How to Use Scrivener to Start and Finish a Rough Draft
You’re ready to start drafting.
At this point, you’ve been introduced to the important pieces of Scrivener’s user interface; you’re familiar with the essential plot and structure principles, including why you should break your story out into component scenes, which Scrivener excels at; you know how to create character and setting sketches using template sheets; and you have a complete account of my storyboarding process for planning stories and getting unstuck while you’re writing.
In other words, you have all the tools you need to start drafting your story.
The blank page in the middle of Scrivener where you write your story, also called the Editor, is highly customizable. You’ll be spending a lot of time here, so before you start make sure you’re happy with the settings.
Everyone has their own preferences for their editor, and you can manage those in the Editor Preferences pane by going to Scrivener > Preferences > Editor in the File Menu (that’s Tools > Options > Editor on Windows):
If you like to have a Ruler and Format Bar, you can hide/show those in the File Menu under Format > Show/Hide Ruler and Format > Show/Hide Format Bar. I always have these showing so that I can adjust margins, alignment, and spacing quickly.
I also like to use Page View for fiction. You can turn Page View on in the File Menu by going to View > Page View > Show/Hide Page View. If you’re placing large images inline in your editor while you write, you might want to turn Page View off so that you don’t have blank spaces in your document when big images get bumped down to the next page.
Use settings that please you during the writing phase, because a happy writer is a productive writer. But also know that when you get to the compile phase, all of your editor settings can and probably will be overridden by Compile.
In this way, Scrivener is formatting agnostic. So if you want to write with blue text on a camouflage background, more power to you: that does not mean that this background and text color will get carried over to your ebook or print book, so don’t sweat it. We’ll go over Compile in more depth in a later article.
Full Screen Compose Mode
Did you know that Scrivener also has a full screen Composition mode? There should be a button in your Toolbar labeled Compose, or you can go to the File Menu to find it: View > Enter Composition Mode.
This is a great way to write when you want to eliminate distractions and focus on your work.
To change settings of the Composition Mode, go to the Compose pane in your Preferences:
Just like the editor, Compose mode is fully customizable, but none of these settings will be reflected in your ebook when you compile. So adjust it to your heart’s content.
In Compose mode, you can still access your Inspector panes and make other adjustments using the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. If it’s not visible, hold your mouse at the bottom of the screen until it pops up.
The background of Compose mode is also customizable. I’d suggest uploading a photo of something relaxing, like a beach or forest or other natural landscape. To upload a new background photo go to View > Composition Backdrop > Choose… and pick a photo from your computer. Then adjust the fade toggle in the bottom right so that the photo isn’t distracting.
To exit Compose mode, click the arrows pointing at each other in the bottom right, or press Escape on your keyboard.
Don’t Stop Writing for Anything
I’ve found that the most effective way to get through a draft of something is to plow forward heedless of any obstacles, errors, or issues you might encounter. To quote Nora Roberts, that most prolific of romance writers, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”
Indeed, Nora. Indeed.
So don’t stop for ANYTHING, and set a pace that forces you to push yourself, yet is still achievable. If your goal is too easily met, you’ll dally and tinker too much. If your goal is impossible, you’ll be discouraged. You’ll have to experiment to find a goal that’s right for you.
And that’s important. Don’t use anyone else’s goal. Do what’s best for you.
(We’ll go over how to set targets and measure your progress in the next article.)
I’m also a big fan of the “write every day” maxim during the drafting phase. Habits are powerful things. Small steps over time create big results. For example, consider that 1,000 words a day adds up to a full-length novel in sixty days. Not bad, right?
Notes, Comments, and Annotations
While your writing, use the Document Notes, Comments, and Inline Annotations features to leave notes and comments for yourself. This allows you to get a thought down without interrupting the flow of your draft. Don’t resolve any of these comments, notes or annotations now. You’ll come back to them after you finish your draft during your first revision.
There is a unique Document Notes section available for each text file and folder in the Binder. You can find it at the bottom of the Notes pane of the Inspector.
There’s no right or wrong way to use this piece of the interface. When I first started using Scrivener, I had no idea what I would put there. Now, I fill them with all sorts of information about the scene I’m writing: How it feels, what’s missing, a different way to approach the scene, what I like about it, a reminder to look up a piece of technology or do research on a topic, an idea for another scene, and even ideas for new stories.
Comments have their own pane of the Inspector. You can add a comment to your text by going to Format > Comment in the File Menu, or using the shortcut Command+Shift+*.
I think the use of comments is pretty self explanatory. The benefit of using this feature, as opposed to making a note in the Document Notes section, is that clicking on the comment takes you to the comment’s place in your text, so it’s easy to use comments to jump around your manuscript.
The third commenting feature is called Inline Annotations. Adding an Inline Annotation turns the annotated text red and draws a red box around it. This makes the annotation stick out like a sore thumb, and I use them for anything I don’t know yet.
For instance, characters or places that need a name (or need to be re-named.) I might also use it on any phrasing that is questionable but which I don’t have time or brainpower to work through at the moment.
Say I want to use the name for a city my characters have traveled to, but I haven’t named the city yet. To prevent interrupting my flow, I would hit the shortcut Command+Shift+A for Inline Annotation, type “NAME OF CITY” (it will appear in red in your Editor), and move on. The annotation will remind me that I need to fix it later, when I come across it during the revision phase. That way, I’m marking the issue to be fixed without interrupting the creative flow of my draft.
If You Get Stuck Drafting, Storyboard
If you come up against an intransigent blocker or a particularly sticky plot issue that you can’t plow through, take a step back and go back to storyboarding. Ask yourself why you stopped writing, and brainstorm ways to fix it.
When I get stuck during drafting, I’ll first pick up my notebook and a pen and start journaling about the problem I’ve run into, digging to find the core issue that has caused my dilemma. Whether you like to write by hand when you do this or you prefer to type, I recommend doing this outside of Scrivener because the change of surroundings (and medium) will spark connections in your brain and give you a break from pounding your head against the same wall you hit.
Once you identify what the problem is, revise your storyboard until you’ve found an effective fix to the problem.
When you are happy with your storyboard again, make those changes in Scrivener and carry on writing.
All right, no more procrastination. You’ve done the necessary planning. All that’s left is to put words on the page.
Now put your butt in that chair and start typing. Free write something in Scrivener or work on your work in progress for fifteen minutes. Then copy and paste your practice in the comments for feedback.
I’ll be back next week to talk about how to set targets and measure your progress. Until then, happy writing!
About Matt Herron
Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.