Scrivener: Organize Your Writing and Thinking

Filing System for Writing and Research - Lorelle VanFossen.In the first of these Scrivener tips and tutorials series, I basically covered “What is Scrivener?, and hopefully you have a better idea about what Scrivener is and how it may help with your writing. I also suggested two Scrivener Bootcamp videos to help you really dive into Scrivener with great tips and techniques by a professional journalist and bestselling author.

In this Scrivener tip, I want you to think of Scrivener as a giant binder. In that binder, you have dividers and tons of paper and photographs you need to organize.

Yes, we are going to start with visualizations. This will help you learn how Scrivener works and how to change your writing style and habits in and around it, and help you learn new words associated with Scrivener.

Imagine all the research you’ve done on your poems, stories, novel, and manuscript. You may have photographs to inspire your thoughts to a place, time, or person. You may have maps pinpointing locations and paths traveled. If you are really diving deeply into a novel or memoir, you probably have research files, digital and paper, the results of days, months, maybe years of studying the topic, place, and people you are writing about. You may have plot outlines, character sketches, and tons of notes.

How do you currently store all this information?

The digital files are most likely stored in folders, either in a collective dump or sorted by topic, place, and possibly date. To access them, you open your file management program and track them down, or open the program you use to view and work with them and hunt for them from there. This typically is Microsoft Word, PhotoShop, or variations on those popular word processing and photo editing programs.

Web pages are typically bookmarked, only accessible when you are online and connected to the web. You might have organized these by folders and subfolders, but it is also likely that you just marked them all as bookmarks in your web browser, the giant dumping ground for web pages you wish to return to in the future.

Tangible materials like papers, print-outs from the web, photographs, magazine and newspaper clippings, paintings, notes, napkins with notes…all these things are either in piles or sorted into folders in a filing cabinet.

Let’s see, you are multiple programs for accessing digital materials. You have reams of paper stuffed into files and folders, and that big metal filing cabinet collecting dust in the corner of your office a few steps from your computer desk.

Imagine that you eliminate most of that and put it all into a single place.

With Scrivener, that is possible. However, I’d start a new project with everything in Scrivener. Working on your current project, continue to use what you are comfortable with and evolve into Scrivener as you learn more about how it works.

The Scrivener Project

Scrivener - New Project and Project Templates Screen - Lorelle VanFossen

We are going to pretend that we are starting a new writing project. It’s easy to import an exiting project into Scrivener, and we will get there. It’s time to learn a few new words and references first.

Scrivener creates projects not manuscripts. It doesn’t manuscripts, but a manuscript is a part of the project. It is that which the entire project revolves around.

A project could be a collection of family recipes you wish to finally pull together and print and share with family. It can be a family history project, tracking down each family member and their story. A project can be all the poems you’ve ever written, or the next bestselling novel.

Another way to think about Scrivener is as that giant binder, the notebook that holds all of your research and writings.

Once you create a project in Scrivener, you will find on the right side of Scrivener’s main interface is what is called the Binder. It is a long menu list of what will become your files and file folders.

It is grouped into two sections by default: Draft and Research. Each of these two sections work a little differently, but we’ll get into that later. Think of them as your writing zone and research zone, or different folders into which you put your manuscript and your research. A giant digital filing cabinet.

Take all of those scraps of paper, web pages, print-outs, pdf files, etc., and scan them into your computer if they aren’t in digital form. This doesn’t have to be complicated. If you don’t have a scanner or printer/scanner, use a digital camera to photograph them. Transfer the digital image to your computer (put it where you can find it – in fact, put all of this material in a single folder or a subfolder called Research).

Bring all of these into the Research section of your Scrivener project. You can add web pages with a couple clicks, and they will be viewed within the Research section of Scrivener, as will be photographs, notes, scanned documents, all of your research.

Have you already been writing? Of course you have. Let’s bring that into Scrivener using the Import feature. You may bring one or multiple documents into Scrivener. If you have a long manuscript and placed hard page breaks between chapters, tell Scrivener to split your document at these points and a file will be created for each one.

This is where the terminology you are used to changes a little.

If we think of Scrivener as a binder holding our manuscript and research, let’s take the analogy further and think of it as a giant file cabinet with two drawers. One is used for your Draft or manuscript, and the other for your research. Inside of each are Pendaflex folders, each holding separate folders with your work, and files within each folder.

Scrivener Folders and Files

Scrivener - Binder Example with Manuscript and Research - Lorelle VanFossen for Writers in the Grove.Consider a typical novel outline:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1
    • Section 1A
    • Section 1B
  • Chapter 2
    • Section 2A
    • Section 2B
    • Section 2C
  • Chapter 3
    • Section 3A
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
    • Section 7A
    • Section 7B
    • Section 7C
  • Chapter 8
  • Epilogue

In Scrivener’s Draft section, it might look like this, designating which are folders and files:

  • Introduction (folder)
    • Introduction (file)
  • Chapter 1 (folder)
    • Section 1A (file)
    • Section 1B (file)
  • Chapter 2 (folder)
    • Section 2A (file)
    • Section 2B (file)
    • Section 2C (file)
  • Chapter 3 (folder)
    • Section 3A (file)
  • Chapter 4 (folder)
    • Section 4A – (file)
  • Chapter 5 (folder)
    • Section 5A – (file)
  • Chapter 6 (folder)
    • Section 6A – (file)
  • Chapter 7 (folder)
    • Section 7A (file)
    • Section 7B (file)
    • Section 7C (file)
  • Chapter 8 (folder)
    • Section 8A – (file)
  • Epilogue (folder)
    • Epilogue – (file)

You should have a sense of the folder and file concept, but let’s make this more workable.

This creates a folder for each chapter, and the files or pages for the chapter in each one.

Let’s say that you realize that Chapter 4 comes too soon in the book. It needs to come after Chapter 6. In Word, you would have to find the starting point, click and drag to select all the way to the ending part – oops, you missed so start over – cut, find the new spot, and place it. Reread it to ensure it now makes sense. Not, undo or select and cut and move and paste it again.

In Scrivener, you have a variety of options. Typically, you can click and drag Chapter 4 file to after Chapter 6, read it, and if it makes sense, go with it. If not, undo or move it back with a simple click and drag.

You can do this in so many ways, testing your writing as you go, considering flow, style, and continuity.

Finding Order in Your Story

I can’t remember what is in Chapter 4 nor Chapter 6, and there is no sense of flow to me by reading the names of the folders and files. Let’s make this make more sense.

Knapp Family wisconsin c1924.I’m editing a collection of writings from my ancestors, specifically my great uncles and grandmother sharing stories about growing up in the last of the logging communities in northern Wisconsin, living off the land as the logging industry dried up and moved away before they finally left and moved to the Pacific Northwest. Their insights take us to a time long gone where children of 10-14 years old set traps for deer, elk, and bear, wrangled wild ponies, and depended upon the food they grew and could store over the long harsh winter chill and winds coming off the Great Lakes of Superior and Michigan. There are currently stories from three people, Robert, Wayne, and Nonie.

How do I tell their story?

If I do it by person, each “folder” a collection of that person’s memories and stories, the layout might be:

  • Robert
    • Early Days in Wisconsin
    • Life in Taylor Rapids
    • Ruby Shack
    • Dave Our Outlaw Horse
    • I Saw a Ghost
    • A Prank That Backfired
    • Wild Ponies
    • A Sleigh Ride I’ll Never Forget
    • The Day the Baby Goats Got Out
    • My Most Embarrassing Moment
  • Wayne
    • The Early Years in Taylor Rapids
    • Early Memories
    • Our New Home
    • Chased by Wolves
    • The Struggle Begins
    • A Close Brush with Death
    • A Disaster in the Garden
    • Our Neighbors
    • Death in the Woods
    • Our First Phonograph
    • We Leave the Old Home
  • Nonie
    • Strong Falls
    • I Ask You
    • I Know You Like My Poetry
    • The Friendly Tree
    • Memories I
    • Memories II
    • Ma
    • When I Wasn’t an Old Sack
    • Were I an Artist

This makes more sense and would help me to keep order as I know what these stories are about. I could rearrange them in any order I wish, chronological, alphabetical, or topical.

Is this how I want my manuscript to be structured? Maybe I want to tell the entire story of their lives in chronological order, presenting each perspective as time passes for the reader following their lives.

If I were doing this in Word, it would mean a lot of copy and paste, and honestly, getting lost and confused. I fear I would lose part of my stories, stories that took many years for me to type into the computer as I poked this idea.

In Scrivener, each of the files are called Scrivenings. I can move them around with a simple click and drag in the Binder. I can change the order, hide them, or show them, sort them in many different ways.

Maybe the order I really want is theme based, the stories sorted by topic. It might look like this:

  • Taylor Rapids
    • Early Days in Wisconsin
    • Life in Taylor Rapids
    • The Early Years in Taylor Rapids
    • Early Memories
    • The Friendly Tree
    • The Struggle Begins
    • Our New Home
    • Ruby Shack
    • Strong Falls
    • Memories I
    • Memories II
  • Adventures
    • Dave Our Outlaw Horse
    • I Saw a Ghost
    • Wild Ponies
    • Chased by Wolves
    • A Sleigh Ride I’ll Never Forget
    • The Day the Baby Goats Got Out
    • My Most Embarrassing Moment
    • A Disaster in the Garden
  • Family and Neighbors
    • A Prank That Backfired
    • Death in the Woods
    • A Close Brush with Death
    • Our First Phonograph
    • I Ask You
    • Ma
    • When I Wasn’t an Old Sack
    • Were I an Artist
    • I Know You Like My Poetry
    • We Leave the Old Home

There are a thousand ways to do this. The more I play around with the order, the more I think about the plot and the story I’m writing.

This is what makes Scrivener so powerful.

It isn’t just a writing tool. It is a tool that helps you write.

Now that you have your thinking turned around with what Scrivener does, let’s dive into how it works.

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