A couple days ago, I was complaining on Twitter that I am, for various reasons, working on a revision in Word instead of Scrivener – and how much that makes me appreciate stuff I’ve started taking for granted in Scrivener, since I’ve been using it for at least seven years now. A couple of people asked me about those functions, so here is a very brief overview.

This is a short look at Scrivener’s three different modes (scrivenings, corkboard, and outliner), and what I use them for. A lot of it is basic stuff, and a lot of it is really just part of my own process, so how useful you find this may vary.

The basic Scrivener view.
The basic Scrivener view.

This is the basic set up with Scrivener. The binder on the left is essentially a list of the text files that make up your manuscript (or folders with files in them, organized however you please). Any files you select over there will show up in the main window (in this case, it’s showing scrivenings – the text of the files). Over at the right is the inspector, which lets you add data (like a summary, keywords, etc) to each scrivening. And what I noted up top is the mode toggle I’m going to be talking about. The left is scrivening view (what that screencap shows), center is corkboard mode, and right (covered by the g’s in “toggle”) is outliner mode.


Select a scrivening in the binder. You now see the text that it contains (as well as its meta-data, if you have the inspector open). Select multiple scrivenings, and you can see all of their text, one after the other – even if you didn’t select consecutive scrivenings. This is useful if you want to view a whole chapter (instead of scenes) or every scene with a certain character, or all of your second act, or even the entire manuscript. This is the mode in which you do your writing. Basically, Scrivening Mode is your text editor, with the benefit of letting you view as much or little text as you want at a time, and being able to easily move from one text file to another.

(Quick tip, if you’re importing a whole manuscript from Word, or otherwise want to break down a large chunk of text into smaller scrivenings. Highlight the first line where you want to split, and go to Documents -> Split -> At Selection, or highlight and use command+K. For me personally, I generally have one scrivening per chapter as I draft, and then when I finish up and am going to revise, I split each chapter down into scenes. That’s just me, though – I don’t plot out scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter ahead of time, so I have to break things down later.)

Now, note the inspector off at the right side. As I said, that lets you attach a lot of metadata to each scrivening (and folder) you have in the binder. I’d recommend giving each one at least a title and summary. My chapter titles are super creative things like “One” and “Two,” but adding a summary helps keep things clear. I’ll get to more meta-data later on, but for now, that’s the minimum that you’ll need to be helpful in the next section…

Scrivener's corkboard mode.
Scrivener’s corkboard mode.


I think the index cards might be what Scrivener is best known for. Select at least one scrivening or folder from the binder, hit the toggle, and now boom: instead of look at your text, you’re looking at a cork board with index cards. Each scrivening/folder is a card. The same title and summary you created in the inspector are what appear on them. You can also add color coded thumbtacks and stamps for more information about your document (that same metadata).

But the real draw of this mode is that you can see all the different pieces of your novel laid out visually – and move them around. Swapping the placement of two index cards will swap the order of those scrivenings in your manuscript. Not sure where that flashback needs to go? Move it from the fourth position to the seventh, or whatever. It is literally as easy as clicking and dragging, because that’s all it is.


But I will be honest: this is the mode I use the least. I don’t do visual information very well – I prefer to have it spelled out – and since I write and revise mostly in chronological order, I rarely find myself reshuffling pieces. So I’d say, play with it and see how it works for you. But as for me, I prefer…

Scrivener's outliner mode.
Scrivener’s outliner mode.


Select some scrivenings again, toggle, and behold: an instant outline! Once again, you can see the title and summary of each Scrivening. At the bottom is an option to show/hide synopses – I like to show ‘em so I literally have an outline. By looking at the summaries stacked like this it’s a clear breakdown of everything that happens in the manuscript.

That’s the first column there. Now we get into that meta-data I’ve been talking about.

My next column is “POV” – which is not a Scrivener default. Scrivener actually assumes you’ll want something called “label” but I didn’t find its default labels useful. Click on the little up-and-down triangle-y symbol next to any label to pull it down, and choose “Edit.” That lets you add or remove labels, change their colors from the default, and up at the top, set a custom title. So I changed the title to “POV,” deleted the default options, and dropped in my character’s names (plus “split” for when multiple POVs are in a chapter).

For me, this turned out to be super useful. I’ve got two POV characters, but Jae is the primary protagonist. This let me tell at a glance if I’d gone too long without delving into Elan’s POV – I could see huge chunks where he wasn’t represented, so when revision time came, I gave that a lot of consideration.

The next column is “Status.” I don’t find that one super useful, but haven’t found anything more useful to use instead. If you’re someone who revises by theme or character or whatever (as opposed to chronologically through the novel), this might be more helpful for you!

Then you’ve got word count. This is another that I found VERY helpful, because stacked like this and able to scroll down through the whole thing, I could see if chapter were too short or too long. Mine tend to hover between 3,000 and 4,000 words, so if I found any that were really short or long I’d take a look where they were breaking to see if any alternatives made sense.

Finally, keywords! Again, these were very helpful for me as I was going into revisions, especially my first round. If you look up at the top bar in Scrivener, there’s a button that’s got a key on it. Press it to bring up your full keyword list. You can add new keywords down at the bottom (or highlight a keyword and press delete to, well, delete). You can also highlight a keyword and doubleclick it to edit, or doubleclick the little square to change its swatch color.

Here’s how I used keywords: every character got two, one to slap in any scene where they appeared, and one to slap in any scene where they were mentioned. (So for example, “Character: Elan” and “Character: Elan (mentioned)”.)** I color coded these with a dark pink for appearances and a bright pink for mentions for at-a-glance ease. I also added locations where scenes take place, and important concepts and themes (like various kinds of magic). This let me track who was doing what where, and whether key story elements were being introduced when they should and if they were present enough in the story to work they way they were supposed to.

** I’m not sure if it’s new or I just never noticed it, but it looks like there is a sibling/child option for new keywords. So instead of doing it like this I could have created one keyword for Character Appears with sub-keywords for every character, and one keyword for Character Mentioned and sub-keywords for every character.

Tip: Select a keyword, and then down at the bottom choose “search.” Any scrivenings where that keyword has been added will appear in the binder, so you can easily see them and select them for viewing. (There’s a little X in the lower-right corner of the binder to dismiss this – it took me a hilariously long time to find that, for some reason.)

That’s all the meta-data that I use – but it’s not all that Scrivener offers. There’s a little double carrat at the very right side of the view. Click on that to see other options, and to select/deselect them to customize your outliner mode. (This is where you can add targets and progress, if those are helpful to you!)
So again – this is all very helpful for me, particularly going into revisions. It let me see where I was dropping the ball on plot threads (if a tagged keyword didn’t appear often enough) or losting track of a POV, check consistency on location details between chapters, etc. If any of that sounds useful, I’d definitely recommend playing around with the mode and the options for what you do with it. You can set up other custom meta-data if you have other things you’d like to track and be aware of, and you can get rid of any pieces of the view that aren’t useful for you.

I suspect that like index card mode, it isn’t useful for everyone, but the great thing is that Scrivener is so flexible you can probably find a way to make it work for your process, whatever your process is. As for me… now I’m back to revising in outline-view-less Word. SIGH.

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