Summarising, organising and moving data

Scrivener is my software of choice for writing. I want to pose a problem that currently I face in writing, and wonder whether others have devised solutions.

I have a project for a book that differs in style from anything that I have written before. And because I have not made a proposal for this to publishers I have no pressure of deadlines. The consequence is that I have amassed a very large amount of material over several years, in the process redesigning and rewriting chapters and collecting large amounts of quotes, references and ideas. So not only do I have different versions of the same chapter, I also have parts of the material in a different structure - and so very different chapters.

I have all this in Scrivener and find the cork board and outliner very useful in terms of overall structure and thinking about different ways to organise chapters.

However, the part that I find much more difficult (and am always resistant to doing) is to hold knowledge of what is in either the chapters or the research data. So, while the cork board is very useful for major structuring and a high level synopsis of what is in particular files, I don’t find it much help in managing and perhaps reorganising the detailed content. The outliner does have the synopsis but this is high level and does not allow easy movement of material as the outliner headings or corkboard do. So at present I’m working with Curio software (it could have been Tinderbox) to set out greater detail content (and then move around) from a file of the total contents in Scrivener. And then I’ll come back to Scrivener when I have a hold of what I have and how I might organise.

I guess I may be asking an impossible question. How do you keep a hold of the detail of your data and of the key themes, and how do you best reorganise the detail? This isn’t a criticism of Scrivener: it’s a struggle I am having in keeping abreast of my own material, of how to plan, how to present it in chapters and how to reorganise within the chapters. I know that one of the reasons that I don’t get on with this faster is that when I have been working on something else for a time I know that to get back to this project (which is the work I most want to do) I have to re-read the whole mass of material.

There may be no answers: it is just the struggle of writing. Any comments would be helpful.

Remember that you can break Scrivener files into smaller and smaller chunks until you get the granularity you need. At least for me, partitioning is critical for keeping big projects under control.

With that said, index cards are my favorite tool for this kind of problem. Creating them takes some time, but they are infinitely shuffleable and have no learning curve. And my dining room table has a lot more room than my computer screen.

Curio works well for a project that is inherently visual, like a presentation. I haven’t tried the improved mindmapping tools in the latest version, though. Tinderbox is the closest electronic equivalent to index cards that I’ve found, but runs into screenspace limitations and is, IMO, generally clunky to use.


Hi, I’m in a similar position, that is: dealing with VLR (Very Large Research) material. Yes, the answer is: it’s the struggle of writing. However, in the course of time I found it useful to stick to just one rule: keep system of folders and group files consistent.
What this means for me is the following:
Both in the Draft and the Research folder I use a first level of “Folders” only (that is, files which in Scrivener are shown as folders). These are just containers of files: I know there won’t be anything written in them, they’re only containers which help me break down the information.
Then, the next level is made of “File groups” (i.e. Files which contain other files and really look like files) to signify that in there I can find real content - divided into categories - but still no single files. Whenever I find a single file, that means that there’s nothing in there: i.e. I need to research and populate it with material, or write something.
Next come the files, which in the Draft section are real Chapters, and in the Research section are single research files (PDFs, TXTs, Webarchives, etc.).
Next - in the Draft only - I can have more files for single scenes; I don’t use them very often, and I mark them with a different colour. They’re temporary material, sometimes they’re useful to have, but once I’m satisfied, I merge them into their corresponding chapter.

This rigid structure works for me - it is meant to be rigid, I rarely allow for exceptions; “drilling” into too many folder levels doesn’t work well for me in Scrivener. I find it useful (and necessary) in the Finder, but not in Scrivener. Sure, I end up with a long list of file groups in the Binder, but it’s alright. And I never get lost in opening folders which contain folders which contain or might not contain more folders…
So this may help you too, if you find yourself losing touch with the detail of information contained in your Scrivener project.
Hope this helps,

Thanks to K and ptz for responses. Very helpful. I would be interested in extending the discussion to get more views on how people organise their work.

It’s always a good idea to read the forums first. You’ll find a great many comments posted over the last few years on the Usage Scenario list: viewforum.php?f=19

Thanks Druid. I had skimmed the list before writing this - going into some topics that seemed pertinent to my query - but not found anything that touched on exactly what I am struggling with. Have looked again and cannot see anything that tackles my problem. Be grateful for any pointers. Thanks.

Here’s a possible way of working. It’s not my idea, and I haven’t used it in Scrivener, but I have used it to keep control of long non-fiction articles with a Windows application called Zoot.

  1. Create three sets of folders, the first to contain your raw research under the appropriate headings, and two others which are clones of each other and represent the latest version of the outline of your book. The first set of folders could be in a database application such as DevonThink or Eaglefiler, or simply the Finder. The other two should be in Scrivener, one each in the Draft and Research folders.

  2. As you refine the outline of your book in Draft, update it under Research, so that the two outlines always match each other.

  3. Import/drag and drop the relevant pieces of your research from your database or the Finder into the appropriate points in your Research outline, duplicating where necessary.

You now have a bank of research outside Scrivener, a selection of it in the Research folder arranged according to the best version of your outline, and your actual writing outline in Draft. You can always re-read the Research outline if you want to update yourself on what you’ve planned to write, with the research in the right places. Now you just need to add your own words in Draft.

One other piece of advice (in addition to Katherine’s above): once you’ve re-read your research, try to write as far as possible from memory, inserting the detailed evidence later. You’ll be done quicker, the work will be clearer (because less fussy), and (I’ve always believed) if you the writer can’t hold your themes and arguments in your memory, your readers sure as hell won’t be able to either!


Thanks Hugh. Am working out a system that I will believe, at least for a few weeks, will change my life. Dream on.