Helping Writers Become Authors

How to Use Scrivener to Edit Your Novels

As a writer, you need tools that help you organize your thoughts and eliminate distractions, so you can focus on what’s really important: the story. One of the best tools (of all time?) for this is the powerhouse writing software Scrivener. I started using it a few years ago, and it has transformed my writing process. But it does more than just help me me outline and draft; it’s great for editing too. Today, I’m going to show you how to use Scrivener to edit your way to a better story.

Last year, I wrote a two-part series about how I use Scrivener to outline my novels and write my first drafts. Right away, you guys wanted a third post: how to use Scrivener to edit. At the time, I wasn’t far enough along in my Scrivener experience to have used it to edit a work-in-progress, so I had to hold off until I could report on how things turned out.

And… I’m happy to report they’re turning out fine!

6 Tips for How to Use Scrivener to Edit Your Novel

Following are my top 6 tips for how to use Scrivener to edit your fiction. Click on any image for a bigger view. 

But, first, a bonus tip…

Tip #0: Simplify Editing by Writing Clean Drafts

Obviously, this is a writing tip more than an editing tip, but I promise it will keep you from ripping out all your hair come editing time.

What is a clean draft?

It’s a draft that is already as neat as you can make it.

And how do you do that without falling into the grip of rabid and utterly unproductive perfectionism?

#1: Outline

Outlining is like editing before writing. If you’ve worked out most of the major story problems and know where you’re going before starting the draft, you’ll be able to avoid the vast majority of big first-draft problems.

#2: Fix Known Problems

Did you just write a scene you know isn’t working? Stop now, go back, and rewrite it. Too often, when you leave a problematic scene behind you, the problems only snowball into all future scenes.

Now, I’ll grant this one can be a sand trap for some writers, so use it with caution. You don’t want to get stuck editing the same scene over and over again with no forward progress. But if you know what the problem is and you know how to fix it, do so.

#3: Stop Quarterly for a “50-Page Edit”

Don’t just write your manuscript all the way through (unless you’re competing in NaNoWriMo). It’s way too easy to lose the forest for the trees as you get immersed in the minutiae of your prose. Stopping every quarter of the story (at the First Plot Point, Midpoint, and Third Plot Point) and editing what you have so far is a two-fold aid:

1. It orients you in the overall flow of your story.

2. It gives you a much tighter, cleaner first draft, since you’ve basically edited it three times before editing.

This is the approach I use for all my novels. It certainly doesn’t guarantee you’ll end with a super-clean, super-polished first draft. But it does guarantee that it’s much more likely.

Tip #1: Use Scrivener to Edit Your Rewrite Notes

And now… let’s talk editing. The first step is to gather any rewrite notes. These could be notes you’ve already jotted down or just ones that are floating in the back of your brain. They could be big fixes (e.g., cut this minor character, adjust timing on the Midpoint, or give the antagonist a backstory), or they could be relatively small tweaks (e.g., make sure the protagonist’s eye color is blue all the way through).

The fantabulous thing about Scrivener is that it allows you keep all your notes neatly organized in one file. No more flipping through half a dozen Word and yWriter files to find what you’re looking for!

While writing the first draft, I keep a running list titled “Rewrite Notes” in the Projects Notes section of Scrivener’s Inspector panel (on the bottom right-hand side of the screen). Some of these notes I’ll have already addressed during 50-page edits, but a lot of them will be left over for the actual editing process.

If an idea occurs to me while writing, it’s easy to simply jot it in the Rewrite Note section and keep on going. Then I can access and refer to the notes when I’m ready to start editing. They become, in essence, my “rewrite outline,” a handy checklist for making each necessary change.

Tip #2: Use Scrivener to Edit Your Story Structure and Word Count

Scrivener specializes in giving you a “big-picture view” of your story. It creates, in essence, an outline all its own, in the Binder section on the left, by listing all your chapters and scenes. This makes it easy to look at your story’s overall structure. You can:

1. Make sure all the important structural turning points are accounted for.

2. Make sure the timing is accurate.

There are seven major structural moments to be particularly aware of:

1. Inciting Event (12%)

2. First Plot Point (25%)

3. First Pinch Point (37%)

4. Midpoint (50%)

5. Second Pinch Point (62%)

6. Third Plot Point (75%)

7. Beginning of Climax (88%)

When I initially set up my outline in Scrivener, I create folders for each of my major structural moments and mark them with flag icons (square flags for each of the Three Acts; triangular flags for each of the turning points within those acts). Then I build my chapters and scenes within those folders.

To make sure I’m staying (close to) on track with the timing of each event, I add each scenes’ word count to its title, so I can see at a glance where I’m at. This shows me where I need to trim word count and where I may need to flesh out a section.

Tip #3: Use Scrivener to Edit Chapter and Scene Order

This is one of my all-time favorite Scrivener tricks. Rearranging chapter or scene order—or, even more tricky, the order of events within a single scene—can be mind-bogglingly difficult to get your head around when you can only see one screen’s worth of your story at a time.

Scrivener lets you rearrange chapters and scenes merely by clicking and dragging within the Binder. Don’t like the new order? Changing it back is as simple as clicking and dragging once more.

Even better, you can break down tricky scenes into beat-by-beat sub-documents, so you can see what your scene is really all about. Then you can click and drag those sections to remove repetitive elements and achieve the most powerful progression of events—as I did when editing a tricky dialogue scene in my historical-superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer.

Tip #4: Export Your Critique Partners’ Preferred File Types

Once you’ve completed your own edits within Scrivener, you then need to convert it to the proper format to share with your beta readers, critique partners, and editors. The one major drawback, as I see it, to Scrivener is that it does not allow you to send an editable Scrivener file back and forth between users (mostly due to the file sheer size). This means you must convert to some other file type.

The good news is that Scrivener’s export capabilities are vast—everything from Word docs to mobi and epub and everything in between. The bad news is that exporting can be tricky (especially if you’re trying to format an e-book, although it’s totally worth the effort).

Others (including Joseph Michael) are much better equipped than I am to explain the intricacies of exporting into e-book formats. At this stage in the editing game, however, all you need to do is export a no-frills Word doc you can share with your critters. The steps for that are pretty simple:

1. Click the compile button.

2. In the compile box, click the chapters and scenes you want to include in the export.

3. Select the type of document you want to convert to.

4. Hit compile and select where you want to save the new file.

There are all kinds of additional options for adding a cover image and formatting the text appearance, but chances are, at this point, you’ll find it easiest to do most of that in Word once you get the doc converted. Now you’re ready to send it out for feedback!

Tip #5: Use Scrivener to Edit Word’s Track Changes

One of Microsoft Word’s best features is Track Changes, which records the changes your critique partners and editors make to your document and allows them to add comments. At this point, Scrivener doesn’t offer anything of competitive similarity, which means Word is still the best program to use for sharing critiques.

This means you need a system for switching between Word’s Track Changes and your manuscript in Scrivener. One option is to simply use Word exclusively as your manuscript’s master file once you reach the editing phase. I prefer not to do this, since I lose the accessibility of my Scrivener notes and I’d just have to plug it back into Scrivener eventually anyway for conversion to e-book formats.

Depending on the volume of corrections and comments you’ve received from your critique partners, you may find it easier to simply switch back and forth between Word and Scrivener, making quick corrections and adding footnotes in Scrivener to guide you to making the bigger changes later.

If you’re dealing with a massive amount of changes, then a handy trick is to take a screenshot of the pertinent sections of your Word doc, then click and drag the images into Scrivener’s Research binder. You can then use the split-screen feature to show both the images with the Track Changes and your manuscript side by side for easy reference.

Tip #6: Use Scrivener’s Snapshots Feature to Preserve Old Versions

Scrivener is very committed to making sure you don’t lose any important work, either unintentionally (it auto-saves every five seconds) or through your own misjudgment. Before you make major changes to any given scene, use the Snapshots feature in the Inspector on the right-hand side to save the current version.

If you find you liked the old version better after all—or if you just need to reference it for any reason—you can easily find it in the Snapshots section and “roll back” to revert to the earlier version. It makes the whole process of revision incredibly risk-free.

My complete storytelling process—from outlining to writing a first draft to editing—has been improved thanks to Scrivener. I’m an unabashed fan of the program because I’ve seen first-hand how powerful it is for streamlining my writing and editing processes, showing me the big picture of my work, and helping me stay out of my own way as I work toward my best stories.

Give it a try! The program is a steal at $40 and offers a free 30-day trial. You can also play around with this free Scrivener template created by Stuart Norfolk and based on my books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. Have fun!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you use Scrivener to edit your stories? What are your best tips? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).