Writer’s Tools: Scrivener

Publishing a printed family history is a two-step process. First, you have to write the story of your family. Then, you must perform the layout and formatting necessary to include the images, charts, documents and tables with the text to create an attractive and well-organized book. Although both steps can be performed using any of today’s word processing applications, you’ll find there are tools that will better support both your writing and layout efforts.

For the writing process, one of those tools is Scrivener [$45 for Mac : free beta for Win]. What makes Scrivener so special? It provides a platform where both your research notes and your writing are always right at your fingertips. It allows you to brainstorm and organize your content, then quickly rearrange it all in midstream if you want. It has features to include citation information that stays with the referenced text even when you start moving content around. You can maintain multiple revisions of your manuscript and revisit any of them at any time. You can also create and maintain any number of snapshots of the project to insure you don’t lose anything.


Here you see an example of a writing project in Scrivener. Notice the outline in the left sidebar. The Introduction is the selected item in the outline and its contents are displayed in the editing area. Although you can perform formatting functions in the editor, it is recommended you keep them limited to simple text editing and assigning styles to headings. The point is to concentrate on the writing and not get distracted trying to format things that will probably change a dozen times before your manuscript is complete.

Should I decide that I want the Society Publishing section of this manuscript to come after the Tools of the Trade section, all I need to do is drag the Society Publishing item to its new location in the outline on the left. Scrivener will take care of the rest. If Scrivener did nothing more than that, it would be well worth the price. But that’s just the beginning.

QuickReference panels let me keep research notes handy and pop them up any time I need them without having to leave Scrivener. Using the information panel displayed in the right sidebar, I can assign parameters to each item in my outline. Here I have the status of this section set as First Draft. The status feature can be used to quickly see which sections are finished and which still need work. I can also add comments anywhere in the manuscript. I use this as reminders that I need a graphic here, a screenshot there, an address for a hyperlink or more description.

When everything is ready, it’s time to compile the project into a finished manuscript. Because most of my projects will be graphically intense, I’ll compile to the rich text format (RTF) so I can move to a layout application to set up the format and add graphical elements for a printed publication. Less graphical projects like biographies or memoirs can be compiled into print-ready format and even Kindle or ePub formats for ebooks.

Scrivener offers a great deal of flexibility to set it up to work the way you work. All of this goodness comes with a fairly significant learning curve. Fortunately, there’s help. In addition to a comprehensive user manual and a growing number of video tutorials, the Take Control people and author, Kirk McElhearn, have put together a must-have reference for Scrivener. This ebook takes you beyond the nuts and bolts of Scrivener’s operation and shows you how it can help you work in your own projects. The ebook is available at Take Control for $10.00. The Kindle version of the book is available at Amazon for $8.00. When you purchase an ebook from Take Control, you have access to three ebook formats – mobi (Kindle), epub and PDF. Just register your book with Take Control and you can download any of the formats you want. Take Control also offers free minor updates to their books so registration insures you get notified when these changes take place.

Writing a family history will always be a challenge, but the combination of Scrivener and Take Control of Scrivener 2 can help keep you on track to deliver a beautifully organized publication.

2 thoughts on “Writer’s Tools: Scrivener

  1. Linda K. (McNeil) Wilky

    Great article! Exactly what I needed to see. You described it perfectly for someone deciding whether or not to purchase it. Right now I’m using MacJournal for dumping my writings, postings, screen captures, photos, etc., in a chronological manner (because they are date-stamped in the journal format), but once I get ready to actually organize these things into something besides journal-format, I am definitely going to purchase Scrivener. I appreciate knowing about the ebook reference necessity, too. Thank you again for an excellent article!


    1. Denise Barrett Olson

      If you’re a MacJournal fan, I’m sure you’ll find Scrivener quite useful. The “killer feature” for me is the ability to move sections of text around. I’m always rearranging things and this makes it so easy.


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