Scrivener is way more difficult than I expected

OK, feedback… I downloaded Scrivener six days ago, and I’ve spent several hours every day going through the tutorial (which is supposed to take 2 hours). I just finished Part 5 today. I’m finding it far more heavy-going than I had anticipated, and than the promotional video led me to believe. I can see that the software “does what it says on the tin”, but I realize now that learning how to use the various features is going to take a lot longer and involve a lot more effort and dedication than I envisaged when I decided to download it (and no, I’m not any kind of idiot). I’m not sure at this point whether to keep going or go back to using Word. I could have got a lot of work done in the past week if I’d been writing instead of struggling with Scrivener. If I end up not using it, it will mean that this was time wasted. Since I’m most of the way through the tutorial I’ll probably continue to the end and reassess how I feel about it then. But right now I’m kind of annoyed that the software was presented as being easy to master when in fact it is quite difficult and time-consuming.

Sorry you’re finding it heavy. I certainly sympathise; the tutorial covers a lot of ground – much more than you need to get writing. I’d almost recommend doing the tutorial after you’ve been using Scrivener for a little while.

There are some basic principles underpinning Scrivener that help explain why it does what it does, and therefore how to use it.

  • It’s not a WYSIWYG editor. The fundamental principle is to write in whatever format looks good to you, and worry about formatting to suit a reader later. Writing and Compiling are therefore two completely different things.
  • It’s not a linear editor. Scrivener is about flexibility in the structure, so you don’t have to start with “Prologue: It was a dark and stormy night…” and keep going until you get to “… and they all lived happily every after. The END”. You can do that if you want, but you can write your document in what ever order you like, growing it organically.

What does that mean?
It means that your first job is to focus on the tools you need to structure and write your work.
Those tools are:

  • The Binder
  • The Editor

The Binder is the thing on the left hand side that looks a bit like a file management system. That’s because that’s exactly what it is. It has three main repositories: The Draft / Manuscript is exactly that. Put your actual writing in there. The Research folder is for notes and other things that won’t actually form part of your book. The Trash is self explanatory.

You can put file and folders in the Binder using the buttons at the top of the screen, and move them around with clicks and drags. When you later come to Compile, you;ll find that Scrivener treats files and folders slightly differently (or more accurately, let’s you treat them differently if you want). In the meantime, a suggested start point is to use Folders to organise your manuscript into Parts and Chapters, and then fill those with documents that represent individual scenes.

You don’t need to work like that (some people have 1 document per paragraph, some 1 per chapter… it’s personal preference) but 1 doc per scene seems to work for a lot of people.

The Editor is the main part of the screen. That’s simply where you write your manuscript. Click on the file / folder in the Binder that you’re writing about to select that document in the Editor, and then start writing!

Now comes the complicated bit… The Editor has FOUR different ways of showing you your draft, but only three buttons to press to get you there. These are the three grouped buttons in the middle at the top of the screen that look like a stack of pages, a corkboard with 2 cards pinned to it, and an icon that looks a bit like the binder.

  1. The far right button (that looks like the binder) is the Outliner mode - it shows your draft in tabular form… this is just the data for each file (probably pretty sparse at this point!)
  2. The middle button (that looks like a corkboard) is the Corkboard mode - this allows you to view the selected documents in the binder as index cards on a corkboard. If you have a folder selected in the Binder, it’ll have a card for every document in that folder. You can use these cards to store a brief synopsis (which is also viewable in the Inspector pane – the panel on the right of the screen – for the active document).
  3. The far right button (that looks like three sheets of paper) is Scrivenings mode - this shows you the actual text in all the selected documents in the Binder. So if you’ve selected the Folder in the Binder called “Chapter two”, it’ll show you all the text (and allow you to edit it) for all the documents / scenes from the Chapter two folder, separated by a line.
  4. If you have no button pressed, you’re in normal edit mode… you just see (and can edit) the text for the document that is selected in the Binder.

If you can’t see the Binder or the Inspector, you can make them visible or hidden by pressing the buttons at the far left and the far right of the toolbar.

The other thing you probably want to know to get started is how to import work you’ve already started. By far the easiest way is to simple drag the file from your hard drive into the Binder and press OK to the pop-ups. You can then scroll through the document to the start of scenes / chapters etc and press Ctrl-K. That’ll split the document into two at the cursor point. You can then rename and move those around in your binder to structure your work.

Play around with that for a while, getting comfortable though experimentation on how the Binder and Editor work. Being familiar with that will make the Compile process much more intuitive as well (as this is essentially a way of telling Scrivener which documents from the Binder to include in the compiled draft, and how to format each section).

Then you can slowly start to think about other things, like Labels, Statuses and Keywords to track development / characters. And later you can look into setting word count targets or things like Collections.

If you’d like a “real” Scrivener project to play with, you can download one from this page: viewtopic.php?f=51&t=28587
(It’ll have more in it than you’ll need, but will give you a whole bunch of stuff you can play with).

What’s easy and ‘intuitive’ to one person can feel unnatural and difficult to the next. I took to Scrivener like a terrier to a room full of squeaky toys because, in broad strokes, what it did made sense to me from the beginning. There were quirks I had to get used to, but it fit with how I organize ( :laughing: ) my thoughts. Also, I only really started taking novel writing seriously about 8 years ago, so I had no established writing process to speak of; if I had come to Scrivener with an idiosyncratic set of habits, I might have found it difficult to adjust to. Of course, I’ve had to adjust from a word processor that I ran on my Commodore 64 back in the 80s, through WordPerfect for DOS, various versions of Word, programming text-only editors, a LaTex front-end ‘style’ editor, Wiki web servers etc… so I’ve seen pretty much every kind of approach one might make to putting words into a computer. From that background, Scrivener is ‘easy’, but I can still see how it’s a paradigm shift from your standard word processing program, as implemented in the last 20 years.

So maybe it’s just not for you. And that’s okay. Even the creator of Scrivener recognizes that not everyone will like it, so he provides a handy web page somewhere around here for other writing software that may better suit people who don’t care for it.

If you decide to stick with it, feel free to ask about how to accomplish various writing or editing tasks; there are a lot of people here who will be glad to share their tips.

Thanks for the advice, guys. I’m just about to read the last part of the tutorial, and then I’ll try editing one of my own documents. Hopefully I’ll find that easier going than the tutorial. What I think would be very useful is a page somewhere giving simple “how to” instructions on the various tasks that can be carried out using the software. For example:

How to create a new document
How to import a document
How to split a page
How to add endnotes

I know there’s a FAQ, but it’s hard to find specific instructions there (eg, I’ve been trying to find out how to add endnotes and I can’t find instructions anywhere, only info about footnotes, which I would never use).

Anyway, thanks again for all your help.

I had similar issues learning Scrivener. I went back and forth between Scrivener and WriteWay Professional a few times, then, suddenly, I reached a critical mass with Scrivener. Seemingly overnight I ‘got it’. Since then, I stopped looking and just started using.

That said, like any other extremely powerful software, the learning curve continues. It seems like every week I discover a new feature.

The approach that worked best for me was to focus on simple tasks and learn the added features as they were needed.


I agree, Katex, that a simple set of how-to guidelines would be really useful for many people. Honestly, I don’t think I ever did the tutorial. (Of course, I don’t write for a living, and don’t write fiction or scripts, so it may not be aimed at me.) I got the general idea from the Website, and started playing/working with it. I did read some sections of the Help pretty carefully, and keep going back to it when I have questions. This forum is also extremely useful for specific questions.

Let me underscore two things that others have said or implied. (1) Flexibility: use Scrivener to work the way you work. You’ve learned a lot from the tutorial, but feel free to go and do otherwise. Scrivener has suit-yourself workflow flexibility built into it as a core principle. (2) Word processors: Scrivener is not really meant to be an alternative to standard word processors such as MS Word. You do your organizing, research, and drafting in Scrivener, then export/compile it to Word, and do final writing and formatting there. Scrivener can do things, in its areas of strength, that the creators of Word, bless their little business-centric hearts, would never think needed doing. And Word and other WPs can do things in the final stages that Scrivener is not meant to do. Even if you fall in love with Scrivener, you’ll still need Word for some things.

This absolutely matches my experience.

I had two goes at Scrivener. It wasn’t until deep into the second one that everything clicked. Now, I can’t imagine being without it.

Not sure if this will be in time to help the user “Katex,” but I have been kicking this topic around with other writers for a few years now and think her initial experience with Scrivener is common to a number of writers who are told about the program and decide to give it a try.

In talking to other writers about their experiences with Scrivener, and in considering my own experience, I believe there are some common stages that writers move through when it comes to Scrivener. If the writer sticks with Scrivener, or returns to give Scrivener a second chance, then most of us get to the point where we have made Scrivener “ours.”

The Scrivener Stages:

Stage 1: Hearing About Scrivener. Wonder at why so many other writers are talking about this “Scrivener” app and if anything can really be “that cool.”

Stage 2: Initial Euphoria. After installing and beginning to use Scrivener, we are thrilled at being liberated from the Tyranny of the Linear that word processors imposed on us. Emotions range from “happy” to “joyous.” Breaking down the book into smaller chunks in the Binder is nothing short of Genius! This program gets it!

Technically we are still not very competent at this stage. Compile is a complete mystery still and while we think them incredibly cool, we still don’t really know how exactly we’ll be using the Index Cards and attached Synopses. We have not even touched on the Outline view or how it might be useful and things like custom meta-data, keywords, document and project references are invisible.

We tell other writers how amazing Scrivener is but can’t really explain exactly why it is so amazing.

Stage 3: Novice, Under-User Status. We have spent some time learning the basics and begin to actually use the software to get some writing done. We can import some of our research and use the document and project notes to, well, take notes. We’ve customized the toolbar more than once and might even be using a feature like Project Targets to track our progress or using the Writing Tools to look up synonyms, definitions, etc.

Compile is still frustrating and a good number of us have headed over to the Literature & Latte Forum and agreed completely when reading the posts of other users who don’t have any idea on how to use Compile either. A few of use fire off our own “Compile is Just Too Confusing” posts.

Few of us have actually taken advantage of the built-in tutorial because, well, it’s too much like work really and shouldn’t writing be fun?

Stage 4: Frustrated But Happy. We still like to use Scrivener, and will readily agree it is the best writing software available, but there are so many things we wish it would do but can’t seem to find out how. Take outlining the plot for instance. Sure there are index cards and synopses, and we’ve heard other writers talk about how great a tool it is for outlining, but how do we really get it to work for us?!

At this point we know the tools are there, just not exactly how to really use all of them. We have even tried going through the Tutorial as advised and may have consulted the manual a few times.

Stage 5: Breakthrough Moment. At some point, if we have continued to stick with it, there will come a breakthrough moment when suddenly the lights go on and we finally understand enough to see how to make all the pieces work. We can outline, and even add custom meta-data to make the outline more meaningful. We know how to insert links, import different types of files, use tables, etc. Collections are suddenly a good idea and now we begin to learn those little skills that really make us productive. Using the Formatting tools comes to mind.

Creating a custom template, and saving template sheets within our custom project templates is the logical next step. Why not make this thing work exactly the way we want it too. We’ve experimented with a plethora of layout schemes and found some really interesting ways to use split-screens.

Stage 6: Back to the Writing. Turns out we still have to write the damn book and Scrivener has no tool for solving the plotting problems in Act III.

I’d never describe my occupation as a writer, but I suppose I must be, churning out as I do some 20,000-50,000 words a week, sometimes 20,000 in a couple of days. Since I bought my first word-processor in the early 1980s, I’ve trialled numerous word processing software (apps now called) all of which have one marketing thing in common: to make life simpler for the writer and to enable the user to concentrate on the writing, etc etc.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Even if you use a pencil to write on paper you’d still need to know how to sharpen the pencil, assuming you don’t have an unlimited supply of sharpened pencils at your disposal) and a basic understanding of the types of paper best suited to pencil. The same applies to using a fountain pen with ink or a biro. The point is that whatever instrument or device you use to convey your thoughts and feelings into a written word, there is a learning curve for use of the device.

One would expect Scrivener (a product of a business venture) to be promoted by the developers and resellers as the best thing since the widening of the Finchley Road (or sliced bread if you prefer): there’s a risk people wouldn’t buy if S were left to its own devices. Otherwise, frankly, I think the way Scrivener is promoted by its supporters is over-the-top. Yes, S has good points and is fairly flexible, but it’s also very structured as all software is: one needs to adapt one’s own way of working to the software, not vice versa.

Being adaptable is a hallmark of attitudinal flexibility, but many people tend to become stuck in their ways which is why when trying something new they can end up finding it difficult and getting stuck, Generally it is easier to give up than persevere, but whether better to carry on regardless depends upon how important one thinks it is to prove (to oneself?) one can do it. Personally, I’m not a fan of “if at first you can’t then try try again”. I prefer ‘if at first I can’t then don’t, do something else’ so, for my writing, I use a combination of Pages 09, Nisus Pro, Mellel, Scrivener and Filemaker Pro. A while back I posted that I was using S for a local history research project. In the event i gave up on S and switched to Filemaker Pro designing a database to my specification.

Of course Scrivener is way more difficult than you expected. Partly that’s a fault of the marketing hype for having given a false impression, and partly your fault for having formed the wrong impression. The answer to the question ‘who cares?’ depends upon who’s asking!

If it’s creative fiction you’re doing, then save yourself some grief and get this book.

If you’re not familiar with David Hewson, he’s a best-selling author of mysteries. One of his pieces of advice is that it’s only necessary to learn the bits that are relevant to the kind of writing you do. Scrivener is a very deep program, with bits and pieces for lots of different kinds of writing. You don’t need to learn it all. Just learn what’s essential. For fiction, Hewson takes you through the process of using Scrivener to set up and work on a novel. He keeps it fairly simple but effective. Give it a try.

Yeah, this turned out to be pretty long. Short version:
There’s a lot to Scrivener, but you don’t need to master it all at once. Very few decisions are permanent, and things like project structure are very easy to change. Play around with it.

Long version:

I approach software sort of like I do writing: poke around and see what happens.

I’m not sure the tutorial even existed when I first started using Scrivener. I certainly didn’t do more than glance at it. My learning process was more like:

  • Look through the menus and see what all the commands are. (Granted, there weren’t as many then.)

  • Look through the Preferences screens to see if any of the options look obviously wonderful or crazy-making.

  • Create new project. I don’t like any of the templates, so I’ll just use Blank.

  • Click icons on the toolbar to see what happens.

By the time I’d done all this, I had at least a rudimentary understanding of the main components of the interface and what commands were available. From there, I just started writing, and pretty much haven’t looked back.

Obviously, some people are less scattershot than I am, about both writing and software. YMMV. But it might help to realize that Scrivener works more like paper than pretty much any other writing software out there. An index card is just an index card: it only has room for a few lines, but you can clip it to the sheet of paper that contains the actual document. If that document happens to be a folder, you can write additional information on the cover, and then stuff more sheets of paper into it. You can spread the index cards out on your desk (Corkboard). You can line up the documents in neat rows with only their titles visible (Outliner, Binder), or you can stack all the pages together and read them straight through (Scrivenings mode).

If you need to, you can stick post-it notes all over the individual documents, you can scribble in the margins, you can use colored flags to remind you where you are. (Labels, Status, Keywords, Document Notes, Annotations and Comments.) You can be as messy or as organized as you like, working from a neat Chapter by Chapter outline, or writing scenes at random and shuffling them around every other day.

And until you are ready to share the manuscript with the outside world, you don’t really need to worry about formatting at all. You can use the defaults. You can use green 16 pt. Comic Sans. It doesn’t matter, because the Compile function will happily “re-type” the whole thing into whatever format your particular destination wants.

Where a lot of people get stuck, I think, is that the “natural” process in Scrivener is almost the exact opposite of the way you would approach a project in something like Word. In Word, the stylesheet is everything. And so the very first thing you do (if you’re smart) is set up all the styles you need, from Title Page Header to sub-sub-section footnote. Word has lots of tools and templates to help you do that, too. So before you necessarily have the slightest idea what you want to write about, you create a neatly raked sandbox in which to write it. Your manuscript will always look pretty, no matter what the actual words are. In a lot of ways, that can be very reassuring. If nothing else, “WinDinking” is a time-honored procrastination tool, the computer equivalent of sharpening all your pencils.

The people who “get” Scrivener right away are probably the ones who find the sandbox too sterile, and want to go splash around in the creek and try to catch guppies.

(Which, by the way, is not to say that either approach is “better.” It’s impossible to tell from the finished work how a manuscript began. Just that one might be more immediately Scrivener-friendly.)

People who like the tidy constraints of a sandbox will find all the tools they need in Scrivener, too. In fact, the enormous number of tools might be exactly the problem for these folks. In Word, there is pretty much only one way of doing things. In Scrivener, there might be three or four. Before you can build the sandbox, you have to decide how to build it. In Word, that’s a critical decision because early decisions can be very difficult to change. In Scrivener, though, “a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.” Try something, keep good backups, and feel free to change it later it you learn about a new feature that might work better.


I agree, the tutorial is counter-productive, kind of a waste of time. It would be better to have a “Get Up To Speed” section and make the rest optional/advanced. The intro tutorial should explain the core functionality centered around the Binder and how to get word to page ASAP without “stuff” getting in the way of writing. I messed around with the advanced features way too much, lost a lot of time.

After all that, which I consider a heavy but necessary learning curve, I ended up with one folder per chapter, with a chapter header document and then chapter body document. I keep the chapter folder closed so when I click it, both documents open in Scrivenings mode.

Secondly, I always have the editor split vertically with my notes on the right and text on the left. The notes are also divided into locations and filled with character bios, location details, etc. I make the notes window “Locked in Place”.

There are a lot of bugs in the Windows version in text formatting and copying/pasting. I find that frustrating but will keep using it and not use the broken features until they’re fixed. (For instance, if you paste text, then undo, the new paragraph style remains–just a lot of annoying bugs like that).

Many newbies find themselves inundated with features and no idea how to put them together, so I recommend a workflow like mine: … mfFk6DTiBQ

Good tutorial for newbie users. May I recommend you submit it to the SCRIVENER FB page?

I’d just add, for clarification purposes, that it’s a good tutorial on compiling, especially in connection with formatting. It doesn’t deal with the writing process and workflow during it, which many new users might want (using the binder, split editor window, notes, etc.). The same author does have another tutorial on workflow for formatting in the editor:

Then again … what if you have a large projec, lots of induvidual documents, outlines, research.
And you have indeed made comments all over the place. How do you go trough them all? In the tutorials I found, it seemed so easy, all the comments was in one list in the inspector, and they worked as a book mark. But for me, only the comments in the document currently at hand was visible … I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the mac-version has so much more. It’s not very easy learning a software where most of the tutorials on youtube is showing you features you don’t have.

You are missing Scrivenings mode. The Inspector will show you comments for whatever is currently loaded in the editor, which could be a single document or could be the entire manuscript. Select the documents you want in the Binder and then View -> Scrivenings should give you what you want.



The OP is on Windows; is that also true on Windows, given the limitations of Scrivenings View in Windows?

Just asking.

Mr X

Ah, good point. Just checked.

In the Windows version, the Inspector’s Footnotes and Comments pane will match whatever document actually has the cursor. So as you scroll through a Scrivenings session, comments will appear and disappear. Ditto the Document Notes pane.

In the Mac version, you’ll see the whole list of Comments for all the documents in the Scrivenings session, but the Document Notes for only the current document.


just an update to the message (from CityDog - Fri Nov 20, 2015 3:08 am)
pointing to David Hewson.
here is the URL to several postings from David: