Scrivening is editing? Using Scrivener to edit novels

They say “writing is editing.” I haven’t been able to find a thread specifically on this topic so thought I’d toss it out, and I suspect it fits best in the “usage scenarios” section.

Inkygirl brought up the use of Scrivener for novels and of course that’s what it was designed for (but unfortunately, the thread seems to have petered out at that); I think she’s right and that there’s more to say on the topic. There are also a number of discussions of organizing and writing first drafts–outlining versus intuitive approaches to writing, etc., as well as the links to the “one-pass editing” article that is very helpful. But how about the best use of Scrivener as a post-first-draft editing tool?

I’m still toiling to finish my first (and second) novels, both mired for years in editing and re-editing. It took MUCH less time to produce the first usable drafts (weeks to months) than that it has been taking to do the editing. I’ve had professional editors who’ve edited bestsellers praise them both and say they have promise, but of course that comes with the usual “just make this and that major structural change” advice, and so I toil daily to rewrite, move things, clean, polish. (Of course, I’m also learning the craft, so hopefully later novels won’t take anywhere near so long to do!)

Having just imported my first and biggest one into Scrivener, I am loving working with it. I’ve divided the book into Parts folders and thence into scenes, which has proven very helpful as I can then do more focused scene-by-scene “audits” to determine if the scene works, if it serves the purpose in the overall work that it needs to, if it’s where it should be, if it has the right dramatic elements, etc. I am able to use the colored “push pins” and keywords, which helps me see what’s where, what needs revision, to track the various threads that need to be remembered and resolved, etc.

Still… I find that editing a novel is a tremendously complex task. Maybe I’m just making more of it than I need to, but I doubt it. Having read Maass’s books on writing (revising, really) “breakout” novels and other works on editing, and using the feedback from my very helpful editors, I am awed by the number of things that have to be considered and re-considered (and re-re-considered…), the many problems that have to be tracked and solved and often, re-solved several times and then polished. It’s a bit like “improving” a complex machine by disassembling it and trying to improve it, one part at a time… if you make that gear bigger, you have to change the other gears and the type of material used, which means you have to move the bicycle seat and then realign the wings… etc., etc. (All the while having the recurring nightmare that you thought you started to improve a bicycle, but now somehow it has wings and a blender?)

I sense that Scrivener has great potential as an editing tool, but I am guessing it might be useful to compile a set of “editing tricks” we might share with each other. I think there’s much more than meets the eye in using Scrivener for editing.

Example: uses of Scrivener links. This morning I just needed to get my thinking organized for the week’s work. First thing I did was create a document with a brainstormed list of the changes I most need to make this week. I then realized I could use Scrivener links on the list: I highlighted each change and linked it to the specific scene I need to work in. There were a few scenes I have to write, so I created them as blank placeholder documents where they need to go, then Scrivener-linked to them from my “editing tasks” list. Now, all I have to do during a writing session is start with that “to do” document, pick what I want to work on (instead of spending my writing time wondering what to do or where to start, or again “starting at page one,” or writing to this forum…(’:wink:’)… and get to work!

It may seem like adding an unnecessary step, but being a big fan of David Allen’s GTD methods, I find it helps my brain get into/stay on the task, because it is a very specific “next action” to just pick the next piece of work I have to do (or am interested/inspired to work on) off the list and click the link to the right scene. My mind wanders less. Sort of like having that high-priced editor consultant standing over my shoulder, pointing her finger and saying “write this in HERE and write a little scene about that and insert it THERE, and make sure the heroine mentions it once in that final scene on the boat THERE… and that’s ALL YOU HAVE TO DO about this problem!”

There are some handy things I wish Scrivener did which might help this kind of editing process, such as having check-boxes (such as in OmniOutliner) for checking off such things when done, but it’s possible to just cross those out with “strikethrough” or highlight or move them to a “done” spot or heck, just delete 'em. Anyway, that’s just an example.

Anyone else have ideas/suggestions? Especially those of you who have actually managed to finish/publish your novels? Thanks!

Caveat: I’m a screenwriter, not a novelist.

That being said, one of the most exciting things about Scrivener for me is the ability to leave my work in Scrivener imbedded in a formal structure.

The editing process is so much clearer and easier because you can identify where the structure is wandering or bloated. You can also use search to isolate storylines and make sure they track.

There are plenty of successful screenwriters who don’t use and outline or structure at all. I’m sure there are many novelists who do the same.

Are there novelists using Scrivener with a strong formal bent?

Here. Because I’m writing both novels and screenplays. :wink:

I like Scrivener for the same reason - its formal approach -, but the most important thing is to use the features a program offers in the way it enhances one’s workflow. It’s not about integrating everything a program offers, even if it doesn’t feel right, but the program demands it. Scrivener is a very “open” tool, it can adapt to many individual workflows.

This is also true for the editing process. Some may want to track every change. Easy. You have folders, files, labels, statuses, highlights, annotations. That’s almost too many possibilities to keep track of what, where and when.

Personally, I prefer to have a folder with single chapters (novel) or scenes (screenplay - the scenes are arranged in subfolders for sequences). This is always the final text. Its index cards are used for outlining. Before a major revision I copy a version to a seperate folder “old versions”, comment on the index card from when this scene is and what it’s about. I have another folder for general notes and everything else. If I want to keep a version from a certain point, I just export it, though I haven’t yet gotten familiar with the snapshot feature …

William Goldman writes screenplays by figuring out what the spine of the story is, and discarding what doesn’t hook up to the spine properly. The spine is the story you want to tell.

Genre works may make it more obvious: you have to catch the killer/reassemble the spaceship/get the boy & girl back together. But every work needs that spine that lets you know when something is contributing, and when it’s a lovely scene full of character development that is only stopping the narrative drive dead in its tracks.

Ideally, every scene should have layers that perform these multiple tasks while also letting the story unfold. Develop character through action. Let the action flow from what the character would do in a situation. And always, above all, have a story to tell.

Is This Scene advancing the plot AND developing the characters AND coming up with a way around the problem AND coming up with a new problem? All the time? Because that’s how you get something people can’t put down.

So you can use Scrivener to rate each scene (I advise working in scenes and doing the chapters later, at this point chapters are imposing a structure that isn’t there yet) according to the number of elements covered in each. Plot point good, but not bringing out the heroine’s reluctance to face her past. Mark it with red–hot stuff, needs more depth.

Long flashback about the past? Green; lovely growth possibilities that shows it is character driven information that needs to have a plot element dropped in, or have this information pulled out and blended into existing scenes.

Or you can put the missing elements into the synopsis and search for specific terms, or just scroll through the corkboard. Or use status with numbers. One for a scene that only works on one level. When they are all at Five, you have something. Whatever works best for you.

But this is how that big snarly tangle can get sorted out; by looking at each piece and making sure it has a flywheel and a gear and a bearing and a ratchet.

Also, starting re-reading novels you liked and see how they handled all the elements. What made it work? I have learned great things this way.

I’m using Scrivener for my fourth novel, and liking it a lot. I’m a big believer that the works we create are influenced by the tools we use to create them.

I wrote my first novel with Microsoft Word on a PC laptop. Although Word has some outlining tools, I never cozied up to them, so I wrote my manuscript as one giant block of text. When I was done and it was time to edit, I found myself either focused on line edits (e.g., fixing individual words or phrases) or big cut-and-paste edits (e.g., picking up a whole scene and moving it somewhere else, then smoothing over the old gaps and the new transitions). There seemed to be no convenient way to do structural-level editing in Word, and consequently I didn’t do much of that (and it’s a rare first draft that can’t use some structural editing!).

My first feature screenplay was written in Final Draft. Although it makes the formatting easy, and offers lots of convenient typing shortcuts, once again you’re creating essentially a big block of text. In my paper notebook next to the computer I had all kinds of notes about what different scenes were designed to accomplish, but those notes were not part of the script. So when I started to move scenes around, splitting them up and separating them, keeping track of the purpose of each scene became a hassle.

I wrote my second and third novels on a PC using the vi text editor (an ancient Unix-based plain-text editor). The big advantage, besides the fact that my fingers simply knew how to fly using vi from years of experience, was that I felt free to throw in structural information along with my text. That’s because vi files are plain text (that is, there’s no formatting information in them - if you open them up, they’re just your text, nothing else). Because the format is so simple, I wrote a bunch of scripts in the perl programming language that did all kinds of things for me - word counts, chapter breakouts, scene breakouts, character detection, and so on. So I’d basically created a novel-writing environment of a bunch of tools, all based around my plain-text document. (By contrast, trying to do this with a Word or even an RTF document would have been harder, because those things store formating information I’d have had to deal with).

When I started my current novel, I thought about my environment of vi and perl scripts, and decided there had to be a better way. From experience, I knew I relied on two types of information to help me write: the first was the ability to break up my work into pieces, ranging from huge to just a line or two, which could be easily moved around. The second was that I needed to maintain structural information (or meta-information - that is, information about the text but not in the text itself), and that information had to be tied to the scenes. So if I pick up a scene and move it, that information (e.g., the why of the scene, or a bit of foreshadowing that must occur) would move with the scene. Those tools help me write, because they let me partition the information about each fragment from the fragment itself, yet keep them linked. These are the “layers” that have been discussed in this thread, and I think being consciously aware of all the layers associated with every scene is an important part of assembling that 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle we call a novel.

Since I hadn’t yet dabbled in Cocoa (being new to the Mac), I was ready to roll up my sleeves and write a whole new set of text-file-manipulation tools to support my novel-writing vision when I had the bright idea to see if someone else had beat me to the punch. Of the half-dozen or so programs for the Mac that are out there, this is the one that supports those criteria the best. And it’s got a gazillion other features that I appreciate, and am happy not to have to implement myself! From the full-screen mode to the export options, they’re also handled with more grace and polish than I’d be likely to have programmed for my own use. I’d happily use a rough system (as I did for books two and three), but it’s oh so much more pleasant to use a nice one.

My setup is pretty simple. One folder per chapter, each holding multiple files. I seem to be averaging 8-10 files per chapter. Most are complete scenes, but some are just bits of transition, and others are different phases of the same scene. I keep my notes for each item with the item, along with reference pictures, URLs, links to other bits of text, etc. I have a folder called “Fragments”, and each time I cut a big chunk of text I create a new text file in that folder, label it by the chapter from which it was taken, and paste the cut text into that file. In the notes field I add the reasons why that text was cut.

I haven’t gotten to the edit/rewrite phase yet, but I can already see that moving around the pieces in the binder is going to give me the sort of structural-level editing I found so inconvenient in Word, and had to write my own scripts to perform when working in plain text.

If our tools influence the way we work and the things we create, then it’s wise to pick the tools that have beneficial effects. The ability to do the stuff I described above, in a convenient and comfortable fashion, is why I use Scrivener.

Thank you, AndrewG, for a simple and elegant explanation of a complex process. I’m going straight back to my unwieldy text to apply what you’ve just taught me.



Thanks, crimewriter. I re-read my post and realized there was precious little information on the actual details of my setup. I’m still new to Scrivener, but here are some more of the mechanics of what I’m doing.

I use the Synopsis field (on the index card) for the surface-level information about each text file (e.g., “Bob and Alice fight over the car” or “Jerry’s dream while on the bus”). I use the notes field for the sub-surface information that the text shows the reader (e.g., “Bob is defensive about his guitar playing ability,” or “Frank is furiously angry.”). So remembering the old maxim, “show, don’t tell” I can check my Notes and see that I have to show that Jeff is shy around around girls, and while writing (or editing) I can check that what happens in that fragment indeed lets the reader see Jeff being shy around girls.

I like to keep tabs on the size of each chapter. A quick way to do that is to left-click on the Chapter folder in the Binder (that shows me the corkboard of all the items). Then I click Edit Scrivenings, which merges them all together,and at the bottom of the screen is that chapter’s word count.

I’ve set up my Status fields like this: Empty, Skeleton, First Draft, Revised Draft, Polishing, Final Draft, Done. Empty means (obviously) nothing’s in there yet, Skeleton means there’s just a line or two of suggestive text that forms the skeleton of the scene, Polishing means I’m tweaking the words, and the other fields are from the defaults.

I’ve played around with a few variations on the Labels field. I originally used it to hold POV information for each scene, as per the FAQ, but that wasn’t helpful to me. I switched it to hold all of the main characters that appear in that scene, but that became ungainly very fast (I usually have a few major characters in my books, so creating a label for each combination means having a lot of labels, which dilutes their utility).

I’ve ended up using Labels that tell me the function of the scene - that is, the principal reason the scene is there. So I’ve re-named “Labels” as “Function”, and I have the following values: Unlabeled, Unknown, Skeleton, Pacing, Transition, Joke, Alice, Bob, Carol, Alice & Bob, Alice & Carol, Bob & Carol.

Unknown means I don’t know why that text is there yet - often when writing stuff just comes out, or I have some intuitive reason for writing it, but I don’t know why, nor where it should go. It’s just … there. So I call it Unknown, meaning I’ll figure it out later. Skeleton means that it fills a critical structural role - an act ending, for example. Pacing means that that fragment’s just there because the story needed to speed up or slow down at that spot - usually, a Pacing fragment is short, and follows a very active sequence, so the reader can catch his/her breath. Transitions are to get from one place and time to another smoothly - they can be as simple as “Meanwhile, in Peoria…” Then there are scenes principally designed for character development. If it’s one character, that person’s name goes into the function. If it’s a relationship (typically of two people), that pair goes into the function.

Of course, scenes often have multiple purposes for being, but the way I work I think of each scene as having a main reason (either to advance the plot, reveal character, or deliver a joke), and the other reasons are supplementary. The main reason goes in the Function, the others in the notes. The note also tells me what’s happening with the identified character or relationship (e.g., the Function might be “Alice” and a Note would read “Alice confronts her fear of heights”, or if it’s “Bob & Alice” the Note might be “Alice seduces Bob”). This doesn’t work for every scene, but for me, it works for most of them, and certainly enough to be useful.

Finally, I use the keywords to identify the characters in the scene by name or function. Functions are all one word, for example “BobGirlfriend” for Bob’s girlfriend, if she’s not major enough for me to remember her name. By making it one word I can search for and find files with just that character, rather than, say, all scenes with Bob, or all scenes with girlfriends. The same goes with critical plot events I’m going to want to locate later, e.g., “FrankLies”, “FrankHides”, or “BabyCries.”

I’ve been thinking of swapping my Function and Status fields. Right now in the Corkboard my index cards are all stamped as Empty, Skeleton, or First Draft (their Status) and the pins are a rainbow of colors. During the writing phase, I think it would be better to have the Function stamped across each card - perhaps later, during editing, Status would be better. I don’t know of an easy way to exchange these fields, though, so it would be a pretty big manual job to try the experiment.

So this is how I’m using Scrivener now, during the first-draft phase of a novel. I’m sure it’ll change over time, but I thought I’d share my mechanics in case they could be of any use to anyone else.

Thanks to all who have been replying to this question. It seems that Scrivener offers a rich set of possibilities for the editing phase(s) of writing.

I just stumbled on a tactic that I’ve found helpful, which I’ll share as well. I was reading some of Sol Stein’s stuff on writing and he made a good point about editing a novel, which is that the best way to proceed is NOT to do what I’ve been doing for several years now on this first (and very large) book by continually starting at page one and going through it over and over again. Instead, he suggests having a list of specific changes to focus on, and initially in revision find the right spots to make all those changes, either adding or deleting scenes, changing things, etc. (Changes, of course, can run from “get rid of Bob’s moustache” to “add a best friend so the protagonist has someone to challenge her solutions,” etc. Of course, some of these changes are going to be rather daunting when you have a Word document of 400 or more pages, and by the time you’ve had some editor’s or good readers’ critiques you may have lists of not one or two but maybe twenty or thirty or more of these changes.

Stein’s point is to avoid the burnout and frustration of continually trying to work on these kinds of things from the beginning of the book… you can get permanently lost in such an enchanted forest of words. Of course, Scrivener is great for this because of the various ways you can cut up the novel (or whatever big project you’re doing.)

I’ve found that the best recent approach for me is to make a list of changes the book needs on an Excel spreadsheet, so I can color code them as they’re done. (Excel for me works better for this than Scriv.) I have the Drafts folder broken down into Parts folders and individual scenes.

But the key is using the Search along with the changes list. You can search for “moustache” and of course, get a list of scenes where it appears and clip it off scene by scene. A better example might be that I want my protagonist’s stepfather (whom she hates) to have to deal with cancer through the book… I did a search for his name, and so could quickly find a handful of scenes where he’s either present or referred to, so I can easily enough tinker with them. Likewise, adding new scenes that may be needed is fairly easy within Scrivener…but the search idea worked so delightfully well when I tried it, and I hadn’t seen that one listed here, that I wanted to share it.

Of course then there’s all the subsequent polishing and all, but my experience is that especially after you’ve had a good editor give you feedback about stuff your book really might need, or can do without, or the other big, structural or plot or character changes they tend to suggest, the hard part is figuring out where and how to make them. Scriv seems well suited to this, which to my inexperienced/haven’t finished the first one yet mind is a real godsend.


Thanks, AndrewG and Windchyme. It’s a privilege to be allowed to peer over another writer’s shoulder as he/she is working.

I’m new to Mac as well as to Scrivener, so every day I learn something. I’m not using Scriv. for the book I’m currently editing, but I am using it for the one that’s just at the planning stage, and there’s one habit I’ve fallen into that I’m finding useful, so I’ll pass it on:

Using status labels: I’ve given mine colours so that when I glance at the binder I can see at once what sort of note I’ve written. Labels at the moment have names like Background (green), Observation (blue), Fiction (salmon pink) and Chapter (deep pink).

The point is that I start by jotting down a note about, say, three old ladies sitting on a bench in the sun and they have identical red-gold hair. This is simply an observation and will be given a green label. But then I imagine them sharing a bottle of hair-dye between them, or maybe buying a 3-for-2 offer. Who chooses the colour? This note will be coloured pink. Now, when I finally use this scene in some way in my first draft, the resulting note will be deep pink. And when I glance at the Binder I will see the gradually changing colours – greens and blues in the Research folder, pinks and reds in the Draft – and I know their status in the progression just by their colour. (I’ve turned on the preference that colours folders and documents in the Binder.)

I also try to remember to put internal links in the Notes window, and add keywords, but I’m not yet consistent in doing this and it might be easier to add keywords when I’ve progressed further with the book.

It takes me a year to write a novel, and I grow it in an organic way rather than working with an outline in the way that others describe – and this is why I find that Scrivener works so well for me. I’m still finding out the simplest ways of doing things and discovering all its capabilities. I thought I’d use my new Mac just for ‘play’, but I find now that I turn to the Dell PC only when I have to do my accounts.

Thanks again for sharing your working methods. It’s been an inspiration – and now it’s time for work!


I really appreciate the detail from you all in how you have set up Scrivener and how this reflects your approach. Each post is like a tutorial in different angles on the novel writing process. Windchime and Andrew especially, but then there’s Werebear’s notes on Goldman (I too have been doing exactly the wrong thing, lost in the forest of tweaking prose). Andrew, for some reason I’m in fits over your transition example, “Meanwhile, in Peoria…”

My own approach is a bit more free-form, which means that there will be lots of clean up later as time lines don’t jibe, characters have lost continuity, and so on. As writing is all about not getting in the way of myself by placing any demands on the initial output, I can’t worry about all the formal editing issues up front. This is why, of course, I love Scrivener. But all your comments above do argue for finding some forms that will help structure the editing later, so it’s there when it’s time for it.

I like a lot of the schema’s you folks have put out, and will probably come back to this thread to borrow pieces and cobble them together for my emerging draft. For now, this has become an avoidance excursion, so I must come to grips with some actual writing!

CW- your Mann quote in your signature is priceless, I wish I had stolen it first!

Thanks all.

Thanks AndrewG for your really excellent exposition of your process.

I have just added a ‘TEXT BOX’ folder to my own Master template. I still use a pre-trash folder for throw out stuff that I don’t want to hit the delete trash on yet. But this idea of a text folder for chunks of possible useful stuff is a splendid idea.

Is it possible that you might post a template of your setup/process here? I could then set up a link to it from the Templates list. This is really worth sharing with others.

Thanks for the inspiration.


Hi Jim K,

Yes, I agree with you and respect that free-flow approach. I tried it several times and always got lost. I then read Orson Scott Card’s work on writing craft and thought, ‘if only I had a box top picture of my 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, how much easier it would be to put it together.’

I realised that having the box top picture did not change the fact that the 1000 pieces jumbled up on the writing surface was a powerful enabler and it did not diminish the importance of a single piece. It just helped me to know where to put them all. It saves so much time.

You did check out the templates??? They are just box tops. You can also change the pictures to suit your own work - just save your adapted template as your own template.


Lord Lightening- yes, I’ve downloaded them all and have been looking through them. I certainly will be adding elements to the pieces I’ve evolved myself. Something as tight as the Structured template wouldn’t serve me, but I love the Text Box folder, the idea of using folders for chapters (rather than single doc’s) so I can keep revisions and fragments all collected, and some other features.

At this phase I’m not wanting to worry about time sequence or character coherency, but know that this will become important on 2nd draft. So I’m trying to understand how I can use things like keywords to eventually be of help in tracking characters, situations and sequencing. Not sure I get it yet, but that’s mostly because I’m resisting spending too much time tinkering rather than writing. It’s amazing how facile my mind can be when it comes to the technical details of a piece of software, yet becomes mush when faced with the writing page! Temptation, temptation…

As I said, what I like about this section and the templates is the way in which the contributors reveal as much about their writing process in the templates they form, the way they describe using them, and the way others respond to pieces they can borrow from this, as much as the specific templates themselves. It’s a generous thing to be sharing something that emerges from such idiosyncrasy. And of course the tool itself, Scrivener, lends itself so well to adapting to idiosyncratic differences while giving features to improve upon them.