A Scrivener tutorial: outlining

A few weeks ago on twitter, Sarah Goldberg mentioned how she loves Scrivener but has trouble outlining in it, which made me want to share my personal approach to outlining with you.

After much screen-shotting and writing of instructions, I decided a video would be better; simpler to follow, more succinct, more fun. I scrapped the post and recorded a screen-capture instead. Enjoy!

Perhaps this will become a new series on my blog. What else do you want to know about Scrivener? Are there other questions I could answer? Tricks and tips I could share? Leave them in the comments, please!

57 Responses
  1. This is SO USEFUL, Erin! Thank you so much for taking the time to make this video. I somehow hadn’t realized folders (and not just scenes) could get index cards, so this is a huge help for me.

    And I *do* have another Scrivener question. Michelle Hodkin posted a screenshot teaser of MARA #2 a while back, and I was like, “How is she *doing* that with Scrivener?” Any insight?

    1. Erin

      I’m so glad to hear it is helpful, Sarah! I do know what Michelle is doing in that screenshot.

      It is a cork board view, but in “freedom” view (there is a toggle at the very bottom of the window). I don’t use it much, but it lets you mess around with text snippets, visuals, etc, for much looser brainstorming. I could maybe do a tutorial of that sometime soon too!

  2. *Also not being paid by Suzanne Collins to pimp her book 😉

    Erin, you’re making me want/need Scrivener even more than I already did. This will definitely be helpful for when I finally get my grubby little hands on it!

    1. Erin

      Hahaha. I love your secondary footnote! I totally should have included that.

      Scrivener is seriously an amazing product, Sophia! I love, love, loooove it. And truthfully, the $45 dollars they charge for it is unbelievable. Such a great value for such a powerful tool.

  3. This is great. I actually hate outlining but decided it’s necessary for my next project and I’ve just been staring at Scrivener for the past month wondering where to start. I can’t tell if it’s that I don’t know how to outline on Scrivener or that I just suck at outlining. Either way, great tutorial!

    1. Erin

      I really despise outlining too, Tracey, which is why I resort to these really simply one-two word sentences like I had in the tutorial. If you go the same route, I think cork board outlining will absolutely work for you! Glad the video was helpful 🙂

    1. Erin

      Thanks Alicia. I sort of learned by trial and error back when I started too. It’s such a powerful tool, with so many options. I still feel like I only know a fraction of its possibilities!

  4. Marcie Atkins

    Thanks, Erin! This was helpful. I have been using Scrivener for about a year and a half. Two things I struggle with: 1) timelining (actually making dates, etc for the timeline of the book) and doing a revision spreadsheet to check for plot threads. I’ve had to use MS Word and Excel to complete those tasks, though I’d love to do them all in Scrivener. 2) I turn in drafts to my critique group in MS Word after converting them from Scrivener. Once I get through a few big revisions, I find it a pain to work in Scrivener and kept converting it to send it out. Do you still use Scrivener through revision after revision? I find it really, really helpful when I am drafting and working on it myself, but more difficult when I began to have others read and comment on my work.

    1. Erin

      Timelining — I have the same problem as you! This is the one thing I haven’t figured out how to bring into Scrivener. My debut has a very complicated timeline and I still have it laid out in Excel.

      Revisions — I’ve done these in Scrivener. I usually make a special folder in the Binder where I paste in all my notes and then I’ll split into a dual view mode so I can view the notes alongside my MS. I color code things in the revision window to show when they’re done. I’m happy to do a video showing that, although I’m not certain it’s exactly what you’re after.

      Edits after big revisions — I continue to work in Scrivener, but I know what you mean about the difficulties of exporting each time for smaller tweaks and keeping track of smaller feedback. I especially wish there was an easy way to import tracked changes/comments in a Word doc into Scrivener, but as far as I know, this feature doesn’t exist 🙁

      1. janra

        Timelines: if you’re on mac (I can’t assume anymore now that Scriv for windows is out) then try Aeon Timeline. The latest version has a way to sync with Scrivener scenes. I’m just starting to play with it, but from what I’ve seen so far, you can rearrange scenes in Scriv, update the timeline information in Scriv, then sync that back to Aeon and have your timeline update. Or update the timeline in Aeon and sync it to Scrivener, which doesn’t re-order the scenes (important if your story is not chronological) but does update the timeline information on it. Aeon was built with lots of input from Scrivener users, and in fact its main forum is hosted on the Scriv forums. It is a timeline program meant for a work in progress, not as a display record of a known set of events.

        Also, you can set up your own fantasy calendars which are completely arbitrary down to the number of hours in a day. (You can’t customize minutes and seconds.)

        Revisions: I take a snapshot of the entire draft, pick a “revision pen” colour, then go nuts making changes. I also use a combination of a single file full of things I need to change, and the notes field attached to each scene, to track what I need to do. Also play with label and status metadata, and collections, to find things.

        For incorporating comments from readers, I do not try to make the commented version the new master version. The version in Scrivener is always the master version. If I can afford the paper, I prefer to have the comments printed out, then I transfer them, with the commenter’s name, into the Scrivener comments feature, attached to the text they were made next to. This is highly manual, but it also forces me to pay attention to where the comment is and what it says, because I’m retyping them. (Sometimes I add my own comments in response as I work, but I copy the reader’s comments verbatim.) If it’s a typo I just fix it in Scriv 🙂

        After putting all the comments in, you can search for them and see them all at once, and clicking on the comment brings you to the text it’s associated with. Generally as I deal with the comment (either by fixing that spot, fixing another spot so what the comment was about is no longer relevant, or deciding it was fine) I delete the comment, so when I have no more comments I’m done addressing them.

        And after all this I feel like I should make a screencast too 🙂

        1. Erin

          Oh my goodness! So much amazing information in here. Thank you so much, Janra. I had not heard of Aeon Timeline, but I’m definitely going to look into it now.

          And you should absolutely host a screencast or two! Sounds like people could learn a lot from you! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  5. Love this! I like the corkboard for outlining and scrivener for drafting, but I’m wondering…do you use it during revisions, especially after you have tracked changes and comments from readers/editors/agents? That’s the part I’m intimidated by, because it seems like Scrivener would allow me to see the structure and changes more clearly, but I can’t figure out how to incorporate those notes.

    This is so, so helpful, Erin. Thanks for taking the time!

    1. Erin

      I have used Scrivener through every revision on TAKEN so far, all the way up through line edits. I have yet to do copy edits yet, so I’m not sure if that will change. But I do find it annoying that I can’t import tracked changes or comments from the Word doc into Scrivener (at least, I don’t think that’s possible).

      Marcie, who commented above you, mentioned similar issues. I’m happy to maybe make a video on how I’ve handled revisions up ’til now — It has a lot to do with bringing editorial letters into Scrivener and splitting it up into categories, and then editing in dual/split screen view so I can see my MS and all the revision requests at once.

      Anyway, so glad you found this helpful!

        1. Erin

          Will do! Happy to share, and they don’t take too long to make, so I’ll add an edit/revising in split-screen mode to my list of tutorials 🙂

  6. Erin! This is so great! I’ve been using Scrivener, but, like Sarah, I’ve been having a hard time using it to its full potential because I just don’t know everything it can do. This was great. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together!

    I hope you don’t mind if I share this post with some other writers I know. 🙂

    1. Erin

      I still feel like I only know a fraction of Scrivener’s true potential. What a powerful tool. But either way, I’m glad you found this tutorial helpful, and yes please — share it with one and all!! 🙂

  7. Jo

    *sigh* Just the way I use it. The corkboard is just so helpful. It still turns out a hot mess, but I can’t imagine the disaster it would be if it weren’t outlined, however vague, in Scrivner.

    I also use targets (to help me keep on track), character outlines (which I modify), the different ways of viewing notes/edits/comments/scene/manuscript all at the same time, and I like to take snapshots of scenes when editing (which I think is really useful, but not something I knew about when I started).

    I don’t really understand the point of key words, but that may be just because I’m not really meant to use them.


    1. Erin

      Jo, I use targets and modified character outlines too! They are both so helpful. I’m not familiar with “snapshots.” I’ll have to look into them. 🙂

  8. Um, love this post. And any forthcoming series. I use Scrivener but probably not as well as I should! Thank you for this, it must have taken so much time to make!

    1. Erin

      Jon! I’m so glad you found this useful. It actually wasn’t too much of a pain to make (the screen capture software I used does most of the work), so I’ll be happy to host a few more 🙂

  9. Sheesh… I just now got around to watching your video and it rocked. I don’t have Scrivner and, frankly, I didn’t think I needed it, but now I’m having second thoughts. Sounds like it might work perfectly for the type of outlining I like to do. Thanks for the fantastic tutorial, Erin!

    1. Erin

      I didn’t think I needed Scrivener for the longest time either. Then I downloaded a trial one day, and by the end of the 30-day test period, I didn’t know how I wrote beforehand. I think you’ll love it!! You should definitely at least give the trial version a go.

      I’m glad the tutorial was helpful! I’m planning on doing a few more in this series, so maybe they will also help you make the leap to Scrivener 🙂

  10. Tori MacAllister

    This was SO great – what a service to everyone using or interested in Scrivener! I would love to see you have a regular screencast on some feature of Scrivener (compiling, organizing, using the target or stats options, etc.). I think lots of your blog followers would be really grateful.

    Thank you!!!

    1. Erin

      Thank you so much, Tori! And it’s great to hear you are interested in additional screencasts. I intend to do another few in the coming months 🙂

  11. Doug D.

    I love tutorials like this, because I learn much better when shown how to do something rather than read instructions.
    Scrivener is an awesome tool, and I’m only just getting started. Thank you so much for this!
    – Doug

  12. Jan

    Hello Erin,

    how did you get this kind of horizontal line at min 6:45? The horizontal lines Scrivener wants to give me are something like: ___________
    Great video by the way!
    – Cheers Jan

  13. I downloaded the trial version of Scrivener and began toying with it in the fall of 2011. I initially used it for outlining, I loved the corkboard feature. I then decided to give it a try for NaNoWriMo 2011. It was the first year I finished. Attribute it to the intuitive interface, great tools or just having all your writing, characters and research in one program. I love writing in scenes and being able to drag and drop these as I need to rearrange my story is priceless. There is a free trial so why not give it a shot!

    If anyone decides to buy Scrivener I was given a limited use coupon here http://smworth.blogspot.com/2012/02/scrivener-coupon-codes.html You’ll get 20% off – until it expires. Enjoy!

  14. I have Scrivener, yWriter, and Liquid Story Binder on my Desktop.  I like them all, but after seeing your tutorial it has risen to the top.  Thank you for this.  It is immensely helpful, like alight at the end of a tunnel.  Fantastic.

    1. You can’t change the full color of the card, but you can apply a “label” to it, which will put a swatch of color in the top right corner.

      Select the index card you want to label. Then, within the inspector, chose a “label” from the dropdown (labels are nested within “general meta data”). There’s a few standard’s to choose from, or you can create your own custom labels, and assign those certain colors as well. Hope that helps!

  15. Beth

    My novel goes back and forth from past to present to past to present. I want to make a chronological timeline that will not be compiled. I’m thinking I could just copy every scene and put them in a folder at the bottom, which will not be used in my manuscript, like the characters and places folders?

  16. Lindy88

    Thank you so much. I recently downloaded Scrivener and am new to the program. I’m working on an outline for a class and your video definitely helps.

  17. Ryan Nagy

    I am coming to this conversation two years after the fact. But thanks for the video! I am wondering if there are people who find that outlining in Scrivener does not give them the detail they need…? Or perhaps I am asking what process people use in general to outline and then write. I think I can do it ALL in Scrivener, but still curious about other people’s processes.

  18. Tom

    Hello…I was wondering how to do sub and sub-sub sections on the outlines (e.g. as in Quick Story)…this tutorial only shows outlining on one level…thanks

  19. Avikar

    I am more of a pantser than plotter. So, right now, I have a long list of scenes written, some just marked to be written, and I’m trying to organize it so I can see what I have better. I was wanting to use the different characters arcs to help organize it. For example, Character A gets this color. Character B gets this color and I can see them visually together on like a corkboard. Is this possible and how do I do it?

  20. Amy

    Erin this is awesome! Thank you so much for posting this video. I do like outlining & was trying to figure out how to do it in Scrivener. You made it look so easy I can’t believe I couldn’t figure this out. Thanks again. You rock! 🙂

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