Write Novels Like a Pro with Scrivener

If you want to write any kind of novel — a literary masterpiece, a potboiler, or even fan fiction — you’ll need all the help that you can get. Applications that have been specifically designed for writing novels exist to make writing them easier.

One such application that has gained prominence on the Macintosh is Scrivener, by Literature and Latte. Scrivener has ported their flagship product to Microsoft Windows.

Why Use Novel-Writing Software?

Word processors such as Microsoft Word were created to satisfy business use cases: memoranda, meeting notes, announcements, inter- & intra-departmental messages, and other such things. The other markets for word processors are students writing term papers and reporters writing articles. In all of those cases, most documents are self-contained and no more than ten or twenty pages in length.

These documents can be written in several different fonts in order to highlight different kinds of material and may include tables, charts, and other kinds of non- or semi-textual content. These documents may also require complex formatting in order to make text flow around those tables and other graphics.

Novels are different. They are a few hundred pages in length. Writers as prolix as the late David Foster Wallace can hit a thousand pages or more.

Novels are usually divided into chapters. Chapters, in turn, can be grouped into parts and the parts, in their turn, can be grouped as well (see the table of contents for Clive Barker’s Weaveworld for an example). Since novels are so long, it makes sense for the author to deal with one chapter at a time, but watch out.

Except for certain kinds of experimental fiction, chapters are not self-contained; later chapters only make sense if earlier chapters have been read. Aside from italics or the works of Mark Z. Danieleswski, they seldom use more than one typeface or any formatting beyond page breaks and indented paragraphs.

Therefore, a writer needs a program that has been written with those constraints in mind. Scrivener has proven its mettle among novel writers on the Macintosh platform. Take a look at the testimonials. Time to see if the Windows port is worthy of the same admiration.

Getting Scrivener

Scrivener can be downloaded from their website. You can purchase Scrivener straight up for $40.00 or download the free thirty-day trial. This review focuses on the trial version of Scrivener for Windows. Note that the Windows port does not yet have all of the features of the Macintosh port.

Acquiring Scrivener is straightforward. After clicking on the “Download for Windows” link on the above page, your web browser will download the installer to your default download folder. Open the installer, and it will install Scrivener to your Program Files folder and leave a link in your Start Menu as well as on your desktop. I installed Scrivener on my computer without incident.

Running Scrivener for the First Time

When run for the first time, Scrivener shows the New Project window. First-time users should try the tutorial.

The New Project Window

This is the New Project Window.

The Editor

The editor, as its name implies, is where the text of the novel appears. It behaves much like any other rich-text editor.

Beginning of Tutorial

This is the beginning of the Scrivener tutorial.

Above the editor is the header bar (or header view). It shows the title of the current part of the novel (in this case, START HERE). The two arrows to the left of the title are for navigation. As you traverse different parts of your novel, Scrivener remembers which parts you have already visited. The navigation arrows cycle through that stack just like the Back and Forward buttons in a web browser. The up and down arrows towards the right side of the header bar switch the editor to the previous and next part of the novel, respectively.

The two icons on the farthest right of the header bar split the editor into either horizontal or vertical panes. There is no icon for undoing the split, an annoying omission. To return the editor to a single pane, choose View -> Layout -> No Split or press Ctrl-’.

Options for changing the font and formatting lie above the header bar. These are very basic options, fewer than those in Microsoft WordPad. Remember that novels, even (or especially) high-brow literary novels, seldom use complex formatting. The font and formatting options provided by Scrivener should be adequate for all but the most cutting-edge experimental fiction.

Above the font and formatting options is the Group Mode segmented control. This bar has icons for viewing how the documents are organized, adding documents, removing documents, and seeing metadata. More on those in a moment.

The Binder

The binder is to the left of the editor. Think of it as an interactive table of contents. Unlike the editor, which gives an immediate view of the actual text of the novel, the binder gives a global view of the structure of the entire novel, showing the chapters and where they go. It shows the parts of the novel in the same way that the File Explorer in Microsoft Windows shows files. Arrows to the left of the icons can be clicked to show or hide the hierarchy of documents. One can also drag and drop documents to re-order events in the story.

Pro tip. The tutorial hints that it is easy to lose ones way in the binder. This is no idle warning; I learned this the hard way. Pressing Ctrl-Shift-8 or choosing “Reveal in Binder” from the View menu will show the editor’s current place in the binder.

To create a new document, meaning a discrete piece of text for your novel, invoke the Add New Text command by pressing Ctrl-N or by pressing the green plus sign in the group mode segmented control and choosing Add New Text. Choosing Add New Folder from that same icon or pressing Ctrl-Shift-N will create a new folder in the binder. Not only can you place documents in folders, you can also place documents in other documents. Folders and documents are so similar that the bottom of the Documents menu has a Convert option for turning documents into folders and vice versa.

By taking advantage of Scrivener’s approach to folders, documents, and sub-documents, you can write Scene 3 of Chapter 8 of Part 2 of Book 6 of Episode 9 of Volume 3 of your great epic trilogy.

The Inspector

The inspector is not on by default when the user starts Scrivener. To activate it, click on View -> Layout -> Show Inspector or press Ctrl-Shift-i.

The Scrivener Inspector

The Inspector is the entire column to the right of the Editor.

The inspector keeps track of metadata for each document in the novel. The most important piece of metadata is called the synopsis index card in Scrivener terminology. It is, appropriately enough, displayed as an index card at the top of the inspector. The purpose of the index card is to store a brief overview of the current document. These index cards can be viewed together in order to get a larger view of your book. More on that in the next section.

The inspector also provides version control by means of the snapshot feature. This isn’t as sophisticated as the source control systems familiar to programmers, such as Mercurial or Git. Scrivener’s snapshot system is much simpler, but well-suited to writing stories. Snapshots are like saving your work, except that, instead of saving the whole book, you save just the chapter you are working on. Later, you can retrieve that earlier version without disturbing the rest of your book.

To take a snapshot of your current document, go to the Documents -> Snapshots menu and select Take Snapshot (or press Ctrl-5). The Show Snapshots item in the same menu will bring up the list of snapshots of that document in the inspector. Select the one that you want and press the Roll Back button to get whatever version of the text that you like.

Scrivener's Snaphshot Feature

Select a Snaphot and click “Roll Back” to retrieve a previous version of your chapter.

The Corkboard

Pressing Ctrl-1, Ctrl-2, and Ctrl-3 will place the editor view in single/multiple document mode, corkboard mode, and outline mode, respectively. This review will focus on corkboard mode as it is one of Scrivener’s unique features.

If the current document has sub-documents, then pressing Ctrl-2 will show the corkboard. Think back to the inspector. Remember how the top of the inspector had an index card? The corkboard shows the index card synopses for all of the immediate sub-documents of that document or folder. In this view, one can see several chapters at a time to get a bird’s-eye-view of the story. If one of those documents has sub-documents of its own, then it will be displayed as a stack of index cards.

Scrivener's Corkboard

Get a bird’s-eye view of several chapters at once using the Corkboard.

By carefully choosing the right synopses to put in them, the index cards preclude the need to jump across the text of the novel, while trying to hold in mind what happened where to which characters, and hoping that you won’t lose your place.

Exporting Your Work

Scrivener is a great application, but publishers won’t accept a zipped archive of your .scriv project file. That’s just as well, since you may not want them to see all of the metadata from the inspector. To export your work, click on File -> Export -> Files… A dialog box will allow you to export your novel into the following formats:

  • Plain text (.txt)
  • PDF (.pdf)
  • PostScript (.ps)
  • Final Draft (.fdx)
  • Web Page (.html/.xhtml)
  • Open Document Format (.odt)
  • Microsoft Word (.doc)
  • Rich Text Format – Word compatible (.rtf)


Scrivener is a fine application for writing a novel. It has features that I had not even imagined a writer would need. The application does not feel like a port from the Macintosh; standard CUA keyboard shortcuts do what they should, although the keyboard shortcuts for Scrivener’s native features will take a little getting used to (Ctrl-Shift-whatever and Ctrl-number are not things that most Windows users are accustomed to). The authors admit that the Windows version doesn’t have all of the features of the Macintosh version, but I could find no list of what they are; this may be a concern for those wishing to buy the program.

Notwithstanding these annoyances, Scrivener should be on any writer’s shortlist of novel-writing applications.


Scrivener is an excellent tool for the dedicated novelist at a price that even the poorest of writers can afford. Literature and Latte admit that the Windows version lacks some of the features of the Macintosh version and don't provide a list of what those features are. That fact is the only reason why this program doesn't get a ten.