Use Collections

This feature allows you to make groups or lists of documents without changing the order of documents in your binder.

You can use it to group documents containing specific labels or themes.

  • Click on the ‘view’ icon from the toolbar.
  • Select ‘Collections’.
  • Use the magnifying glass icon on the toolbar to search results for documents you want to group together.
  • Inside the search field box, also click on the magnifying glass.
  • From the options, select labels to use for grouping.
  • When you type the labels in the search field box, all documents with that label will be listed in the binder.
  • Click on the magnifying glass once more. Select ‘Save Search As Collection’.
  • You will then be prompted to name your collection.
  • Your named collection will appear on the sidebar.
  • You can color-code your collections to differentiate them. Right-click on the collection and select your preferred color from the ‘Themed Colors’ options.
  • To remove documents from collections, select it and click on the ‘minus’ button.
  • To load the documents in your collection on the editor, use the curved arrow on the collection’s header bar. Here, you can view them in Scrivenings, outliner or corkboard mode.

How to Search for Words, Phrases or Texts

  • Use the ‘Search’ icon in the toolbar.
  • Alternatively, hold the control key, press G then S.
  • A search box will appear. Click on the search icon in the box.
  • A list of options appears. Here, you can locate where you want to search from.
  • Type in the word or phrase. The binder will display all results containing the search phrase.
  • You can also invert results. This will display all documents which do not have the phrase.
  • Use the ‘Quick search’ tool. This is located above the main editor, on top of the editor’s formatting toolbar. When you hover over it, it displays total word count as well as words used in that section you are working on.

How to Back Up your Work

When you launch Scrivener, a pop-up window appears, prompting you to choose your backup folder.

By default, Scrivener uses the AppData folder to backup your work. However, you can change this and backup elsewhere on your desktop.

To locate your backup folder, either press F12 or go to ‘File’ then ‘Options’. On the pop-up window, click on ‘Backup’.

A list of options appear. At the bottom of the window, you will see your folder location.


When it comes to writing, Scrivener has not left anything to chance. Its detailed features and tools guarantee a seamless process.

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Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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