The zen of scrivener?

I’m interested in how people are using scrivener, especially for research and other academic purposes. Do you make a separate project db for each project? Create many distinct “project” folders that can draw on a shared Research Folder? Is the zen of a Scrivener project centered more on the Research Folder than the Draft folder (my guess is that the answer may depend on whether you write fiction and essays rather than formal academic stuff. Are people also using Scrivener for other types of information gathering/finding, project organization, or day-to-day toDos? Also, I’ve found several helpful references to DevonThink, but I can’t quite tell how people are using DevonThink with Scrivener. I’m not sure that I’m getting as much from DevonThink as I could (my problem, not the developer’s or progam’s).
My current standpoint-- I think Scrivener is interesting because it is the closest application I’ve seen to my (old) natural way of writing/thinking on paper–a semi-graphical mode where a main line of thought is accompanied by ongoing commentaries (or outlines, todos, go see, etc.) written in little boxes that I make up as I go along. I’ve been trying to find a more efficient (and legible) computer variant for years without much luck.
Thanks for giving this rather open-ended question some thought.


Well, I can’t tell you how people are using Scrivener, but I can tell you how I designed it. :slight_smile: I designed it to work on the project level - as opposed to DevonThink, where you would want to maintain research for various projects in the same database. Scrivener is not really a database program like DT - in fact, the focus is supposed to be the Draft. It is about generating text. The Research folder is there as support. So, you can drag your media files from the Finder (or from DevonThink), where you have it stored, into your Scrivener project for reference as you generate a specific text. You use it to help you build up your draft.

That said, you might also use it to write a collection of short stories or articles, but they would presumably have something in common. So, whereas in DevonThink you might bring in everything, in Scrivener, you might have a project for your short stories, another for your technical articles, and so on. Or you might have a different project for each article.

Hopefully it is flexible enough for users to find their own modus operandi, but from my point of view, I definitely designed it to be used on a project-by-project basis (hence the “project” terminology) - be that project a 1,000 page novel or a 5 page article.

Thanks for posting this interesting and thoughtful question,
All the best,

I have used Scriv now for about 2 dozen academic projects and for me a project is a scientific paper, a book chapter, a popular arcticle, or a grant application. I did once put two chapters in a project but that did not work for me in the end, though I can’t say exactly why. For me each project, is an item on the (way too long) list of things I want/have to write about.

In my experience, DEVONthink is a great app for holding info (even better than Journler (free, and more featureful) and the much-ballyhooed Yojimbo (shiny, streamlined), though I can’t say exactly why), but not so great for actually working in. I know they have a fullscreen mode, but it just feels like so much of the apparatus is designed for managing and sifting the information, rather than actually editing it.

Ergo: I see DEVONthink fulfilling two uses.

  1. As a long-term, background repository for everything you feel is pertinent or useful, or that belongs to you. This is how I first heard of it being used, from Steven Berlin Johnson’s article in the Times, and how I started using it—how I primarily use it today, as well. Take any quote, any article that might be useful to you in the past, and stick them in a well-ordered hierarchy of your own choosing. Put a copy of every essay, poem, short story and gnome you have created, similarly ordered. It seems to me to be the best at organizing brainspace. You can start from any point of reference and use its own linguistic algorithms to see what information that you’ve stuck in it is most relevant to the topic at hand.

  2. Then, if you like, you can use it as a lower level for Scrivener. You can bring to the top all the pertinent items, and then refer to them while actually doing your work in Scrivener—and letting your cerebral ‘metadata’ of the project itself, notes of every kind, actually fall into the Project, rather than the Big Permanent Bin of Everything.

2a) However, something tells me that as Scrivener’s flexibility and research functions mature just a little bit more, it might simply make sense for you to dump whatever pertinent objects you have into Scrivener itself. Nothing breaks mode like switching apps, after all.

In conclusion: there are a lot of productivity/outliner/database apps out there. Like, a lot. The temptation—my temptation, that is—is to assume that the newest, hyped-up one is the best, and to immediately run to it, and moreover decide that the reason you never got any work done in the first place is because the app you’d been using lacked feature x, which this new shiny app happens to have. What is most important to realize, I think, is that the app is only as good as the work done in it. If you use DEVONthink, use it as you always have. Use Scrivener, too, and do what you find easiest in both programs—or if it’s easier to do everything in one, do that instead. If you don’t use DEVONthink, don’t worry about it.

You guys and gals will probably laugh at how use Scrivener, but I’ll tell nevertheless.

I am interested in philosophy. Every two months or so, I pick a topic and read the essential texts in that philosophy. Hence, I have a Scrivener document for Stoicism, another one for Buddhism, and over time another one will be created for Sufism.

So I mainly use Scrivener for reading, not writing (you’re shuddering, I guess). The ability to hold everything about one school of thought in one database -the file location’s being my own choosing is great- and the ability to work on RTF -hence highlighting- is what brought me to Scrivener. I know there are other programs that offer this, but Scrivener has the best full screen implementation in all the other programs I’ve tried (and I’ve tried almost all).

I could almost have written the same response as cruxdestruct just replacing the word Devonthink with MacJournal. I do almost exactly the same thing but store everything in Macjournal. Great minds… (ha ha)

I like the way musti is using Scrivener - this may offer some small perspective - I can see using one doc for each paragraph in a paper, using the groups to tell me about the subject of each chapter and the drafts to write my version, and the notes to store all of the details that I want to cover. This is my usual way of planning and writing a paper (following O’Connor, Writing Scientific Papers in English) and I can do all of this with ease in Scrivener.

I would set up a group for each text section of a paper:
intro (5 paragraphs/docs),
methods (10),
results (10),
discussion (15),
refs (1),
Fig captions (1)
tables (3)

and put each paragraph into one doc

PS: Someone else wrote this (on the Scrivener forum - somewhere) and I pulled it without copying the source (dang! - apologies). I am not the author, but thought it was relevant and useful to considering this topic.

I use DevonThink as my ‘warehouse’ for all information that I want to store about anything. There is nothing I’ve tried that comes close to DT for this purpose. But I agree that it is really not a comfortable place for developing ideas and for writing.

What I do is transfer things from DT to Scrivener. I find it extremely satisfying to have all my project material housed in one program, ready at hand, and since a good deal of my research material are pdfs, Qt files and the like, Scr. gives me an unprecedented way of working with these materials in a highly user-friendly environment. I house my pdfs in a Finder folder, QT and other media files in iTunes, etc., and then bring them in, usually as references associated with files rather than importing them. I index pdfs in DT as well so I can access them using DTs unique AI features and the like. But having it work this way, I have these files available wherever they are needed within DT, Scr. or any other program.

All writing and development takes place in Scr. That said, I use Scr. in a number of different ways. For large projects, I have a separate Scr. file that is devoted only to that project. If the project is non-fiction, and it grows beyond the modest footnoting/formatting capabilities of Scr., then it gets shipped off to Mellel for further development. I don’t see this happening all that much in my future projects, however. I believe I’ll be able to write just about everything with Scr. until the very last moment when I have to ship something out and send it off, in which case I may just use Word since that is most compatible with other users, editors and the like.

But I also have a ‘catch-all’ Scr. db for the development of smaller projects, such as short stories or monographs. I bring in whatever research information I need on a per-project basis, and in this way, I do house a lot of different information in a DT kind of way, but only what is relevant to one of the short projects I’m working on. I also bring in materials I want to read or refer to in order to inspire new projects. I do a lot of this–I often have a vague notion of something I want to work on, bring in materials that I know are relevant, read them, work with them, whatever. Or I use Scr. to take notes on a book I’m reading, etc. (If the book is not relevant to a particular idea, I’ll do this in DT instead, and I often transfer book notes to DT for warehousing).

The one other usage I have for Scr. is to house all the material and notes for a training program I just started. I can bring in pdfs, audio files, etc., that are relevant to classes, background material, etc., and I use the Drafts folder to house all my own notes and any papers or short summaries, etc., I may need to produce. It is working really well for this.

I could do some of this idea development/research in DT and it would probably make my system a bit easier to deal with–I do have to stay really organized and make sure things go where they need to. But working in Scr. is such a pleasure that I find this system works best for me. And I’m much more organized in the long run.

That said, I’m off to do more R&D for my next project!


This is a really useful thread for writers coming to Scrivener. I reckon, based on my own experience, and from the contributions here, that a writer starting out could compile a shopping list of about half a dozen applications and together they would just about cover any writer’s needs.

Could we be so cheeky as to start a list of those apps we consider we just can not live without - for the benefit of those coming to Scrivener and thinking ‘What do I really need and what can I do without?’

Maybe the list would have these NEED to have apps in it:

  1. Scrivener (for creating)
  2. Devonthink OR MacJournal OR DevonNote (for notes and storage)
  3. Word OR Mellel OR Nisus OR Mariner Write (for formatting and publishing)
  4. Screenwriter Pro OR Final Draft (for film and television or theatre formatting)
  5. Devon Agent OR Sente (for detailed web searches)

And maybe some NICE to have apps:
6. PowerStructure (for story structuring)
7. Dramatica Pro (for building a complete story from thin resources)
8. Storyspace (for Hypertext)
9. ?
10. ?

I know having a list like this when I moved my quill pen and parchment stuff over to a computer would have saved me hundreds of dollars in software I just never use.

What I use goes something like this, depending on the project:

  1. Adobe Freehand. I use this for making my outlines. I am a very visual person and I like to draw my outlines out in fancy charts. Yes, I am crazy, and I do not recommend learning Freehand if you are writer! I was already comfortable with it.
  2. VoodooPad. This little free-form app is excellent during the research and note gathering phase. For those unfamiliar, it lets you make little personal Wiki type documents. If you need to branch off a concept from a document, you can select the instigator text, create a link, and instantly be presented with a blank document to detail what the instigator link means. I am making it sound more complicated than it really is. Just think of how useful it is to use Wikipedia when researching. If you are unfamiliar with a term, 9 times out of 10 it is highlighted and links to an article on what that term is. VoodooPad makes it super simple to capture your own personal research. Alternatively, I will sometimes feel in the mood to use Tinderbox for this task. VoodooPad has been called Tinderbox Light. It makes the (very) basic tasks in Tb extremely easy to use, with minimal setup time. Tinderbox requires a heap of setup time, and can involve more overhead for many tasks, but the positive side is ultimate flexibility in export, and extremely powerful tools for organising your data in a variety of list based and visual based methods (you can see your research as a visual map model, for instance, with arrows drawn between linked concepts).
  3. Scrivener. Once the above pieces get to a point where I am ready to start writing, everything will get collected here. Images from Freehand can be dropped right in. VoodooPad exports HTML web sites, which can be dropped into Scrivener, already linked up and ready to go. Brilliant.
  4. Tinderbox. Ancillary project tracking. In the past I used it extensively to track and organise my plot, to augment Ulysses. I have a feeling I will no longer need such a reliance, now that I’m using Scrivener.
  5. LyX. It is a relatively easy to use word processor that is based on LaTeX. After exporting LaTeX from Scrivener, I will be able to open that .tex file into LyX, and do the final post-production work there. LyX will let me export into a variety of cross-platform formats, including PDF and RTF.

Out of this list, perhaps VoodooPad and Scrivener are the most useful. I vastly prefer VoodooPad’s free-form method to DT’s list oriented solution. It also seems to be a lot more robust, and it does everything I need it to do. The rest of these tools are variously arcane and difficult to use, with steep (and I do mean nearly vertical) learning curves and unorthodox methodologies. So beware. :wink:

I feel your pain! Of course, it might be for some that they need to try out the different software to find what works for them. I know some folks LOVE Circus Ponies Notebook, where I find it cumbersome and annoying for the most part. So, different strokes and all…

BUT, I do think that the list is quite good and helpful. A good guide to help fellow writers get started. Though I use MacJournal as a personal journal and DT for storage. And Bookends for housing references and building bibliographies (for non-fiction writing)–you could add Sente and EndNotes here as well.

Maybe iFlash for language study if that is relevant for some people. Nisus Thesaurus for global referencing. Typinator, TypeIt4Me, Textpander for those that like using abbreviations or shorthand for things. And iClip for quick storage and moving things between applications. I love iClip! I’m sure there are other ‘helper’ programs people use that could be helpful as well.


In my Windows days, I used to use three programs:

(1) Dramatica pro for the initial brainstorming and concept development.

(2) Power Structure for outlining my story.

(3) Power Writer for the actual writing.

As a matter of fact, I was so dependant on this workflow that I immediately installed VPC with Windows when I moved to Mac. Just to run the Power Writer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t able to open any projects under VPC for some reason. Imagine my desperation. Took me about a month to recover by trying out the Mac alternatives.

These days, I only use (1) Scrivener for both outlining and writing, and (2) Tinderbox for brainstorming (especially good to map out characters and their relationships!). I also used (3) BeeDoc Timeline to do a very detailed linear timeline of my novel, vs. other real historic events that happened.

I tried DevonThink and dropped it. Tried Copywrite, Avenir, Ulysses and Novamind. Don’t use them. Ulysses was the closest match of all to my needs, and it maybe still is for short stories. I paid for all these progs and I think it was a good thing to do so that Mac development business flourishes :slight_smile:

I’m relieved to use only 1 program for 90% of my work (Scrivener in my case) because it’s a major productivity boost. The tinkering time loss cut is tangible. I can only write for 1-2 hours per day (between a 10-hour day time work day and a family with 2 kids) but now I produce 10-14 thousand words per week. I used to squeeze out 2-3 thousand before.

Gaijin de Moscu, have you come across the Simile Timeline export addition for Tinderbox? You can grab it from the Tinderbox Public File Exchange, if you are interested. I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, but it looks pretty slick. You can generate web based, interactive (as in Google Maps type dragging and such), timelines right out of your Tinderbox file.

It is on my list of things to check out. Once Scrivener development slows down, I just might get a chance!

Thanks a lot AmberV. I actually tried to create a timeline in Tinderbox but it was very difficult. The template looks great — will take a closer look at it!

Right, it would take a lot of work, even with Tb’s newer math abilities, to get a nice looking timeline. I was just making mine with Adornments on a map layer, and putting down the narrative chunks on the adornment. It worked pretty good, but it only works in Tinderbox. It isn’t very portable. I think the timeline is doing all of the hard work. Tb is just generating the data file for it. That is a lot easier.

Hmm, though now that I think about it, I could have used the X and Y coordinates of the narrative notes and plotted them onto an XHTML page in export. Hmm.

Thanks to everyone! I feel like you’ve given me (and other new users) a pair of seven league boots–a bit of a giddy feeling. Keith, you’ve done a splendid job building an application that feels “cozy,” and at the same time expansive and accommodating.

Nice description! Sums it up very well.

AmberV - may I tap some of your knowledge here? What are the critical differences between the two? I’ve used them both briefly, and DT seems to have the same wicki-like functionalities of Voodoopad. What does VoodooPad have that DT doesn’t have? Sorry I’m asking you, but you always seem explain things so well :wink:

There are a lot of reasons why VP works better for me than DTP. To me it came down to the basic way in which things are stored. Even though DTP can do Wiki style links between documents, the feature is not as well rounded and in VP. In VP you can do back-tracing, for example. You can see all of the notes that link to the current note. It’s data model is very much based on a network, where notes are organised in a pattern that you define. Links can be aliased. Multiple phrases can point to the same data source, providing further flexibility to the network. DTP on the other hand is a hierarchy. When you can establish a loose network amongst files in that hierarchy, it is difficult to travel at ease within that, because the wiki link support is somewhat of a basic single-pointer addition to the core philosophy.

The primary thing that effects me is the feel of an application. With VP, I feel as if I can expand in any direction without every worrying about sorting things later. The direction in which I expand is the sorting. The categories I assign are of my own choosing, and never dictated by what the A.I. needs to function properly. With DTP I feel as though I am having to constrict my thoughts to a system. To me, that is very annoying because one of my personal strengths is my ability to see connexions between things. I don’t want some application that thinks it can do a better job at that. It cannot. I am also a control freak, and no doubt that is a big part of why I cannot stand DTP! So the wiki link feature in DTP barely registered with me – given the deep philosophical problems I had with the rest of it. I also never clicked with the interface either. It felt contrived, if that makes sense. Too over-bearing. VP doesn’t really have an interface in that sense. It is pretty much just you and the data+network with very, very little between it.

Another thing that bothered me is having to spend so much to have multiple data networks. The cheaper version only lets you have a single database. I think that is very revealing. VP is more for creating small localised data networks, where DT is more about creating a giant one-size-fits-all network for everything you collect or write. That DTP allows multiple databases is beside the point – any usage of the application will reveal this central “bigger is better” philosophy. VP files work just as well with five documents in the network as they do with thousands.

If what you want is a way to organise your documents and establish a soft network between them without doing it yourself, DTP is probably quite good. If what you want is free-form brainstorming or note-taking, than VP is better because it more closely follows the way the mind operates biologically. We think via association and juxtaposition of disparate elements. We do not think in filing cabinets. The filing cabinet metaphor can be useful when information must be available to multiple people (since everyone has unique association networks in their heads), and when longevity is important (our own association networks mutate through use, and can become entirely different given enough time). So therein lies a weakness with VP, though you could, if you were careful, make a VP file that was easy for anyone to use (like a web page is), and for yourself to parse in twenty years. For quick brainstorming and note taking though, that is not necessary, and it actually works to your benefit to take as many intra-linguistic and conceptual shortcuts as you can.

So, even though DTP supports association to a degree, it does not take it and run with it the way VP does, and its major asset of association is digital; not designed by you. The whole fuzzy logic classification system is not human, and does not have your years of experience to help it out. You can draw an association between documents instantly, and in VP it is a simple link away. DTP requires gigantic quantities of raw text to perform this same function, which it may more may not get right. In English anyway, the language is just too contextual to create a good platform for automatic networking.

As you can tell, my biggest problem with DTP is that its primary feature is the A.I. system, and the A.I. requires extremely careful management of a hierarchy. For it to function best, documents need to be placed together in groups, and split apart into sub-groups when enough of them cluster together. It requires a lot of overhead management to do something that is touted as saving time and being automatic. If you say, okay forget the A.I. and just use its other features – well then it is just a notebook application, and if that is all you want, I heartily suggest Mori which is half the price and much less encumbered by its own interface conventions.

Well said!! :slight_smile:

I hope you don’t mind saying so, but you must be an amazing person. :wink:

Before I read your post I was definately drawn to Voodoo, but I wasn’t sure why. Now I think I know why - and you have expressed it with your usual precision. The only disconcerting thing to me is the lack of a visual guide for where I am in my notes - and how things relate to one another; although, perhaps, this is something I’d let go of after using VP for a while. I’ll repost with more thoughts after using it for some time.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful response. :smiley:

Well thank you very kindly!

The lack of a visual component is VP’s biggest disappointment, no doubt about it. However, I have found it is not terribly necessary. Since I can create data structures via association and context, I don’t need a map. The map is already in my head. Applications which force the user to work outside of their own way of thinking do require a map. That has been my experience anyway.