How I Write – Part 3

Writing Tools that Work the Way I Do
April 12, 2012

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how I come up with a plot. In Part 2, I showed you how next I brainstorm for key story ideas, then create an outline of my story to get a rough idea of what scenes to include. In this third part, I want to tell you about my writing tools of choice, Scrivener from Literature & Latte for the Mac, and Simplenote for the iPad.

Writing Tools

They say that if you want to keep a conversation friendly, don’t talk about religion or politics. Well, I would add that if writers are around, don’t talk about writing tools. Because every writer has their favourites, and often they can’t understand why anyone would use anything else. Writers will fiercely defend their preferred writing tools.

Many writers use traditional word processors like Microsoft Word or Pages, while others swear by specialized text editors like Notepad++. Some go for dedicated novel-writing software like Storyist or StoryMill, while others believe that minimalist programs such as TextPad are best. Then there are those who insist that it’s not real writing if it isn’t done on a typewriter. Quill & ink, anyone?

I really don’t care to venture into that mine field. So I won’t express too many opinions about writing software other than what I use. Which are Scrivener 2.2 and Simplenote. That’s what this page in my series is about.


I came across Scrivener after a long and extensive online search for writing software that uses an outline approach. After all, creating an outline is my final prep step before I start writing words and sentences. I tried programs like yWriter5 and Power Writer, where you create an outline, then select one outline item and write just that part of your story. But both programs are designed specifically for writing fiction, and are therefore less flexible than I would prefer.

I experienced the same thing with Storyist and StoryMill software, although I must admit I did find these tools attractive. They both have handsome interfaces that include all the primary fiction-writing categories already nicely laid out for you, like Plot, Characters, Scenes, Settings, etc. These folders sit there patiently waiting for you to add your content to them. I can understand why many writers would like this pre-fab setup. But I write non-fiction as well as fiction, and therefore find this approach a bit restrictive. So I continued looking until I found Scrivener.

Screen Layout
Scrivener is so chock full of useful features that I can’t begin to describe them all here. Therefore I will focus only on those that I use often, and that most users will encounter. Here is a first look at the Scrivener screen.

Binder – Down the left side of the screen is a panel called the Binder. This is where you organize and store all your stuff. By default, this area is divided into three categories, each comprised of an outline-like list of folders (containers) and documents (content). These three categories are;

  • Draft – where you create your story outline as folders and text documents (in the image below, the first text document in the Chapter 1 folder is selected)
  • Research – where you create folders and documents to hold your research notes, files, webpages, media – you name it – that you might wish to refer to later on
  • Trash – where deleted folders, documents, files and media go until you clear them out

View – The large central panel in the middle displays one of four views (the view shown below is the Corkboard). These four views are;

  • Document – contents of whatever folder or document is selected on the left
  • Scrivenings – combined contents of all documents selected on the left
  • Corkboard – index card synopses of all documents selected on the left (shown below)
  • Outline – combined list of the synopses of all documents selected on the left

Inspector – This panel down the far right side of the screen (it can be hidden if you prefer) displays information about the selected folder or text document, including;

  • Synopsis – brief description of the selected folder or text document (in the view below, the Chapter 1 synopsis is displayed)
  • General – status and metadata associated with the selected folder or text document
  • Document Notes – user-entered notes associated with the selected folder or text document

Using Scrivener
Here’s a cook’s tour of how I use Scrivener. Again, there is so much this program can do before, during, and after writing, that it could fill a book. In fact Scrivener for Dummies is due out this September. For now, I’ll just gloss over the details and give you a basic look at how it works. It boils down to this;

  • Each Chapter is created as a Draft folder, and its Synopsis entered in the Inspector
  • Each Scene is added to the Chapter as a Text Document, and its Synopsis entered
  • Scene is selected and the view switched to Document (see below)
  • You click in the Document area and start typing

Advantages of Using Scrivener
Here are some advantages to using Scrivener, as I see it anyway.

  • Labels – Each Draft item can be assigned any label, “Chapter”, “Act” – whatever
  • Synopsis – Serves as a brief, handy reminder of what each Draft item contains
  • Document Notes – Handy notes that can be attached to any Draft item you wish
  • Corkboard – Provides a quick visual overview of the selected folder’s contents
  • Metadata – User-attached tags and keywords that allow for filtering and searching
  • Scrivenings – Composite view of multiple documents showing a subset of the story
  • Full Screen Editor – Optional editing mode with a simple, distraction-free editor
  • Research – Handy references (documents, images, web pages, etc) are just a click away
  • Index Card – Index Card outlines can be imported into the Binder, saving time
  • Document Statistics – Word count, page count, etc. are available at any time
  • Snap Shots – Older versions of a document can be stored and later restored
  • Binder Categories – Besides the three default Binder categories (DraftResearchTrash) you can add categories of your own (I use this feature to store handy writing tips from magazine articles and websites I’ve read)
  • Publish – Story can be exported to a document, PDF file, e-book, manuscript, etc.
There’s a lot more to Scrivener, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention some writer’s favourite feature. So I’ll leave it to you to check out this useful software, to see if it suits your needs. There’s a link at the top of this page but, if you like, here it is again. It’s Scrivener 2.2. by Literature & Latte. Right now there are versions of Scrivener for Mac and Windows PC. An iPad version is in the works and is promised for sometime in 2012. I am anxiously awaiting its release.


I use Scrivener on my old MacBook Pro when I’m writing from home. Mostly because its aging battery can only store 40 minutes of charge. Sure, I know I could buy a new battery, or take a cord with me, but… well, you know.

Anyway, I tend to use my iPad for on-the-go coffee shop or library writing. It’s simply too cool to sit there with my favourite little toy, tapping out ideas and notes as they come to me. At first I used the Index Card app for this, writing on the backs of scene cards. But some ideas aren’t associated with any existing scenes; they’re just ideas. For those, I use an app called Simplenote. I use the free version, but a more feature-rich paid version is also available.

Simplenote describes itself as “an easy way to keep notes, lists, ideas, and more.” And it is. It is elegant simplicity at its best. The interface includes an organizational list of note folders down the left. Actual notes get entered and edited on the right. That’s about it.

The beauty of Simplenote is that notes can be synched to Dropbox or Scrivener, which means I don’t have to email them to myself in order to transfer them between my devices. The app can store a gazillion notes, and I can flip between notes or search for content instantly. It’s almost too easy. But what it really means is that I spend my time thinking about my story ideas, not my software.

So That’s It?

Of course not. This is just the beginning of the writing process. At this stage all you have is a mind map, an outline, and a powerful & convenient writer’s word processor and note-taker. This is where you start writing your first draft as freely and spontaneously as the words will come. Scrivener makes this part of the job as painless and easy (if there is such a thing in writing) as it probably can be.

There is so much more to the writing process like Characters, Setting, ConflictTheme, Style, VoiceStory Structure, Point of View – just to name a few. I may someday continue this Writing series and touch on some of those issues. For now, however, I will finish this part off by adding my personal schedule for getting a manuscript ready for submission. It’s not quite as carved in stone as it looks, but essentially I go through the following steps;

  • First Draft – written as fast as possible using the outline as a starting point
  • Second Draft – scenes are added, removed, moved and modified (ruthlessly) to make the story more interesting and readable
  • Third Draft – scenes are fine-tuned for detail, pacing, tension and good story-telling
  • Fourth Draft – the story is wordsmithed (edited) for major errors and word count
  • Fifth Draft – the story is edited again to improve the wording and punctuation
  • Final Draft – the story is edited again to find just the right words to grab the reader
  • Proofread – the story is proofread to correct spelling mistakes, typos, grammar, etc.
  • Proofread Again
  • Manuscript – formated and printed/exported for submission to a publisher or e-book

Where to from Here?

Writing combines all the brute stamina of a decathlon with the artistic nuances of ballet. You first need to learn how to go from ideas in your head to words on a page. There are umpteen methods, regimens, techniques, exercises – you name it – for acquiring and mastering this skill. The magazines and books recommended in Part 1 of this series might be a good place to start.

Then you need to study story composition; those subtle, yet crucial elements that, when done well, captivate readers (and editors), but when done poorly can bore them to tears and lead to rejection. Most of us can tell the difference between a good story, and a not so good one. But it takes some studying to learn just what makes the difference. There are lots of good magazines, books, writing courses, workshops, conferences, and writer’s groups out there to help you acquire this knowledge. I will list a few books and websites below that touch on these issues.

One easy way to take the plunge is to participate in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month) challenge. Every November writers from all around the world set out to write 50,000 words in 30 days. This can only be accomplished by turning off the Editor in your head and writing. Who cares what it looks like or reads like? Just stick to a story and write! And 30 days later you can say you wrote a book (well, a first draft, anyway). Sure, it’ll still need lots of editing. But it’s a start. And who knows, it might just be the beginning of a writing career. For more information go to (and thanks Marcia for mentioning this)

Once again, I provide here a short list of books of which I am familiar, and that I can recommend for those of you interested in looking under the skirts of a story to find out what separates a good one from a not so good one. Of course, we authors try hard to achieve the former and avoid the latter. There are, of course, many other good books.

Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress

Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Morrell

You Can Write a Novel by James V. Smith Jr

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

I must admit that I haven’t been through all the following websites word-for-word. But I have looked them over, and they all appear to include the topics that I think all beginning writers should be aware of. When it comes to writing, it turns out, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.


How to Write a Novel

Learn the Elements of a Novel: Story Structure & Plot

Be a Better Writer

The Bottom Line 
That’s about it for the first three parts of this series. I hope these How I Write posts have been helpful, and perhaps even informative. I remember how I searched for answers to these questions when I was starting out, and how I appreciated seeing what worked for other writers. Of course, we all have to find what works for us.

I originally envisioned only three parts to this series. But who knows, maybe someday I’ll post a few more instalments to cover other writing topics. For now, though, I need to get back to my own writing. I hope you do too.

Good luck, and happy writing!


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