Outliner expected

I use word processors since 1985 and always liked outlining; MS Word being the only product for some time.
Some years ago I switched to Libreoffice to avoid the cumbersome user interface of MS Office 20xx.
Now I am starting a longer essay and was looking for a new outliner; adding at least text formatting to the foldable text editor like notepad++.

From Scrivener I expected to import a RTF text and arranging the chapters to outline topics.
Import works fine but outlining … I seem to miss the point of the software.

The manual says “you could make a new file for each chapter” (5.3. Outlining your draft), but it seems to mean:
“You have to save your chapters into separate files, so that they can be outlined”.

Yes, really. Each chapter (or even each scene with each chapter) can and should be its own entry in the binder. You can even break things down further, if there are parts that you want/need to be separate. Those entries then become the basis for your outline. The main editor can display that outline with a number of optional columns related to each document,

Try the Interactive Tutorial in the Help menu, or in the template chooser window if no projects are open. It should clarify the design of Scrivener, and let you figure out if it’s the software for you.

The other side of this is that your outline in effect becomes your document’s structure and thence your actual document. It does take some getting used to, but essentially the binder is both your outliner and your file system. All the other bells and whistles aside, this approach to document organization is imho the best thing about scrivener.

But why should you write the chapters or connected paragraphs into separate files in the first place?

Being able to rearrange content to different sub-topics in an outline is one core idea of an outliner.
I do not see the need for a topic to be bound to a file system item.

It isn’t being bound to a file item in the sense you’re thinking of it – you’re misunderstand what is happening here.

What you have done in your Word outline in effect is to have a series of 'unit’s which consist of headings with associated text, and that’s all. You can move them up and down and left and right in your outline, and you can collapse or expand them to hide or show the text but it will never be any more than a list of headings and associated text.

That’s an outline at its most basic — useful, but it’s very limited compared to Scrivener’s outline capabilities.

In Scrivener, each of those ‘units’ (and I mean every single one of them) can:

  • contain a short synopsis (think of it as the front of an index card with a short description of the unit
  • contain the full text of the unit as it will be eventually be printed
  • contain unlimited notes on the unit
  • contain metadata about the unit – e.g. its status (‘First draft’, ‘final draft’), a coloured label (‘Theme A’, ‘Theme B’), the target word count and progress towards that word count, an unlimited number of arbitrary tags – and you can create any number of additional custom metadata fields yourself
  • contain viewable references to internal and external documents
  • contain snapshots of previous versions of the unit which can be compared and/or rolled back
  • contain an image associated with the unit
  • and… well you get the point.

Each of those ‘units’ is an item in the Binder (the Explorer-like panel on the left). You can create the units in any order and move them up and down the structure, just as you would in Word. The difference is that in Scrivener, all the associated elements I’ve listed above move with it, instantly.

And you don’t have to create a new file to get a new unit – all you do is File > New or ctl-N and a new unit is created in the Binder. Think of it as simply creating a new heading in Word - all it’s doing is creating a new logical unit.

What’s more you can select multiple units in the the Binder and view all the text in one ‘virtual document’ (called a Scrivening). With a single toggle you can see one unit, multiple units or the whole document and edit in any of those states.

The selection doesn’t have to be contiguous – you could for example, do a search for every section of your thesis which mentions Descartes and view and edit all those units together without any of the intervening sections getting in the way. You can’t do that in Word.

I’ve been using the word ‘unit’ so far because I wanted to emphasise that they’re all just elements in your overall project, not something you have to manually save to the file system. In fact, Scrivener calls the units ‘Documents’ — what you think of as the Word ‘document’ (the final completed output) is called a Project in Scrivener.

You can make the documents contain as much or as little of your project as you want. Say your essay has Parts, and Sections: one way would be to create a document for each subsection, nested in the Binder to reflect the hierarchy. Give each section a short synopsis outlining its purpose, then view the whole structure as a series of index cards, which you can move around until you’re happy with the structure, even as you write the actual content by changing the view of the section to the Editor. If you later decide you want to split some of the sections up, just create new documents in the binder to reflect the new sections or subsections, then move them around.

Scrivener allows you to look at these Documents (units) in a number of ways beyond the toggling between individual / multiple text that I’ve just described:

  • you can see each group of documents (units) as index cards (the corkboard) showing just the synopsis – this is really useful for rearranging the documents easily

  • you can see each group of documents in a spreadsheet like outline view – complete with a user definable choice of metadata in columns

Eventually, when you’ve got all the documents in the right order, with the right content, you’ll compile it to your chosen format (which could be an ebook, a manuscript for submission, a Word document, a Latex file, a multimarkdown file and so) and you won’t have to change the structure and contents at all. You just choose a different format.

I’ve not covered everything Scrivener can do, but I hope this has been enough to convince you that Word’s concept of an outliner is very limited compared to Scrivener’s.

There are a number of concepts which provide the power behind Scrivener, without which it can be harder to get the benefit. It’s really worth doing the Interactive Tutorial which you can find in the Help menu. It will take no more than an hour or two to read through – at the end of it, you’ll see why so many writers view Word as a very poor substitute for creating a document in comparison.

Hope this helps.

There’s no need to do so, but for complex documents, there are great advantages to doing so. Give it a try.

To add a postscript to what brookter has laid out fully and clearly above, another of the advantages of a Scrivener project’s package structure (i.e. a folder containing files) is that it is far more proof against corruption than, say, MS Word’s. Although - as many people do not realise - an MS Word “document” also contains many individual files, it is I believe less protected than a Scrivener project from corruption of one part going on to corrupt the whole. (I myself lost half a book in MS Word before switching to Scrivener.) If, in the worst circumstances, one Scrivener file becomes corrupted, it need not corrupt the rest of the project. What’s more, you can in those (extremely rare) circumstances - it’s never happened to me - dive into the project and pull out the files that are still “good”. For confidence writing long-form projects like books, dissertations and long articles, that’s very reassuring.

perhaps I’m reading this wrongly, in which case, I hope you forgive and forget, but do you mean you want your import to be split into the sections automatically? if so, try the import and split function as described here … I used it to transfer my novel into scrivener and create the chapters for me … simplyscrivener.com/tag/importing/

I have no doubt that Scrivener provides various advantages over Word, while I did not need them up to now; that may change.
About the outline-topics, let me get this right - what is the simplest way to divide an existing text into a few ‘units’ that can be rearranged in the outline?

I typically select existing headers or the opening sentence of a paragraph, then use Document > Split > with Selection as Title

You can also use Split > at Selection but then you get names like Introduction, Introduction-1, Introduction-2 etc. which you’ll need to edit anyway.

Thank you brookter, this is exactly what I have missed when started using Scrivener.

I was confusing the documents of Word with the ‘documents’ of Scrivener, and the Binder with File Explorer. When I wrapped my head around this concept, I realized what a wonderful tool is Scrivener.

I think your post will be of a great help for every beginner first steps in Scrivener.

I just wanted to second krastev’s sentiment: Brookter, your post is a great explanation of this concept and will be a real eye opener for beginners, as your recent posts explaining v3 concepts have been real eye openers for me.


@Krastev, @Jim

Thank you for the kind words! I’m pleased the posts have been useful.

brookter, a really excellent post; I suggest you make a Using Scrivener board thread out of it 8)


I can do, if you think it will be useful. I’ll have a think how to make it slightly more general.

(Would be helpful in someone from L&L could verify that the points are all valid though first as they’re only my interpretation.)

Another helpful way to think about the differences is that in the file system you are effectively limited to alphabetical and date sorts (and a few more depending on your os etc. whereas in Scrivener you can place documents in arbitrary order. Simple but huge in practice.