Scrivener Review: Format, Outline, and Write Like a Pro

The Scrivener homepage.

There are almost as many tools of the writing trade as there are writers. Journals, typewriters, loose sheets of paper, index cards, outlines, story boards, Microsoft Word, smart phones, desktops, coffee shop napkins, Google Docs, laptops, Pinterest boards – you get the idea.

Despite this great variety in personal preference, I believe Scrivener is an ideal writing tool for most wordsmiths. Whether you’re crafting the next Great American Novel, a feature-length film, or your doctoral thesis, it has features to simplify and streamline your work.

I’ve been using Scrivener since 2012. With it, I’ve written drafts of novels, memoirs, short stories, and grueling academic papers. In this Scrivener review, I’ll point out some of my favorite features and show you how this stellar app can take your writing to the next level. Time to dive in!

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Introducing Scrivener: Your New Favorite Writing App

For those of you unfamiliar with the platform, Scrivener is an app designed to help writers tackle their projects from start to finish. While you can use it for the actual act of writing, it’s much more than just a word processor.

For starters, it provides several templates for a wide range of literary feats, including novels, short stories, scripts, and academic papers:

The project format options available in Scrivener.

After you choose your project’s format, you’ll gain access to an arsenal of tools to help you research, plan, and organize your writing. The Binder enables you to add chapters and scene, then rearrange them by dragging and dropping their respective icons:

The Scrivener Binder.

There are also two different ways to outline or plan your project out. Using Corkboard, you can create, order, and view notecards on the various sections of your piece:

The Scrivener Corkboard

There’s also a more traditional Outliner that lists each chapter and scene in your project. You can include key information here, such as what stage this portion of the text is at (first, revised, or final draft) and your target word count. There’s even a handy progress bar to show you how close you are to your goal:

The Scrivener Outliner.

One of my personal favorite features of Scrivener, however, is the ability to import various kinds of research right into the app. I’ve used this to keep track of sources for academic papers, as well as to note important information about my settings and characters in fictional pieces.

All you have to do is go to File > Import. You can then select files you’ve saved to your computer (such as PDFs, Word documents, or images) or web pages you want to reference again later:

Importing research into Scrivener.

These resources will show up under Research in your binder for easy access down the line:

Viewing an imported webpage in Scrivener.

These features just scratch the surface of what this app is able to do, as I hope the rest of my Scrivener review will prove.

Scrivener

I’ve been a dedicated Scrivener user for years. I’m confident you’ll love it as much as I do! Click the buttons below to find out more about this wonder app, or purchase Scrivener right away.

Scrivener Review: Two Possible Use Cases

This app has so many handy features that if I were to walk you through each one in depth, this post would be unreasonably long. Instead, I felt this Scrivener Review would be more practical if I show you how the app can help you with the two different types of long form writing projects I’ve used it for in the past: novels and academic papers.

For each use case, I’ll point out the unique formatting elements Scrivener provides. I’ll also highlight the tools that may be most beneficial when you’re working on each kind of project.

1. Novel

This appears to be the most popular use for Scrivener. It’s no wonder why. Novels are without a doubt long, and require a lot of planning, organization, and revision to succeed. No Scrivener review would be complete without showcasing how this app can help you achieve your fiction writing goals.

Formatting

When you select the Novel or Novel with Parts format in Scrivener, you’ll have the option of structuring your project as an ebook, a paperback, or a manuscript (like you would send to an editor or agent). Each of these options includes what’s called “front matter”.

This is some basic information such as your novel’s title, you name, and in the case of the Manuscript format, your contact information. You can see each option’s front matter by clicking on the Front Matter section in the Binder:

The Novel Manuscript format front matter in Scrivener.

You can also see examples of what your final product might look like in the Sample Output folder under Research:

The Novel Paperback sample output in Scrivener.

Finally, there are two other Binder sections that are unique to the Novel format. In the Characters and Places sections, you can incorporate Scrivener’s character and setting sketches:

The Character and Place sections in the Scrivener Binder.

These are planning tools that can help you develop these key elements of your narrative. Keeping them handy while you’re writing makes it east to consult your notes when working out details of your setting or trying to determine how a character might behave in a certain situation.

Planning and Organization

In addition to creating profiles for your characters and setting(s), there are several other ways in which Scrivener can help you plan and organize your novel. We’ve already briefly discussed the binder and it’s drag-and-drop functionality for rearranging chapters and scenes.

However, another handy feature is the ability to color code these elements. This is especially useful if you’re working on a project that includes multiple points of view, parallel timelines, or other even more complex structures:

Color coded sections in the Scrivener Binder.

Then you have the Outliner and the Corkboard to work with, too. Anything you add to one will also be visible in the other. If you change your mind about which tool you want to use, switching doesn’t require you to do much in the way of transferring your synopses from one to the other.

Additionally, you’ll be able to see the details you add to the Outliner and Corkboard in the Synopsis section of the Inspector (the area to the right of the main editor) when you’re writing:

A synopsis in the main composition area in Scrivener.

This means no more shuffling through notes or trying to find the right page in your notebook when trying to remember what needs to happen in a specific scene. It’s all there on hand for easy reference.

Composing

Speaking of easy reference, another handy feature for novel writing is the dual-screen composing option:

The Dual Composition feature in Scrivener.

This enables you to view two scenes, a scene and your outline, and various other possible combinations simultaneously. That way, you can consult the larger plan for your novel while working on smaller portion.

Alternatively, if you just need time to get words on the page without distraction, you can use Scrivener’s Composition Mode:

Scrivener in Composition Mode.

As great as Scrivener is, there’s a lot going on in this app. Blocking out the Binder, Inspector, and toolbar can help you focus on what matters most – your novel.

2. Academic Papers

Especially once you start getting past the ten-page mark, academic papers are no joke. They require tons of research and careful organization to explain your argument clearly and persuasively.

I haven’t read many other Scrivener reviews about users doing this, but I’ve utilized Scrivener to compose many an essay. The app includes formats for Chicago, APA, and MLA styles, so you’ll be covered no matter which you need.

Formatting and Citing Sources

Managing sources and citations can be one of the most difficult (and boring) parts of writing a paper. When you select one of Scrivener’s academic paper formats, the app will provide a sample Works Cited page:

The Scrivener MLA Works Cited template.

You can also add notes in the main composition area. Footnotes will be incorporated on the relevant page, and collected as endnotes for you:

Adding a footnote in Scrivener.

Of course, no matter what tool you’re using (looking at you, EasyBib), it’s always best to check your formatting. Every style guide is periodically updated, and automatic citation generators may not be up-to-date. Plagiarism is nothing to mess around with! Purdue Owl is an excellent resource, and can help you make sure your sources are properly listed.

Another handy feature is that Scrivener can format block quotes for you:

Formatting a block quote in Scrivener.

I realize you can set up Microsoft Word to do pretty much the same thing, but it’s still nice to know this is available to you in Scrivener.

Organization

Especially if your paper is on the long side, having a way to organize and rearrange sections is extremely useful. This can make working on a lengthy paper feel more manageable and less intimidating by breaking it down into bite-sized chunks.

The Outliner, Corkboard, and color coding features I’ve already mentioned are all available in the various academic paper formats. Plus, just organizing your sections into documents and folders in the Binder can help you visualize your paper’s trajectory:

An MLA paper in the Scrivener Binder.

When I was a student, I was big fan out outlining my papers in Scrivener. It’s easy to move things around and to add new sections when you need to.

Research

I’ve already sung the praises of Scrivener’s Research importing feature, but it needs to be mentioned again here. If you’ve ever had to write a paper, you’ve probably suffered through keeping 12 tabs open in your internet browser so you have have all your sources handy.

With Scrivener, those days are gone. You can just import all your webpages right into your project. Plus, PDFs from books you’ve scanned or journal articles you’ve downloaded can easily be added, too.

In my opinion, this feature is absolutely invaluable when you’re writing an academic paper. You can even use the dual composition option so you can easily reference your material or retype quotes without having to switch back and forth between tabs:

Using Scrivener's Dual Composition feature for an MLA paper.

This is a huge time (and headache) saver. Additionally, you can use the Notes and Ideas sections to save snippets that you want to use later:

The Ideas section in Scrivener.

When you have a half-formed thought on how you might improve your argument but don’t know where it’s going yet, this is a great place to store it. Then you can come back to it later and work on how to expand upon it.

Conclusion

Writing involves a lot of hard work – more than most people think! One of the best things you can do to help your next project stay on track is to invest in a tool that will keep all your materials in one place from start to finish.

Since 2012, I’ve used Scrivener to write everything from high school English papers, to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) projects, to my graduate thesis. In all that time, I’ve yet to find a fault. It’s my absolute favorite writing tool, and I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise!

Have questions about Scrivener? Let me know in the comments section, and make sure to subscribe to my email list for more tips!

Molly Tyler
Molly Tyler

Molly received her B.A. in English in 2016, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2019. She now works full time writing blog posts and web copy for small businesses.

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