Sarah’s take on Scrivener, the super-duper word processor

I was asked recently about whether I use Scrivener. This morning I’ll share my thoughts on this powerful tool… kind of a Swiss Army knife for writers, and just as likely to confuse you with too many tools crammed into one interface.

I was a desultory Scrivener user before entering my Big MFA Adventure. I’d use it when I had to write an article based on multiple interviews–the main thing that drew me away from Word into Scrivener was its beautiful ability to let you see two documents side-by-side. (Sure, you can do that with two documents open in Word, but there was something elegant about how Scrivener let you move easily between the two.) As I clipped bits from an interview into my main document, I’d highlight the used bits in gray, so I could avoid reusing them.

Here’s an example of me clipping bits from an interview to use in a piece of writing–in this case, a chapter of my Glory Foods history.

If I didn’t need to do a two-into-one task like that, I never touched it, so I never became very proficient with it. Scrivener is a powerful tool, evolved to serve novelists and screenwriters, and its easy to get lost among its features. If you don’t use it day-in and day-out, expect to have a browser window open for googling “Scrivener how to…”.

Scrivener is essentially a word-processing program. Here’s a description on Wikipedia. We students in the U-King’s MFA-Creative Nonfiction program were encouraged to use it, as well as Evernote for managing our research. I followed that advice, and here’s the workflow that I evolved for my book-length MFA project, working title The Soulful History of Glory Foods:

  1. I use Evernote to collect my research notes. (I’ll write about Evernote another day.)
  2. As I prepare to switch from research to writing, chapter by chapter, I build my outline in Scrivener. If you’ve ever been in a workshop with me, you know how I structure around an outline of “a complication, three developments, and a resolution”–Jon Franklin’s “writing for story” approach. Each chapter is based on that, as you can see if you look closely at the screenshot from Scrivener above. In the early stages, that outline is just a pile of notes about where the research a section draws on can be found–in Evernote, in my interview transcripts, etc.
  3. I start writing! In a Scrivener document pane my chapter starts to take shape, chunk by chunk. (These chunks are called “scrivenings.”) I always use the left pane for the document that will become my chapter.  In the right pane I open other scrivenings that contain text I want to cut and paste from–interview transcripts, notes, etc.
  4. I move scrivenings around. Sometimes my initial structure isn’t working, so I try different orders. For me, this is the other compelling feature of Scrivener, besides the side-by-side documents–the easy way you can see the outline of your work in that far-left pane (called the “Binder”).
  5. When I feel the structure is final–everything’s in the chapter that ought to be, in an order that pleases me–I’m ready to move to paragraph- and sentence-level refinement. At this point I’ll export the document from Scrivener (they call this “compiling”) and move over to Word to continue working. Why? I am more familiar with the formatting tools in Word. Word is easier to share with other people. I don’t know, this is just the workflow I got comfortable with.

Want to learn more about Scrivener? Here are some links…

Never stop learning–including how to use tools that aid your creative process.

– Sarah White


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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