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Using Scrivener for nonfiction

Over the years, I’ve talked a lot about how I use Scrivener to work on my manuscripts–the genesis of my Scrivener Tips page–but that was all fiction work. It’s been interesting working on the Scrivener For Dummies (SFD) book and finding that I use the software a bit differently for nonfiction.

Here’s a brief rundown of how I’m using Scrivener to write the book on it.

Document Targets. For romantic suspense, I’m more likely to have a session goal than a target word count for a specific scene. However, with SFD, I’ve been working from my detailed outline, which included estimated page counts. I converted those estimates to word counts and set a document target for each chapter.

I didn’t always meet my goal, and sometimes I overshot, but it was a useful gauge.

QuickReference Panels (Mac only). I have to admit, I hadn’t really found a use for these before. A QR panel is a window in which you can view any item in your binder. The beauty is that you can make it float above your workspace to reference the contents. When you don’t want to split the screen, QR panels are a good choice.

Despite having a second monitor, there were a few times when I needed to set up the screen shot in one monitor, type in the other, and reference a previous screen shot in a third. The QR panel became my third monitor with a window that I could resize and move around as needed, then close when done.

Label and Status. Normally I change Label and Status to POV and Day to track a scene’s point of view and place in the timeline. For SFD, I’m using Label to track where in the process a chapter is: Not Started, WIP, Needs Polish, Submitted (Pre AR), Author Review WIP, Submitted (Post AR), All Phases Done. [Note: AR in this case stands for author review, which I’m in the thick of now.]

Since I had first draft deadlines for each 25% of the book, I changed the Status field to track which portion of the book a chapter or part intro falls into: 1st 25%, 2nd 50%, 3rd 75%, 4th 100%. The batches of chapters I’m getting for author review (revisions) are in the same groupings.

File Groups. My smallest writing chunks in SFD are chapters. I organized the chapters into their respective book parts, which are containers that also hold the part introduction text. To remind myself that the parts were more than just organizational placeholders, I left them as text files rather than changing the icon to a folder. Since they have subdocuments, they became file groups, which are designated with a paper stack icon.

Project Search. I use project search fairly regularly regardless of the type of writing I’m doing. For SFD, it’s particularly helpful when I can’t remember whether I’d mentioned a topic or tip, or can’t remember which chapter I put it in.

Research. I almost always have reference files in the Research folder–often renamed to my liking–and SFD is no exception. I imported my author guidelines documents so I could reference them easily without leaving Scrivener or opening a new program. This also made them easy to search.

Snapshots. I create a snapshot before every major revision, and make sure I take one before making changes during the author review process. I’m making the edits in Word, but copying the final version back into Scrivener so I have an easily accessible, searchable, trackable version of it.

Synopsis. Instead of scene goal or purpose, the synopsis is serving as a place to jot notes for revisions of upcoming chapters. I don’t have a lot of them, but I found myself submitting a chapter and then having a “Hey, wait, I just thought of something!” moment. Document Notes would work for this purpose just as well, but I tend to keep the Project Notes pane visible and forget that I have document notes.

Have you found yourself using different features–or using them differently–depending on the type of work you’re doing? Please share!

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  1. morgansc


    The way you are using Labels and Status in SFD is exactly how I use those functions when I’m writing essays and book reviews. I use them a bit more like one would use them for novel writing when I’m working on my narrative nonfiction wip. It is such a flexible tool. I have Scrivener set to a specific desktop on my Mac, so when I flip to that desktop, there it is with both my dictionaries waiting for me to write. A welcome sight.

    • Reply

      Sarah: I rank the flexibility of the Label and Status fields as one of the top reasons to use Scrivener. Seriously. Such a little thing that can be so powerful. In this case, at just a glance I can instantly tell which files I’m done with (for now) and which ones I need to tackle.

      Love the idea of having Scrivener on its own desktop. I don’t use that Mac feature enough.

      • Reply

        Something I like to use with the Status field in an ongoing work (like the user manual, which is a job that never ends) is a set of flags for newness. My default status is “Started”. I use that to mean I’ve started writing a new section, and I haven’t finished it yet. When I finish, I set the status to “NEW’. For existing sections that have been altered, I set them to “Revised” once I’m done.

        What this lets me do is rampage through a major revision, leaving a trail of what needs to be proof-read. In a project that has 800 individual items in the main Draft outline, knowing what has changed as a part of the current major revision is absolutely essential. There is just never enough time to proof-read the entire thing before release.

        I use several saved search Collections. One looks for “Started”. Prior to release I go through those and make sure they are completed. If it’s not ready for “press”, then I just untick the Include in Compile and add it to my ToDo list for the next round. If I can finish it, I do. Then I have another collection that looks for “Revised” or “NEW”. I go through all of the items, and once I’ve given them a proofing, set them to “Final”.

        Now I have a project that is in a ready state for the next major revision.

    • Reply

      Gwen, author, Linda Hall, introduced me to your work. I’m beginning to learn Scrivener for non-fiction writing. Sarah’s comment (morgansc) about having Scrivener set to a specific desktop and having both dictionaries waiting for her to write caught my attention. Could you or Sarah tell me how that’s done? If so, thank you. I’m trying to decide whether to enroll in your september course or buy your book to help me better utilize Scrivener.

      Randal Pelton

      • Reply

        Randal: Thanks for letting me know how you found me. 🙂 Here’s an article from Apple on how to set up multiple “spaces” or desktops: I hope that helps.

        As for the course vs. the book, it depends on what kind of learner you are and what type of help you want. The book is set up so that you can work through it from start to finish like a course–though most people wouldn’t do that–but it doesn’t guide you through creating a sample project to use for each lesson like the class does. I think the book makes a great reference for concepts you want to learn more about, and it can go into greater detail than my class lessons. The class is good for introducing you to the best of what Scrivener offers and getting you started quickly.

        Some people feel like signing up for a course helps keep them on track and forces them to commit to learning the program. And, of course, in the class you can ask all the questions you want at no extra charge. 🙂 If you just want the info, but don’t plan to keep up with the class lessons, and don’t need personal help, you’ll probably be happier with the book.

        Good luck!

  2. Reply

    I keep finding new ways to use Scrivener, many of them various forms of nonfiction. And every now and then, I discover that one of the features I’ve never used is just what I need for a project. It’s been a long time since I thought of it as just for fiction.

    • Reply

      It’s great that you’re finding lots of uses for Scrivener, Catana. This is my first nonfiction book with it, but I’ve been using Scrivener to write and keep track of my blog posts for a couple of years, and I also wrote and maintain my class lessons in a project. I find myself loath to use anything else.

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. conniebrentford


    Hi Gwen! I just went to pre-order the book and no kindle option is available. Will this be offered at launch?

    • Reply

      Thanks for your interest, conniebrentford! I just received official word that Scrivener For Dummies will be available in three electronic formats: ePub, mobi (Kindle) and ePDF. 🙂

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  5. Gary


    I use QR panels when I receive feedback from reviewers and I’m rewriting in composition mode. Split screen isn’t available nor desirable in that mode.

    • Reply

      sdmonty: Well, no chapter on project management in this book, but as someone who used to be CAPM certified, I can definitely see the value of Scrivener for it. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Reply

      bobferrett: I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. My examples use the Novel project template, but the focus of the book is on how to use the various capabilities of Scrivener, regardless of the type of writing you’re doing. When I introduce a feature, I try to mention how or why you might use it in both a fiction and nonfiction context.

      I cover footnotes, reference links, importing research files and photos, project notes, Label and Status fields, and many other functions that nonfiction writers tend to use. Does that help? Thanks for your interest!

  6. Reply

    Hi Gwen, many thanks for all the tips – very helpful indeed. One question: you say you edit in Word then import back into Scrivener. How do you import in such a way that the MS goes back into the separate files in Scrivener, rather than appearing as one long document?

    • Reply

      Ben: In this case, I was actually copying from Word and pasting into Scrivener rather than importing.

      You can use Import and Split–currently only in the Mac version–to import your manuscript and automatically divide it into documents, but Scrivener can’t match them up with the existing items in the Binder. Good luck!

      • Reply

        Ah, ok. In my case, my documents are effectively scenes rather than chapters, so manually pasting in that way would take a very long time! Your tip on searching by highlighting has been a huge help, by the way! I love colour-coding, so have now replaced my nonsense-string codes with highlights. 🙂

        • Reply

          Ben: I write my fiction in scenes too, so that would be a pain. But when I revise fiction, I usually just plug in an extra screen and look at the comments there (in Word), while making the edits in Scrivener. SFD was different because I had to use the Word template they provided, so all I was doing was copying the new versions into Scrivener for searchabilty and tracking. Plus, I was getting the chapters back one at a time, so it wasn’t that time consuming.

          For fiction, importing your updated manuscript and then grouping the old documents into a folder outside the Draft might be the way to go, but the problem there is you lose your meta-data. There’s no perfect solution until all of our critique partners and editors are using Scrivener. 😉

          • Reply

            What I did last time I had friends reviewing was compile it into a Word document, then just use the Scrivener search function to find the bits they had commented on to make the changes directly into Scrivener. That seemed to work reasonably well. Thanks again for all the tips.

  7. Reply

    First, let me say that your book is excellent. I’ve not looked at all the Scrivener books yet (I’ll be writing a review of several for my blog), but so far yours is the one I’d recommend to anyone who wants to learn this software, which actually has a fairly steep learning curve.

    Here’s my hint of the day: I use “project notes” to keep a list of words that have highly variable spelling and diacriticals, so when I need to insert them I can just copy and paste them and make sure I’ve got the right version. For example, I just finished a piece on an Amazonian group called the Yanomamö, Yanomami, Yanoami, or Yanomama, depending on the source material. I chose Yanomamö as the way to spell it most of the time … note the diacritical over the last “o.” There’s a handful of other words from their language I used here and there in the text, which can be spelled multiple ways (since it is a non written language) so I keep them all as a list in project notes.

    Which reminds me: I’d love to see Scrivener have a glossary entity. I’m sure one can create a glossary a number of ways using the existing system, but built in would be nice. Even non-fiction uses glossaries from time to time.

  8. m


    I bought your book and I’m finding that quite a few of the tips/menu options/directions just aren’t available in my version of the software. I’m only on the trial now (to see if it’s going to work for me) and using windows – is this why, or have things changed? Honestly, I lost count but the ones I remember are: i can’t find how to use other corkboards than stacks (I would like to use freeform), I can’t put numbers on the index cards and there’s no ‘inspector’ option from the VIew nav bar button. These, plus not being able to figure out if/how I can import individual highlights/comments/etc with their bilbliographic info from my pdf references (which i was told I could) is making me worried that I’ve wasted the past 5 days working to figure this system out and I’ll have to crawl back to MS Word…

    • Reply

      m: There are still a few areas where Windows hasn’t caught up yet (though they’re aiming for it by the end of the year, I believe). The PC version does not have the freeform corkboard (you might try Scapple for Windows instead) or index card numbers. If you can’t see the Inspector button on your toolbar, it might be your window/screen size. There should be a >> button at the far right of the toolbar that lets you access any buttons that have been cut off. You can also view the Inspector by going to View–>Layout–>Show Inspector.

      You should also be able to import your PDFs by selecting any folder outside of the Draft/Manuscript folder (like Research) and going to File–>Import–>Files. Good luck!

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