Guest Post: Gwen Hernandez on Scrivener

Back when I had just started to take my writing seriously, I started using a program called Scrivener to assist in helping me get a bit more organised (something I desperately needed!). At one point, I blogged a list of software I found useful, and mentioned Scrivener. Gwen was kind enough to pop by my blog and comment and we have been chatting ever since.

Gwen has built a reputation as one of the foremost experts on Scrivener, if not the foremost (she wrote the official Scrivener for Dummies!), but she is a very talented and successful author, too. To mark the release of her latest book, Blind Ambition, I asked Gwen if she wanted to do a guest post. Instead of just an ad for her book, Gwen has given us great starter’s guide to what I consider one of the best tools available to a writer (I couldn’t have written Backcountry without it–which I will cover in a  post of my own).

If you check out her blog you will find a whole lot more great advice for writers, which she make available for free. If you find this post helpful, or the others on her blog–or even just want a great read!–I’d encourage you to check out Blind Ambition and support Gwen’s writing.

Getting started with Scrivener

Are you fascinated by other authors’ writing processes? I am. I goggle at those who write ferociously detailed 80-page outlines, and empathize with those who start with the seed of an idea, or snippet of dialog, and tiptoe into the unknown. When crafting fiction, I’m somewhere in between.

I write in Scrivener—a word processor on steroids that lets you store your manuscript and all supporting materials (e.g. research, notes, pictures, web pages) in one place—which is flexible enough to accommodate any writer’s method.

Here’s a quick breakdown of my approach for writing my latest romantic suspense, Blind Ambition, and the Scrivener tools I used to support it.


Even though I tend toward the pantser/seat-of-the-pants-writer end of the spectrum, I’ve learned that there are certain things I must figure out before I get too far into my story. The goals, motivation, and conflict for the hero, heroine, and antagonist. Internal and external conflict for the main characters. The basic turning points, and some idea of what type of final showdown I want to have. Much of it will change, but I need something to write toward so I don’t get stuck.

For all of these elements, I create documents within my Scrivener project, which I add to and revise frequently (and then eventually forget about once I’m into the story enough).

Here are some other things I set up for my project before I start writing (these can all be saved into a project template to use for future projects of the same type).

– A Productivity document where I track my daily word count (if any) along with notes on what I worked on in the story (e.g. edits through a certain scene, brainstorming). I use Scrivener’s Project Targets feature to count the words I’ve added, and track my progress toward the overall manuscript word count goal.

– A Backstory folder where I keep scenes that will never go into the final manuscript.

– An Unused Scenes folder to store deleted scenes—or parts of scenes—that I might want to mine for content later on.

– Four Part folders in which to organize my scenes. This keeps me within the three-act, four-part structure I use, without forcing me to consider chapter organization yet.

– I change the Label field to POV (point of view). When I create a new scene document, I can apply the correct character tag to it. With the colors turned on in the Binder (Scrivener’s table of contents for a project), I can quickly see which—and how many—scenes are in each characters’ point of view.

– Usually, I modify the Status field to help me track the day of the week in which a scene takes place. For Blind Ambition, which had a short start-to-finish timeline, I just put the day/time right into the title of each scene document instead.


Writing on the computer can be distracting. To get into a single-tasking mindset, I use Scrivener’s full screen (PC)/composition (Mac) mode. Full screen/composition mode hides everything but the document you’re working on (though it provides access to meta-data), and allows you to change the background color, or add a background image to customize the experience. My book mostly took place on a fictional Caribbean island, so I used a jungle image from St. Lucia to stay in the “mood” of the setting.

Research gets stored right inside my project, and links for websites or documents that I don’t want to import go into Scrivener’s References section. I use the project notes section to keep a quick-view list of characters, locations, and companies, along with their vital statistics.

When I can’t think of the perfect witty response for my character, I need to research when the sun sets on July 12th in the Caribbean, or I can’t think of how to get my hero out of a jam, I leave a note to myself right where I need it in the text, using either annotations or comments. That way I can keep writing beyond that point without fear that I’ll forget to go back and fix it.


The first thing I do before letting my completed (yay!) manuscript sit for a few days or weeks (but who has the patience/time for that??) is address the annotations I left for myself during the drafting phase.

For my first-pass read through, I compile (export) my manuscript to an EPUB file and go through it on my iPad. A book looks different in book format than on a computer screen and I catch a lot of little errors.

I take notes in iBooks and refer to them when I’m ready to make changes. Before I start revisions, I change either the Label or Status field to keep track of what I’ve done for each scene. The Label field is handy because of the color coding capability, so if you need a quick visual for which scene needs your attention next, I’d go that route. I create a value for each stage of edits to apply to a document when I’ve completed that stage.

AnnotationAfter my first pass, I compile the manuscript to a Word document. When it comes back from a beta reader or editor with corrections and comments, I open the Word document on one screen and make changes in Scrivener on the other. If you don’t have two monitors, you could use one large monitor, or view the document on an iPad or tablet loaded with the Word app.

To keep from losing my original version of a scene, I take a snapshot before making any changes. This lets me roll back to the original, or copy and paste good material from an older version if I later change my mind about my edits.


Once the final manuscript is done, I use Scrivener to create EPUB and MOBI files for online retailers, as well as the PDF version of my book for CreateSpace (currently only the Mac version supports alternating margins and headers/footers, i.e. facing pages).

In this phase, annotations are helpful for marking parts of the book that I think would work for marketing excerpts. And I create a file to store different-length versions of my book’s description/back cover copy.

Scrivener for DummiesAs you can see, Scrivener is more than a virtual notebook for storing everything you need to write your manuscript. It’s like a project manager for getting the book done. And, if you have a laptop, it’s fully portable.

That’s the super-condensed version of how I used Scrivener to write Blind Ambition. I’d be happy to answer any questions about my process or Scrivener. Thanks to David for inviting me to his blog!

Gwen Hernandez was a manufacturing engineer and programmer before she turned to writing romantic suspense. She’s also the author of Scrivener For Dummies and teaches Scrivener to writers all over the world. She loves to travel, read, jog, practice Kung Fu, and explore the Boston area where she currently lives with her Air Force husband, two teenage boys, and a lazy golden retriever.


9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Gwen Hernandez on Scrivener

  1. Rod Burns

    Gwen (hope you see this here): Great article! I have a quick question for you. Can you make notes directly in the ePub version of your manuscript in iBooks on your iPad? I’ve tried doing that on my Kindle and it just didn’t seem to work that well. How hard is it to get a Windows Scrivener file exported onto an iPad?

  2. Gwen Hernandez

    Thanks, Rod! I can make notes in my EPUB on iBooks on my iPad. Just select a word or words (press and hold it on the screen until a small menu comes up) and choose Note. When you’re ready to look at all of your notes, press the TOC “button” on the screen and choose the Notes tab at the top. You can also follow the same procedure to highlight sections without making a specific note about it (then view by selecting Highlights). I find it helpful to select enough text that I can quickly do a project search in Scrivener to find it without having to go to that place in the book to figure out where the note applies. I make the change in Scrivener and then delete the note so I know that I’ve dealt with it.

    Kindle has a similar feature, though it’s a bit more clunky in appearance.

    Adding an EPUB created in Scrivener to your iPad is as easy as emailing it to yourself, viewing the email on your iPad, and then opening the EPUB from your email. Hope that helps!

  3. Monique

    I’m curious about the Productivity section of your binder—would you share a screenshot of what that looks like?
    Thank you!

  4. Gary Seaton

    Gwen, I’ve read different posts from you. If I call recall correctly, you wrote Scrivener for Dummies in Scrivener and then transferred your draft into Word for your final edit. It appears you are still putting your completed manuscript into word and then you are converting your book to mobi, epub and pdf. Smashwords is pretty strict in the formatting to get the doc format through their meatgrinder. Some authors say they have no problem with submitting their work compiled in Scrivener and others say it’s a uphill battle. The formatting for the doc file submitted to Smashwords is controlled by styles rather than formatting manually. I have a perfect doc template that sails through the meatgrinder. Somewhere I read that Scrivener was meant for drafts and not for the final format. I love Scrivener, but it is a pain to drop the manuscript into the doc template and format by styles. I made up a template in Scrivener using custom presets. It’s close, but not perfect. Is it possible to get the template to match the word doc template? I could use any suggestions you have. If not, I guess I’ll keep dropping my manuscript into word.

  5. Gwen Hernandez

    Monique: That’s actually just a single document with dates, time, word count (if writing/editing), and sometimes notes to myself on what I did or where I left off, especially in the revision phase. It looks a lot like this…

    23 Sep: 2, 270
    24 Sep: 1.75, 559 worked on At Rebel Camp
    25 Sep: 1.25, 594 worked on Rescue Kids
    26 Sep: .75, 451 worked on Rescue Kids
    28 Sep: .75, 257
    29 Sep: 3, 1701, Going back for Flore
    30 Sep: 2.25, 1354, Dan to the rescue
    1 Oct: 2.5, 815, Dan to the rescue
    2 Oct: 2.5, 741, deleted some of this week’s writing and reworked Rescue Kids to include Flore’s asthma attack, but in the van
    3 Oct: .5, 195
    6 Oct: 1.75, 762
    7 Oct: 1.25, 1005

    It helps me see how long the process took overall and for each phase. I’m constantly trying to make my turnaround time on a new book faster, and this helps. It’s also for motivation/accountability. HTH! 🙂

  6. Gwen Hernandez

    Hi, Gary. I actually don’t export to Word to format for publishing, only for my editorial team. I create my EPUB, MOBI, and PDF files directly from Scrivener (NOTE: the PC version doesn’t have all the compile settings needed to create good PDF files for CreateSpace, LSI, etc.). I had to use Word for Scrivener For Dummies because Wiley required that I show my edits and respond to comments. But for my fiction, I make all edits in Scrivener while referring to the Word document my editor marked up.

    I looked at Smashwords when I published Blind Fury, but decided not to bother with it since I can submit to all of the major retailers directly myself. I don’t know enough about the meat grinder’s requirements, but here’s how I plan to apply formatting for my next book with Wiley, which requires me to use all sorts of styles to mark up the Word document.

    1. Create presets for the common styles that I’ll need to apply. I’d probably just create them as needed, formatting the first instance as desired and then using it to create the preset. NOTE: The presets don’t need to look anything like the Word style, but they do need to be different enough from each other that Word won’t get confused later. I’d recommend using the Save All Formatting option in the New Style window in Scrivener when creating your preset.
    2. Apply the appropriate preset to each section of text, either as you write it, or after the fact. You can select a preset and then start typing and it will apply to the typed text until you choose a new preset.
    3. When you compile your manuscript to a Word document, choose Original from the Format As drop down menu at the top of the Compile window. This will prevent the compile process from overriding the formatting as it would if you chose something else (e.g. Standard Manuscript Format).
    4. After you open the document in Word, select a block of formatted text. Open the Styles window and click the Select All button. This will select all text that matches the formatting of the block you selected. [I believe on the PC version of Word you can just right-click the selected block of text and choose Select Text With Similar Formatting.]
    5. Pick the desired Word style from the list to apply to the selected text.

    Not sure if that helps. Good luck!

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