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Writer’s Tools: Scrivener Review

October 24, 2012 by Kiersi


Specs: Scrivener is available for Windows and Mac (Scrivener for Windows, Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X 10.6.7 and above).

Requires 70MB on Mac OS X, 100MB on Windows.

The Review:

There is so much to say about Scrivener. You might have traversed my review of StoryMill when I first set out to find a good piece of novel-writing software–it had so many of the things I wanted, but I found the formatting tools annoying and a tad crippling.

My search may still yet continue. Besides one essential feature, Scrivener is perfect. Read on.

The Binder

Scrivener - BinderThe binder is essentially the manuscript index. I love Scrivener because it’s amazingly flexible–it works however you need it to work for you to be at your most effective. I don’t name my chapters anymore (it was a lot of work to come up with catchy titles, and when the chapters themselves changed during multiple revisions– I just decided to abandon them) so I simply call the folder a general descriptor I can remember. Each item inside the folder is, well, whatever you want it to be–a scene, a set of scenes, a pile of unrefined garbage–it’s simply a text document. “Scenes” can be edited alone or, if you view your document at the chapter (folder) level, can be edited in a stream with other scenes in that folder. (These are called “Scrivenings.”)

The genius of this design is that you can work on a scene by itself, or work on the flow of a whole chapter, or even the whole manuscript (by selecting “Manuscript” at the top).

During my revision of Devil’s Fire, my heroine Sophie discovers her dead mother’s journal; the mother’s story parallels Sophie’s story, and each chapter contains some piece of the journal.

I started labeling the scenes that were diary scenes with these nifty little book icons. I cannot tell you how helpful these were to shuffle around as I worked on the organization of the book. As chapters changed and shifted and scenes were moved around (it was like a very complicated game of Boggle), I could easily locate my diary scenes and make sure they landed in the right places.

Scrivener - Binder

Unlike my first slash at using Scrivener to edit and revise a novel, this go-around I’m constructing a new novel for NaNoWriMo. This is truly what prompted me to write this review. Sure, Scrivener was great helping me deal with the painful mass of disorganized text that was my manuscript–but could it really be effective in writing a brand-new novel from scratch?

The novel has two narrators–a girl (red) and a boy (blue). I was able to label each scene or chapter by narrator and then select a view option where the color coding appeared in my binder. Suddenly writing a complex story isn’t so complicated.

The Corkboard

Justine Larbalestier wrote an article about writing her novel Liar with Scrivener, and showcased some features of the corkboard I hadn’t quite seized upon–yet.

Scrivener - Corkboard

When I saw those stamps, it took some serious effort not to burst into tears of joy. Wait. A way to keep track of each scene’s level of development? It can’t be. I’d seen that little “status” drop-down menu before and never gave it much thought, until Justine pointed out you could have the status stamped across each notecard on your corkboard. Perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of what still needs work and attention, and what you can forget about (for now).

The best part about the corkboard is, like the binder, you can use this view at any level. When you fill out the “Synopsis” field for any chapter or scene, it appears on the notecard pinned to the corkboard so you can easily shuffle them around as you see fit. Perfect for plotting and planning a work in progress, no?

The Character Sheets

Scrivener - Character SheetsI think this is the place where Scrivener surpassed StoryMill in usability. The character sheet is brilliant. I didn’t use it much for fixing my last novel, but during the planning stages, I’ve found the character sheets to be absolutely invaluable.

Internal conflicts. External conflicts. Personality. Habits and Mannerisms. Sure, we all tell ourselves we know this stuff about our characters–but there’s nothing like putting ideas down on paper to remember and develop them.

For fixing my last novel, the character sheets were good for keeping track of minor characters and making sure I remembered all their details correctly–who their parents are, where they live, hair and eye color, style of dress–but the character sheet is so much more than that.

What is your character’s greatest flaw? How will that flaw play out over the course of the novel? What kinds of things does your character say? I’ve loaded my character sheets with gold, and even if most of it doesn’t make its way into the manuscript, it informs me, as the writer. Simply having it all at my fingertips suddenly makes these people real. Predictable. In any given situation, I have a very good idea of how this character will respond.

And, like scenes, character sheets can be color-coded. I’ve labeled characters based on family affiliation, so I can easily track the Geggan clan separate from the Blacks, and make sure each character has a check and a balance somewhere in the story.

The Complaints

Scrivener has one massively critical flaw–one that leads me to seriously consider other novel-writing software, or perhaps an amalgamation of multiple software platforms.


It just boggles my mind that a piece of writing software this sophisticated and innovative has no way to track chronology. Upon some good, old-fashioned Googling, I discovered a couple “hack” methods for marking scenes in time–using meta data, for example–but if a geek like me can’t figure out how to do it in ten minutes or less, I seriously question its helpfulness. StoryMill had a pretty nifty, customizable time-tracking feature, and I kind of wish I could Power Rangers-style stitch the two pieces of software together into one super-powerful, startlingly handsome novel-writing solution.

Overall, Scrivener is absolutely worth the $45 you’ll pay for the highly reasonable and permissive license ($40 for the Windows version). If it weren’t for that one thing, I think Scrivener might actually be perfect.

If you have any suggestions regarding the timeline issue, or can recommend other writing software, please mention it in the comments and I would love to try it out.


  1. unsquare says:

    Great software, although I’ve barely used it. It’s actually on sale right now as part of the newest Mac Heist:

  2. Edith says:

    Very interesting review, thank you!

  3. Well crap. There went $40. I had a dream and came up with a great story idea for NaNoWriMo..

  4. kellyhashway says:

    I think I’d be overwhelmed by all this. I plan in a word document, and I like to revise on paper with post it flags. I guess I’m old school. 😉

    • Kiersi says:

      I was totally the same way. Actually, I bought Scrivener and then resisted (tooth and nail) using it. It wasn’t until I had to revise an old novel and totally re-structure it that I figured out how it worked (and it kind of made my life easier, which is the only reason to adopt any new technology). Everyone’s workflow is different.

  5. M. Ziegler says:

    I see all this software and it always seems overwhelming. I have a hard enough time writing – I see this as more of a distraction, you know something ‘shiny and new’. I guess I am with Kelly, using notes and maybe just having a million files in word to note different details. Maybe sometime investing in software might be something. I like the character sheets – that could be an asset.

    • Kiersi says:

      Absolutely know how you feel. I’m a tech geek so I always like to try new things, and honestly Scrivener confounded me for a while. But for planning, man, I used to get so confused amongst all my documents, navigating a big long Word doc, that’s what forced me over. And the character sheets are totally sweet. I mean, you could do those without Scrivener, too 🙂

  6. Sounds promising, thanks for sharing!

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  8. Laurie Gienapp says:

    I am a huge Scrivener fan… although I have not yet used it for editing,and I don’t use all the features.. But I tell everyone I know, about Scrivener. Yet even so, your review left me even MORE excited about Scrivener than I was before! Well Done.

    • Kiersi says:

      Wonderful! I know, there is so much untapped potential in this program–I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. I like that you can use only the features you need. Let me know if you ever want to trade Scrivener tips and tricks.

  9. John StJohn says:

    Check out Aeon Timeline by Scribble Code. This timeline program was developed in consultation with Keith Blount, creator of Scrivener, and other writers. It syncs with Scrivener 2. So far it’s only available for Macs. Scribble Code said they are considering a Windows version if the Mac version is successful, and they are asking those who would like a Windows version to let them know so they can gauge interest. Aeon is powerful with a lot of features, and it’s hard to see how something this complex could be shoehorned into Scrivener. For those who love Scrivener and need timelines this may be the way to go. I’m just a writer with no connection to Literature and Latte or Scribble Code. I live in Scrivener and I’m playing with Aeon.

    • Kiersi says:

      Very good to know. I see what you’re saying–it’s a big feature. Thanks for the suggestion of Aeon Timeline, I’m going to try that out since I really need the chronology functionality.

  10. Thanks for the review, I’ve actually been debating this one. It seems like one of those things that will completely throw me off for a while until I get used to it, and then I’ll be addicted. You gave me some good things to consider!

    • Kiersi says:

      It totally has a learning curve, but the only way to learn is to dive in. And, frankly, it saved my book that’s coming out next August. I don’t know if I could have done the same large-scale re-organization and revision without it! Good luck!

  11. Phil says:

    Thanks for the very informative article on Scrivener. I’m not a writer, but I am making an attempt at an ebook pertaining to working out. Grammar is not my forte, but I’m going to try and tackle it anyway. After reading your article I think I will give the software a shot. Would you happen to know how good it is for producing a Kindle eBook?

    • Kiersi says:

      I’m glad it was helpful to you! There is “Ebook” listed under output formats, but I’ve never tried to use it myself. You can do a 30-day free trial of the software before you buy it, so I’d just try it out if I were you.

  12. HI. I’m on trial with Scrivener right now. Not a techno at all. Old school. But it really does help to organize, collate and edit if you’re a dreamhead like me. Have only just caught on that the timeline feature is non-existent and that IS a shame.
    The other negative thing is I cannot import web page material at all into my Research folder. It simply won’t import.
    And this is another of the selling points of Scrivener – to have research material right at your fingertips – videos, sound files, you name it. You CAN import any folders easily from your PC but not from web pages as promised. Others seem to be able to do it but not I.


    • Kiersi says:

      Interesting, and a good point. I’ve never tried to store websites, I’ve usually just kept a bookmark folder–though for this current project that’s not a bad idea. Too bad! I still use the research area pretty extensively, though.

  13. Robert Lee says:

    After reading your and Justine’s review, I’m convinced to give Scrivener a try. I can easily get lost and overwhelmed when starting a new project. I tend to have notes of all types (profiles, places, plot points, research, etc.). This software seems to be organized the way I think. That can’t be a bad thing.

    • Kiersi says:

      I have the exact same tendency as far as project notes, and in a Word document I was always confused by how to organize them. Scrivener is great for exactly that sort of thing! Good luck, Robert, and feel free to email me if you need any tips or guidance at kiersi(at) Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Thanks, Kiersi! Great review. I purchased Scrivener four or five years ago, thought it was a cool tool, but needed something more. I moved on to StoryMill. But recently, I read that the new and improved Scrivener 2.1 was much more powerful and perfect for novel writers, like myself.

    I’m going to upgrade from 1.5 to 2.1! I just downloaded David Hewson’s WRITING A NOVEL WITH SCRIVENER from Amazon/Kindle and I’m going to devour that before I dive into the new tutorials and manual. I’m now excited to reorganize my first draft—which is 75% complete. The novel is the sequel to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF which I call TEVYE AND THE STREETS OF GOLD, the story of the world’s most famous milkman bringing his daughters to New York to chase the American Dream!

    Wish me luck with my project and I will do the same with yours!

    —Kevin Norberg
    (writing as I.M. Meshuggah)

    • Kiersi says:

      There are still a few things that StoryMill did that Scrivener doesn’t do–the ability to “tag” characters in a scene was one. But as I use Scrivener more I learn it does most things I NEED, more than StoryMill offers. I found it more intuitive.

  15. Kathryn frazier says:

    Hello, I am planning to begin writing and am not a techie. I have a Mac but I am not Mac savvy either. Please recommend a writing program to use for this beginner?

    • Kiersi says:

      I would probably recommend Scrivener. As with using any software, there will be a learning curve–especially if you’re not a techie, so you’ll have to invest some time in learning to use it.

    • Robert Lee says:

      @Katherine Frazier: I recently purchased Scrivener and would highly recommend it. Even to a non-techie like yourself. 😉 The tutorial is very helpful. Spend a few hours running through the tutorial and you’ll get a better grasp at what this program is capable of and how it can aid you in your writing. For the price, I don’t think you can go very wrong here.

      @Kiersi: Great review. And I love the program. I started upping my production right away.

  16. Sean Tierney says:

    Kiersi, good article. Have you played with Inkling Habitat by chance? Curious your thoughts on that SaaS tool. I’ve been going through their user guide getting acquainted with it- can see pros/cons at this point of using a cloud-based, collaborative type tool like that vs. Scrivener. Wondering if you’ve reviewed that one and can compare appropriateness of which does what best. Theirs gives you the ability to do rich interactive media for various eBook formats but Scrivener looks like it plays more at the brainstorming/organizational phase for structuring the book.

    • Kiersi says:

      I haven’t! I would like to have a cloud-based tool for collaborations, but at this point I’m happy enough with Scrivener that I haven’t tried anything else yet. Thanks for stopping by and for the tip.

  17. […] There’s no timeline option. “It just boggles my mind that a piece of writing software this sophisticated and innovative has no way to track chronology.” (Kiersi Burkhart, Prolific Novelista blog) […]

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