Scrivener and Writing Technical Manuscripts

I’m working on a technical science manuscript. Most science types default to MSWord, or OpenOffice, and LaTeX for technical writing. I don’t like any of those.

There’s this writing software out there called Scrivener. I was introduced to Scrivener after winning my first NaNoWriMo in November of 2011. Primarily, Scrivener is marketed toward writers of fiction, or of books, but it has application well beyond that. I can tell you that I use it for almost all of my writing, if what I’m working on is more than 1,000 words long.

My colleagues in the sciences often ask if Scrivener is something useful for them. With this brief post, I’d like to illustrate the power of Scrivener for piecing together professional, technical manuscripts.

First, I’ll show you Scrivener being used for it’s defined purpose. This is a novel that I’m working on:

A novel I'm working on with Scrivener

A novel I’m working on with Scrivener

Notice along the left side of the window. Each named document listed under “Manuscript” is a chapter in my book. Below those are folders for templates, imported projects, and (that you can’t see) folders for storing research.

This is a book in progress, so there aren’t many chapters yet. One of the great powers of Scrivener is that I can grab and move any of these chapters to where ever I want. If I don’t like the way the story flows, I can move the chapters around. I can also choose not to include chapters in the final manuscript, without having to delete them from the larger project.

When I’m all done, I’ll be able to compile all those chapters, along with their names, into one large document. Scrivener can export these documents into a Word file, or a Kindle-readable file, and will use whatever format you want. Scrivener has some standard book manuscript formats built in that you can use.

The power here is that whatever your manuscript is, you can write it in sections and move and export those however you want.

Here, I use Scrivener to keep track of the posts I write for my blog. Each post is it’s own little file.

Scrivener being used for keeping track of my blog posts

Scrivener being used for keeping track of my blog posts. In this case, it’s a software tutorial.

In this particular Scrivener project, I am taking advantage of “Binders” in Scrivener, which lets me group documents however I like.  These are the pretty colored things on the upper left. If I only want to see posts related to my “Stink Bug” story, I just have to click on that tab.

You’ve probably noticed that the font of Scrivener is a little dull. It defaults to Courier. But you can export in any font you want. It also doesn’t have all the symbols and editing tools of MSWord, so frequently there is a little after-editing that has to be done when I copy my blog posts to my blog. This is fine with me. Frankly, MSWord gets that stuff wrong a lot too.

But what about technical manuscripts?

Here’s one I’m working on now. It’s about stable isotopes and capybaras.

'Cork board' view of my current manuscript.

‘Cork board’ view of my current manuscript.

This is the ‘cork board’ view. Each section (document) is its own index card. I can drag and drop them in whatever order I want. Since this is a professional manuscript, you’ll notice that tables each have their own file, as well as the references cited and figure captions. The figures themselves could also have their own cards, but knowing that I’d have to upload the images to the journal website separately, I haven’t bothered.

Reviewing flow of text in Scivener.

You can look at the text from each section and see how it works all strung together. The dashed lines separate text from different documents/note cards. This is from a different manuscript.

One table in Scrivener

One table in Scrivener

Tables look terrible in Scrivener (a downside), so I have the data in here as a place holder and will make the tables much prettier in whatever final format the document goes into. I like to have the data here, however, so that it’s always handy just in case I lose the original data files.

A photograph that will later become a figure in my manuscript

A photograph that will later become a figure in my manuscript.

Even though I haven’t given the figures their own note cards, they are actually in there. In the lower left, you see that they are in their own folder called ‘figures.’ These are low resolution versions of the final figures, but they allow me to see what my figures actually are while I’m writing.

A map of sample localities

A map of sample localities.

You can also make notes on your figures (and tables and other documents) on the right-hand side that won’t get exported. This helps you keep track of things you might want to fix later.

Sections and sub-sections are also possible. And Scrivener can export section titles differently based upon the level of division (although, in the end there is usually still some sort of hand-editing to be done). Below is a more complex manuscript that one day I will finish.

A more complex manuscript in cork board mode. Notice the stacks of notecards.

A more complex manuscript in cork board mode. Notice the stacks of notecards.

The way the sections and sub-sections are handled is just like a traditional outline. And, as it happens, Scrivener can show you this outline.

An outline of a more complex manuscript in Scrivener.

An outline of a more complex manuscript in Scrivener.

What makes Scrivener great for writing manuscripts is that you can have everything you need in a single ‘file’ (it’s actually a compilation of smaller files called a ‘project,’ but you only have to click once – that’s the point.) You can move sections and sub-sections around as you like. You can use the outline mode to discover where things are missing. You don’t have to write your manuscript in order. You can export things however you like.

There’s one final plus:

It continuously auto-saves itself. No more CTRL-S. You stop typing, it starts saving. No worries.

What could be better than that?

(Oh, and did I mention a one month free trial? You should give it a shot!)

About Penny Higgins

Scientist (Paleontology, Geochemistry, Geology); Writer (Speculative and Science Fiction, plus technical and non-technical Science); Mom to great boy on the Autism spectrum; possessor of too many hobbies.
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