filed under How To Write A Book, Using Scrivener.

I’ve written before about my love of Scrivener. And just when I thought I couldn’t love it any more, I find out something else about the program that makes me swoon! I’ve been playing around with Scrivener’s Outliner and I’ve discovered that, especially for a non-planner like me, it’s an excellent tool for helping you create a fluid outline for your book right from the initial phase of having an idea. So, let me explain how to use Scrivener to plan a book.

You Don’t Need to Be a Planner to Use Scrivener’s Outliner

Ordinarily I don’t tend to plan, my story comes to me in much the same way it does to a reader, page by page. I find this a stressful way to write – I’m organised in every other area of my life I could never understand why my writing process was so chaotic. I would like to plan more. But I would also like to plan in a way that still allows for the beautiful spontaneous surprises of writing a draft to happen.

Which is where Scrivener comes in. You have to remember that Scrivener lets you look at your manuscript in lots of different ways: in the Binder, on a Corkboard, and also in the Outliner. All of these different views are connected to each other, and to the manuscript you’re writing. So, if you change one thing in the Binder, your Outliner is automatically updated. Start to write a new scene and this new scene automatically gets added to the Outliner.

Which means Scrivener’s Outliner lets me plan before I write, and the plan updates itself while I write. I can plan in isolation from the writing process, or I can write, knowing my plan is automatically updated with each new scene, and then I can go back and look at the Outliner and see what effect the new scenes have had on my plan. Planning and writing come together brilliantly.

What Does Scrivener’s Outliner Look Like?

Here’s what the Outliner looks like. You can access it by going into the View Menu and selecting Outline. The Outliner displays the scenes you’ve written as a grid, with each Scene’s Title, Synopsis, Label, Status and Word Count.

How to Use Scrivener's Outliner to Plan a Book, Even if You're Not a Planner |

You can see the Scene Titles in bold. Beneath each Title is the description from the Synopsis Card. The Label column lets me quickly see which scenes are still just Ideas (the yellow icons), which I need to go back and add more to (the pink icons), and which ones are full scenes (blue icons).

The Status column tells me at a glance where I’m at with my redrafting of each scene, if it’s still a first draft, or a revised draft, a to-do, or a final draft. The Word Count gives me an idea if my scenes are getting too long or too short.

So when I’m starting a new book, every scene I create in Scrivener is automatically added to the Outliner. Or, I can go straight into the Outliner and add in some ideas for new scenes that I’m not yet ready to write. When I view the Outliner, I can see all the information for all the scenes. I can pick one to write. I can think about whether the scenes are in the right order or not. I can get ideas about what’s missing. I can add to the plan, but also the act of writing in Scrivener adds new detail to the plan. It’s an organic process.

Adding New Scene Information to the Outliner

You can also add new columns of information to the Outliner that you can apply to every scene. For instance, in A Beautiful Catastrophe, some scenes are set in Concord, Massachusetts, and some are set in New York. Some take place in 1922, some in 1925 and some in 1927. Keeping track of this visually is useful to me to make sure I’m not jumping around in setting or time too much.

In case it’s useful to you, for instance if you haven’t used the Outliner but would like to give it a try, I’m going to explain how you add new columns to the Outliner. It might look like a long-winded, complicated process but it’s not. So bear with me, because it’s worth knowing how to do this because I really think it adds to your planning and writing process.

I want to add a Setting column and a Year column to my Outliner. It’s called adding Custom Meta-Data, which is a serious sounding name for a very simple process.

  1. First, go to the Project Menu and select Meta Data Settings.
  2. A dialogue box appears. From the tabs in the dialogue box, select Custom Meta Data tab (see yellow arrow in image below).
  3. To add new Meta-Data, i.e. Setting and Year, click the plus button at the bottom of the dialogue box (see red arrow in image below).

How to Add New Information to Your Outliner in Scrivener to Tailor it to Your Book  |

After I click the Plus button, a line will appear where I can add in the new Meta-Data – remember, Meta-Data is just a word to describe the new columns I want to add to the Outliner.

  1. Type in Setting (see yellow arrow in image below). Hit Plus again and type in Year. You could add a POV column and assign a POV to each scene in your Outliner, or add a Character column to keep track of which characters appear in each scene or whatever works for your book. It’s limited only by your imagination!
  2. I want the Setting of each scene to display in Coloured Text in the Outliner. So I’ve ticked the Coloured Text column (see red arrow in image below).
  3. Then I click the Text Colour box (see blue arrow in image below).
  4. A colour wheel appears. Select the colour you want your text to be in the Outliner. I’ve selected red.
  5. Now click OK and go back to the Outliner.

How to Use Scrivener's Outliner to Help Plan Your Book

Let’s Apply Those Changes to the Outliner

So, let’s see what the Outliner looks like now. First, we need to tell Scrivener that we want to see our new columns in the Outliner.

  1. Click the double arrow in the top right corner of the Outliner (blue arrow in image below). The list of available data is displayed. Our new Meta-Data (Setting and Year) is on the list and I’ve ticked them (see red arrow below) to display them in the outliner.
  2. The yellow arrow in the image below shows that Setting and Year now appear as columns in the Outliner.

How to Add New Information to the Outliner in Scrivener to Help Develop a Plan For Your Book |

To add information to the new Setting and Year columns, all I have to do is click in them and type. You can see in the image below that the information in the Setting column is in red because we made this text red when we added it above. I’ve added in the Setting to two of my scenes, as well as the year in which they take place.

How to Use Scrivener's Outliner to Plan a Book Even if You're Not a Planner |

The Benefits of Scrivener’s Outliner

At a glance, I can now see the Setting and Year in which each scene takes place, as well as everything else that was previously in the Outliner. It’s such a great way to get an overview of your manuscript – much more efficient than having lots of post-it notes lying around.

And don’t forget that no matter where I change or update the scene information – if I do it in the Binder, on the Synopsis Cards or directly in the Outliner – it automatically updates everywhere. Everything is connected to everything else in Scrivener.

So, for a non-planner, I get the benefits of seeing my manuscript take shape in the Outliner. This gives me new ideas for new scenes. But I’m not locked in to a rigid plan because any change I make anywhere is applied across the entire manuscript and the outline grows as I write.

So that’s how to use Scrivener to plan a book. Does it sound good to you? I hope I’ve made it sound simple, because it really is. Have you used the Outliner in Scrivener? Did you know it existed? Or have you not yet made the jump to Scrivener?

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38 Responses to “How To Use Scrivener to Plan a Book”

  1. annabelsmith

    Oh my gadz this looks amazing! I normally have spreadsheets to keep track of this kind of stuff and have to update them manually every time I change something in my drafts. The longer I’ve been writing, the more planning appeals to me – definitely going to try this out – thanks Natasha.

    • Natasha Lester

      Pleasure! I’ve really only started using it recently and I wish I’d discovered it sooner. That’s the thing about Scrivener, it has so many great parts waiting to be discovered so I hoped sharing it would help some people. Hope it works for you too.

  2. Rebecca Laffar-Smith

    One of the things I do is change the icon of my notecards so that I get a visual view of the scenes in my Binder. This was especially helpful to keep track of the balance of POV when outlining The Flight of Torque. I love the way the Outliner gives a broader picture through the progress of the novel. It’s a great way to keep track and to see it coming together, especially if you write in a non-linear fashion.

    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, I’ve seen a few people who change their icons in the binder. I haven’t done that for any of my books yet but who knows, maybe it’s something I’ll try in the future. And yes, you’re right, the Outliner really does help you step back from your novel and see the shape of it in a way that’s extremely useful to both writing a first draft and redrafting.

  3. Marcia

    I have a final draft of a manuscript in Word. I believe I can import this to Scrivener. However, do you think the Outliner will automatically do what you’ve detailed above or is this something I need to undertake manually in the Outliner (and the Binder) myself? Note: Just to explain…I want to export it from Word so I can create epub & mobi files to publish the work myself.

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Marcia, yes you can import a Word doc into Scrivener and I have done this before. But the key thing with doing this is you then have to, in Scrivener, break the Word doc into scenes. After you’ve imported the doc, which is very easy, you need to place your cursor at a point in the document where you would like the scene break to occur and then hit Command + K. This causes Scrivener to put all the text before your cursor into a scene on its own. Then you need to repeat this throughout the whole document until it’s all been broken into scenes.

      To make sure you have the Scene title and Synopsis etc show in the Outliner, you would need to then go into each scene you’ve created and give them a title in the Binder or on the Synopsis Card, as well as a short summary. You could also do this directly in the Outliner.

      The key to this is getting that Word document into scenes and that is a manual process – you have to tell Scrivener where to break your novel into scenes. I hope that makes sense.

      • Maree Giles

        Hi Natasha,
        I’m trying yet again to get my head around Scrivener. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried! I guess I’m just so used to working in Word that I find it hard to break my manuscript up, but it does seem to make good sense, and as I do get lost in Word, I really want to give it a proper go this time. I’m halfway through my next novel and it’s starting to feel like the Black Hole of Calcutta. When you say place your curser at the point where you want a scene to end and then save it or transport it to the Binder, Outliner or synopsis card, doesn’t that mean it will also transport the previous scenes before that one with it, rather than on its own? Unlike copy and paste, which is precise and only moves what is highlighted? Sorry to be thick about this, but am still learning! Thanks for your help!

        • Natasha Lester

          Hi Maree, you need to start from the first scene and go from there. So each time, there shouldn’t be any scenes previous to the one you’re currently in. Start with the end of the first scene and hit Command K. Then the end of the second scene. Then the third scene etc. I hope that helps!

  4. Karen

    Thank you, Natasha, this is brilliant! I am so grateful to you for explaining the Outliner process. I use Scrivener, but haven’t attempted to use the Outliner section yet. Tomorrow!

    I was wondering – it seems from your post that some of your scenes are ideas, some first draft, some completed. Do you edit/rewrite these drafts in order from start of novel to end of novel or do you redraft in a more random way?

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Karen, glad you enjoyed it. I think the Outliner is one of those features that looks a bit scary so people don’t tend to use it, or people just don’t know why and how to use it to its full advantage. Which is, of course, why I wanted to share this post so everyone would know why it’s so great.

      I don’t write my first draft in any particular order, until I get to about the 20,000 word mark and the order starts to take shape. I edit in order, but as I edit, I might realise I need to add in a new scene earlier, or add more info to another earlier scene. That’s where I might go in and change the status to Add Info, or add a new Synopsis Card for an idea, but then I keep pushing on with the edit, and come back and do the new scene later. Does that make sense?

      • Karen

        Thanks, Natasha, that does make sense. I generally write in order but leave ‘blank’ scenes and write notes to myself to come back and add details. I’m always interested to see how writers write – thanks so much for sharing your process! The Scrivener posts are so useful – I find your explanations easier than Scrivener’s!

        • Natasha Lester

          Thanks Karen! I think it’s just good to see how a novelist uses it, rather than a generic kind of person which is what other tutorials use. It’s also why I decided to put together my own Scrivener course – hopefully that will be ready by the end of the month. Happy Scrivening!

        • Natasha Lester

          Hi Karen, yes the course will be online. It comprises six videos where I walk you through how I use Scrivener to write a book, and show you how to use the parts of the program that I think are the most important. There are worksheets for every video, with screen shots, for extra reinforcement. You can access the videos whenever you like and as many times as you like over 12 months from the time you pay for the course. I hope that helps!

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Patti, great question. I understand that the Outliner is available in the Windows version too, but that the ability to add meta-data is only in Beta. Now, I could be wrong about this, but I remember reading it somewhere a while ago. I bet if you tweet to @ScrivenerApp they’ll let you know.

  5. Trisha

    Hi Natasha, thought you might find these bits and pieces about Scrivener of interest.
    You may have heard this podcast already (from Nov 2014) but if not it’s an interview with the creator of Scrivener, Keith Blount.
    Also, I’m currently reading David Hewson’s “The Killing” trilogy, based on the tv series of the same name which screened I think on SBS. He credits Scrivener with helping to keep the strands of the very complicated storylines organised during the writing process.

  6. Kira

    Oh my gosh, this is so great! My roommate just sent me a link to your “how to not give up on writing your book” post and I found my way here. I’m using Scrivener to write my novel and have been feeling a desperate need for an outlining tool. I’ll have to see how the Windows version compares to what you show here.

  7. field day tshirts

    First of all I want to say terrific blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if
    you do not mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear
    your thoughts prior to writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting
    my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just
    seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted just
    trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips?

    • Natasha Lester

      I have a routine that I go through that lets my mind know it’s writing time. I do it every time before I sit down to write. It’s not complicated, it’s simply: fill up the water jug and put it on my desk, make a cup of tea and put that on my desk, open the document I’m working on and read over the last couple of pages, then write. It works for me because I’ve been doing it for so long that it really does signal to my brain that it’s time to write. I hope that helps!

  8. Michelle Dupre

    Thank You!! You just made my day, I’ve been wondering how to use the outline in Scrivener. I’m writing a period piece which is also in two different cities so thank you again! I also bought your new book from Audible and I will be listening to this summer.

    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks Michelle! I really hope you enjoy the book. And I’m glad the post was useful. The outliner is brilliant, but it’s hard to find good information about how to use it. I hope it helps with your writing.

  9. Jules

    Thank you so much! I really think I need to take your scrivener course. I follow you on Facebook and it’s lovely to be watching your extraordinary (and honest) journey to well deserved success.
    Back to the point, you just saved me from buying a special outline app. I do find all the learning involved with Scrivener daunting because I feel like I am constantly underestimating this software.

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Jules, it is a bit of a learning curve, which is why I decided to create the course – I wanted to save everybody else the time it took me to figure out a way to make it enhance my writing practice, which it does now a thousand fold! Definitely give Scrivener a try for outlining – I think it works wonderfully well for that. Good luck with it and thank you for your very lovely comment!

  10. Reba Cross Seals

    I was ready to give up on Scrivener! It was driving me crazy and I’ve continued with my clunky self made Word outlining. With your help, I’ll try again.

  11. Jay Hicks

    Hi Natasha. I’m a bit late to the party but I need your advice. I am almost finished a fairly tidy first draft of a multi timeline hf. I’ve written the whole thing in scenes – in fact I started at the end- and picked up where I left off whenever an idea struck or my fancy took me. Now I have to weave it all together and I think you’ll agree Scrivener is about to become my new best friend. I’ve dabbled, and watched a couple of handy webinars, but am still using Word, knowing I’d be moving on to Scrivener for this next bit.

    My question today is regarding the outline function. Do you arrange these scene folders into an order here, or in the binder or use Scapple to do all that? (See I’ve been trawling your posts!)
    So I’ve got my scenes all summarised in Word and entitled with POV, setting , and time. Now should I start with outliner now or go Scapple or make folders in the binder? I hope this is clear. To summarise – where in earth do I start???? Thanks for your brilliant and generous tips. Jay.

    PS Adore your new cover for the Paris Seamstress. Can’t wait! Sounds fabulous.

    • Natasha Lester

      I always just use the Binder to arrange my scenes in order. I don’t arrange anything in the first draft then, in the second draft, I go into the binder and drag everything around into an order, which probably then changes multiple times over the next few drafts. I don’t use the outliner a lot to be honest. I think if I was a planner who knew what I was doing in advance, then I would use it. I prefer the binder because I can see the scenes as I move things. Does that make sense?

      • Jay Hicks

        Thanks Natasha. I really appreciate the time you put in here and to follow up. I can only say that I guess it will make sense once I actually do it. I’m a hands on learner, but rest assured I’ve printed out this article to work along with.



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