In the Scrivener walkthroughs and workshops I've done, one of the most common complaints from new users is that the interface is confusing and overwhelming. People find it difficult to get used to new software, and so they give up before they even get started.

A Walk Through Scrivener's User Interface

Now that you have a sense of the history of creative writing (and where Scrivener fits in this historical context), I'm going to give you a Scrivener walkthrough about the important pieces of Scrivener's interfaces, their names, and what each one is used for.


Scrivener Walkthrough

Starting from the top!

File Menu

Scrivener - File The “File Menu” is where you can find a full list of actions and functions, whether that's adding links and images to documents, printing, compiling, formatting, etc.

I like to spend some time with any new piece of software familiarizing myself with the File Menus, because they're always different, and always very powerful.

Don't just look at the actions, but try to perform each one. If you can't figure out what an action does, there's a handy (but dense) Scrivener Manual which you can search. Find this by going to Help > Scrivener Manual in the File Menu.


The “Binder” is the left-most area of the interface. Its job is to contain all of the documents and folders in your project.Binder

While most new projects come with a basic Binder structure, it is completely customizable. The structure I took a screenshot of above is what you will see if you open a new project using the novel template that comes with Scrivener. Opening a blank document will provide much fewer items in the Binder.

The Binder is one of Scrivener's greatest advantages over other word processing software because it allows you to quickly and easily jump between sections of your manuscript, research, and other folders with scene-level granularity.


The “Toolbar” is the gray bar across the top of the program where common actions are located.Toolbar

The screenshot above is the default configuration, but you can customize the Toolbar by adding and removing buttons. Simply right click and select Customize Toolbar to check out the additional buttons and options.


The “Inspector” is the menu on the right hand side. Open and close it by clicking the Inspector button (the blue “i” in the circle) at the far right of the default Toolbar.

Within the inspector you have several panes. They are:

  • Notes
  • References
  • Keywords
  • Custom Meta-Data
  • Snapshots
  • Comments & Footnotes

In Notes, I use everything. I use the Synopsis pane to write a summary of the scene I'm working on, the Labels and Status to (duh!) label and set the status of my draft. I also use the Document Notes section to take notes while I'm writing, as a kind of scene-specific scratch pad. Each document you create in Scrivener has a Synopsis and Notes section as pictured below.

Inspector - Notes

Then we have the Snapshots pane. This is a crucial tool for me during the revision process. I take snapshots at the end of each draft so that I have rollback points saved in case I screw something up, change my mind, or dislike the edits I made for whatever reason.Inspector - Snapshots

Finally, here's a screenshot of the Comments pane. This is for leaving comments within your manuscript. To insert a comment, use the Format > Comment action in the File Menu, or click the Comment button in the Toolbar, or use the shortcut Command+Shift+* (on a Mac).Inspector - Comments

Explore the other panes, Custom Meta-Data and Keywords, if you want to, but don't worry about them too much yet. I’ll re-introduce them if we need to use those sections of the interface in future articles. Personally, I use them very, very rarely.


The “Editor” is the important part in the middle, the blank page that you write in. This is where you make words and create your stories, and where you’ll be spending most of your time.


The editor can be full screen, or swapped to Page View like I have it above. I like Page View because it  shows the gutters at both sides of the page, which feels cleaner somehow. You can toggle Page View on or off by going to View > Page View > Show/Hide Page View in the File Menu (Mac only as of the time of this article).

There are other view options as well, such as showing a Ruler at the top of the editor so you can adjust tabs and margins. Do whatever makes you happy. Play around with it! The Editor, too, is completely customizable, so you can make the background bright pink if you want to.

Group/View Mode

Depending where you are, these three buttons in the toolbar will be labeled either “Group Mode” (when viewing a group of documents) or “View Mode” (when viewing an individual document).

Group Mode

They allow you to seamlessly switch between seeing your documents and subdocuments in the Editor. From left to right they are called “Scrivenings” (“View the document/group of documents”), “Corkboard” (“View the document’s subdocuments on the corkboard”), or “Outliner” (“View the documents subdocuments in the outliner”) viewing modes.

These are the most powerful buttons in Scrivener because they allow different perspectives on your manuscript, one of Scrivener's big advantages over linear, single-column word processing softwares.


The Corkboard is used to simulate the experience of a real-life cork board. You can organize and edit multiple documents using a card-based interface.  The cards can snap to a grid or be moved around freely. The size of the cards can also be changed. While it doesn't have the flexibility of a real-life cork board, I find it can be faster to use.


You might outline a story using the notecards, rearrange the order of scenes by dragging and dropping them, view all of your sketches in one place for a high-level overview, and more. The front of the index cards can take text or an image.


The “Outliner” allows you to see all your documents and meta-data in a structured list view.


You can view your entire manuscript in the outliner, or drill down into a specific folder of files for a closer view.

The columns and data you see in the screenshot above are completely customizable. Add columns such as word count, created data, target, etc. by right-clicking on the column headers.

That concludes our tour! Are you feeling a little more comfortable now? I hope learning the vocabulary helps you start exploring how Scrivener can work for you. What we've covered here only scratches the surface.

Windows vs. Mac

One more thing: Scrivener offers both Mac and Windows versions of their software. There are some slight differences between them, but for the most part the functionality is comparable. I’ve included Mac screenshots in this article because I write on a Macbook Air and that's what is available to me, but most of the functions I reference are also available—and can be found in more or less the same place—on the Windows version. There are, however, a few places where the Windows version lags behind.

If you have trouble translating my instructions to Scrivener on Windows, refer first to Scrivener's Help Manual. If you can't find what you're looking for in there, leave a comment below, and I'll be happy to pitch in!

Next time, we'll use some of the interface elements I introduced you to today, like the Corkboard, to plan and storyboard a story in Scrivener. Until then, spend some time with the software and see what fun new functions you can find and play with.

What is your favorite feature in Scrivener? Let me know in the comments section.


For today's practice, just get to know Scrivener a little better by freewriting in the program for fifteen minutes. (If you don't have it, you can get a free trial here for Mac and here for Windows).

When your time is up, copy-and-paste your practice into the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to encourage to a few other writers in the comments as well.

Happy writing!


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.

Share to...