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Scrivener and NaNoWriMo for the win

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Are you ready to NaNo? If you’re not familiar with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it’s a writing challenge where people from all over the world try to write at least 50,000 words toward a novel in one month. Specifically, the 30-day, family-commitment-laden (in the U.S. anyway) month of November.

NaNoWriMo is about quantity over quality. If you’ve ever wanted to kick the internal editor off your shoulder and try your hand at one of those “shitty first drafts” Anne Lamott is so fond of, now’s your chance.

If you're up for the challenge, you only have a couple of weeks to prepare. So if you’re planning to write in Scrivener, now’s the time to make sure you have the tools and strategies that will help you make the most of your writing time.

Getting down 1667 words a day requires some serious focus. You won’t have time to stop writing for anything, especially not to edit or do research.

Here’s how to stay on track.

Download the NaNoWriMo Template or Trial Version

Current Scrivener users can download a special NaNoWriMo template that comes loaded with predefined project statistics and compile settings, including an obfuscated format that turns your words to gibberish without changing the final word count.

For those who are new to Scrivener, the awesome folks at Literature & Latte have put out their annual NaNoWriMo version of the Scrivener free trial that gives you extra time to play with the program and includes the template I mentioned above. Take the next two weeks to go through the tutorial and get comfortable. At the very least, you need to know how to create a document and start typing.

If you decide you love Scrivener, wait for the NaNoWriMo discount (for participants) at the end of November before you buy.

Put New Ideas in Their Place

Ideas are wonderful and necessary, but they can also be a distraction. What you need is a place to put them so you can get back to the scene you’re currently working on.

Consider creating two documents outside of the Draft/Manuscript folder (so they won't count toward your 50K) before you start:

  1. A place to jot down concepts that come to you for future scenes. When an idea hits, you can make a note of it and get back to work. Mine is cleverly named Ideas.
  2. A log to keep track of changes you want to make to scenes you’ve already written. Don’t stop forward progress to make the revisions—that’s what December is for—just make a note of your proposed changes in the log and keep writing as if you already did. In another dazzling display of brilliance, mine is named Change Log.

Make a Note and Move On

Next time you get stuck trying to figure out your heroine’s witty comeback, the ideal name for the landlord’s vicious dog, or the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow, create an annotation (Format—>Inline Annotation) or a comment (Format—> Comment) to make a note of it and keep writing.

Later you can use Edit—>Find—>Find By Formatting to search for annotations and comments when you’re ready to work on them. You know, in December.


Block Out Distractions

Free yourself from distractions with Full Screen/Composition mode. Called Full Screen in Windows and Composition mode on the Mac (to avoid confusion with Mac’s full screen option), this feature blocks out everything but your blank page so you can just write.

Consider adding a custom background color or image to keep you in the right frame of mind.

Add a pair of headphones or earbuds—with or without music—and you’re ready to rock.

full screen/composition mode

Pre-Plot, or Don’t

If you’re a plotter, consider creating your scene documents beforehand either in the Binder or the Corkboard. If you like to plot using index cards, then select the Draft (aka Manuscript) folder, make sure you’re in Corkboard view (View—>Corkboard if you’re not), then click the green Add button on the toolbar to create a new card. Title it, add a brief synopsis of the scene and repeat.

Once you have all of your scene documents created it’s merely a matter of filling them with words starting November 1.

corkboard view

Pantsers can just show up on day one, create a blank document and write a scene. Repeat.

If you want to group documents into folders, select the desired documents and choose Documents—>Group.

Keep Research Handy

Don’t spend your precious writing time searching for a key piece of information. Before November rolls around, import any research documents, images, or references that you must have in order to write. Select the desired folder (outside of the Draft/Manuscript folder) and go to File—>Import. For web pages, you might want to use References instead.

Track Your Progress

Your goal is 50,000 words, and Scrivener makes it easy to track your progress with project targets. Go to Project—>Show Project Targets (Mac) or Project–>Project Targets (Windows).

You can set a target for the entire manuscript, as well as one for each writing session. The session target is nice because it lets you track your word count either over the course of a whole day, or in smaller writing “sprints”.

project targets window

NOTE: The NaNoWriMo site calculates word count slightly differently than Scrivener. For example, Scrivener counts a hyphenated word as two, while the NaNo counter looks for spaces to identify each new word and only counts hyphenated words as one. So, you might want to shoot a little beyond the 50K finish line just to be on the safe side.

Or don’t hyphenate. Hyperventilating is optional.

What Were You Thinking??

Don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is intended to be fun. It’s supposed to be a challenge that forces you to re-evaluate what you’re capable of. 4000-word writing days? You betcha. Writing for three, four, or eight hours in one day? I know you can do it.

Five minutes of daily meditation might help.

And in the end, even if you don’t reach 50K, you’re still a lot further ahead than you were on November 1st. That makes you a winner in my book.

Are you signing up for the challenge? If so, good luck!

Check back next week—or sign up to receive my blog posts in your Inbox at the bottom right—for tips on using Scrivener for iOS for NaNo.

Want more information on the features mentioned in this post? Sign up for an online class, read more Scrivener articles, or schedule a private training session. If you don't already have it, you can download Scrivener here.

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  1. Reply

    I know, you’re gonna laugh until you fall down. I’ve been dithering with Scrivener for…how long? My current WIP is a HOT MESS. So I got to pretty much the end of first draft and held my nose while I…wait for it…transferred it to Scrivener in chapters. Unlike all the times I panicked, this was soooo smooth.
    Now I’m planning my NaNo book, on Scrivener. I love the idea of being able to write myself notes and suggestions while I pound those keys.
    this will be the best year EVER

      • Reply

        I was commenting on this with a Scrivener experienced writer who told me Scrivener would have been happy to take the transfer in bulk and split out the chapters.
        Next time???

        • Reply

          LOL, Mona. Yes, you can use File>Import>Import and Split, using a character (e.g. # for a scene break) or a word (e.g. Chapter) to tell it where to divide the document. It’ll definitely make the next time easier if you have more books to import and work on. 🙂

  2. Reply

    I could not do Nanowrimo without Scrivener. I believe that this writing program was the bridge that allowed me to cross the gap of wanting to be a writer and becoming a published author. This article is a great outline of how to set up your files before starting out to write your first draft. The only suggestion I haven’t used is to create a “change log” file. It simply did not occur to me to do this before hand. I think that I’ll give it a try this year. Thanks for your timely tip! 🙂

    • Reply

      I agree, Wendy! Scrivener keeps me organized and on track in a way I wouldn’t know how to live without. I’m glad you found this helpful and got something new out of it. Good luck with NaNo!

  3. Bob Cochran


    Best wishes to everyone committing to this one. I am not sure what I’ll do for this November. I’m another year older…distractions come up and must be dealt with…got to impose some self-discipline and make a decision. Perhaps next year? I will give it more thought. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer who likes to let everything tumble out of imagination and onto the paper and I like that feeling of being able to express myself very much.

    You give great advice here about the software. Are you still using the MacBook platform for the hardware? Have you tried out the newest MacBook Pro? Maybe Scrivener will make use of the new “Touch Bar”? It won’t really matter for Scrivener and NaNoWriMo for this year because the 15 inch MacBook Pro models won’t be available till late in November. And one doesn’t need a touch bar to do 50,000 words. I’m a MacBook user, and I’m starting to look at the specs for the new MacBook Pro, but for once I’m uncertain of it. It seems the touch bar plus the smaller form factor are the two big changes, and neither one is a good business reason for me to dump my current MacBook and take the new one.

    • Reply

      Hey, Bob! Good to see you again. At least as a pantser, you can start at the last minute if you decide to go for it. 😉 I can’t do it this year because I’m finishing up a book now and need to go into revision mode, as well as get-done-everything-I’ve-been-ignoring mode.

      I am still writing mainly on a MacBook Pro that’s several years old. I’m not sure the new version is worth the upgraded price for what I do. I have an iMac for my non-writing tasks and nonfiction writing. If anything, my next laptop will probably be an Air. We’ll see. It’s not going to be this year. I’ll worry about it when the situation with my current one becomes dire. 😉 Whatever you decide, happy writing!

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