Author Friends Don’t Let Author Friends Drive MS Word

Al Macy stops by to try to convince me that Scrivener is something I should use in my writing. Let’s see how he does. Scrivener fans, this is your chance to be heard! (Al is a self-proclaimed thrifty person, so for him to spend ANY $$$ on Scrivener, it must be a good writing tool. If you need that sort of thing.)

Here’s Al:


When I learned that my buddy, Dan Alatorre, was still using Microsoft Word to write his novels, I choked on my caffeine and ended up with Pike Place Roast all over my keyboard. Time for an intervention. And a new keyboard.

I’ve used MS Word for years. It’s great for tool for writing short works, but using Word for  a novel, is like using only a hammer and saw to build a house. It’s like digging a garden with your bare hands. It’s like skinny dipping with Jennifer Aniston. Sorry, oops, no, that was my dream from last night.

Seriously, Scrivener is designed for novelists. It includes many tools and features that Word lacks. Follow along with my intervention as I shove the advantages of Scrivener down Dan’s throat.

Note that I have no affiliation with the company that produces Scrivener, and I don’t receive any referral fees. I’ve noticed that there are discount coupons out there for the app, so, if you decide to purchase, be sure to Google something like “Scrivener coupon code” or “Scrivener promo code.” In fact, Al’s frugal tip of the day: Always search for promo codes before buying something.

Also note that you can use Scrivener for free for a month before deciding to buy it.

Back to the intervention. Here are five simple ways that Scrivener can help you write a better book.

1. Character Organization is Fun

Scrivener makes it fun and easy to organize your characters. Here’s a screenshot of the characters in my  latest book, Yesterday’s Thief:

00 scriv 1.png

That screenshot shows the “binder” on the left and the “corkboard” on the right.

When I create a character, I usually picture him or her in my head. Then I use Google Images to find someone who matches that picture. For example, Stan Stanislowski is a tough, gruff, veteran detective with the San Francisco police department. Check out the picture of Ed Asner as Lou Grant. Whenever I’m wondering how Stan might react to something, it helps to look at that picture.

You can also makes notes about each character, in as little or as much detail as you want. Here are some of my notes for Eric Beckman, a main character in Yesterday’s Thief:

00 scriv 2.png

You can even download Scrivener templates for character sketches, for example, and spend hours filling information for things like height, weight, eye color, bad habits, etc.

Scrivener lets you do similar things with settings. Here’s the image that I use for a Dr. Diallo’s laboratory.

00 scriv 3.png

And here’s how I describe it in the book:

The door was mostly glass and gave me a good view of the laboratory [see the open glass door on the left?].

It was the size of a two-car garage, with an unfinished open ceiling. Wires, pipes, and heating ducts filled the space. Bundles of multi-colored cables dropped down to racks and tables of electronic equipment. A few cabinets displayed “Danger High Voltage” signs.

A massive cabinet dominated the center of the room. A cluster of heavy-duty cylinders, like stainless-steel pipes, radiated out from the center of the enclosure. They converged on a tiny gold sphere.

2. Scene Organization is Fun

Another fun thing to do with Scrivener is to arrange your scenes. Scrivener can help you get your book organized even if your bedroom floor is covered with clothing (dirty on the left, dirty-but-can-be-worn-again on the right.

You can check out your scene structure at a glance with a view like this:

00 scriv 4.png

Just drag and drop these scenes to reorganize the story.

If you are a dedicated pantser, you can fill in the scene synopses as you go. That way, you can get a bird’s eye view of your story at any time.

3. Progress Tracking is Fun

I’ve recently vowed to write one-thousand words a day, and Scrivener does a great job of showing me how I’ve failed to achieve that goal.

00 scriv 5

The progress window is updated with each letter I type. In the above screenshot, you can see that I’d written 705 words during the session.

You can also set goals for individual scenes. Finally, check out how I’ve created a project notes document (on the right) to track my word counts over time.

4. Scriv Has Color Coding up the Wazoo

I use color coding to show me the status of each scene. If I haven’t started writing a scene, its color in the display on the left side is orange. When I finish a first draft, it’s yellow. With one glance I know where I stand. When all the scenes are dark green, I’m done.

Here’s where I stand on my work-in-progress, A Parallel World (Working Title):

00 scriv 6

The first scene is a revised draft (light green), but most of the others are either to-do (orange) or first-draft (yellow).

I also use icons to show me information about the scene, such as the POV character or whether the scene is an action scene or a sequel scene. Scriv is flexible here. You can define colors or create icons any way you want.

5. Aeon Timeline!

Figuring out when each scene happens in a book can be tricky. For example, if your main character has a nose job, she can’t go to a party two days later. Scrivener teams up with an application called Aeon Timeline, and lets you sync your scenes to items on the timeline. For example, this is what the timeline looks like for Yesterday’s Thief:

00 scriv 7.png

For example, Aeon Timeline helped me organize a subplot in which private eye Eric Beckman investigates the disappearance of a man named “Donny.” Look in that timeline and you’ll see how those scenes (Donny Case Begins, Eric Investigates Donny Disappearance, and Donny Found) fit in temporally with the others.

Compare this with the screen shot for Scene Organization, above, and you’ll see how the scenes play out in time.


The documentation that comes with Scrivener sucks. Making it worse, the interface isn’t well designed. Things are not where they belong on the menus, so you’ll tear your hair out looking for how to do something, such as resize the index cards (hint: it’s nowhere on the menus). I recommend that you get a third-party “Learning Scrivener” book or do web research to help you get started.


I’ve just scratched the surface or Scrivener’s features. Note that you can ignore most of the bells and whistles when you first start, simply putting each scene in its own document. You can hold off on using the more advanced features until you are comfortable with the app.

I’d no sooner go back to using Microsoft Word to write my novels than I’d go back to using a typewriter. If you’re a fan of SAT analogies, I’d put it like this:

Scrivener : MS Word :: MS Word : typewriter

To see what other Scriv-evangelists say, Google “Scrivener vs Word.”

Phew, what an intervention that was! Convinced, Dan?

Now I’m going to take a nap and see if I can return to that dream with Jennifer Aniston.


Okay, so what do you think? Did Al convince you? I don’t get a commission from the Scrivener people, either, and you’ve seen me avoid mentioning my critique group website publicly (because they don’t pay me so why should I advertise for them?) but Al is a friend and he insists this is life-changing writing software and a LOT of writers on the interwebs LOVE this stuff, so I graciously let him sing its praises here.

If you’re a Scrivener fan, tell us why. If you aren’t, we want that too.

I’m all about helping you guys, and if Scrivener will do that, I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops like I do other things that I think will help you. 

Give me your thoughts!

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works

Published by Dan Alatorre AUTHOR

USA Today bestselling author Dan Alatorre has 50+ titles published in more than 120 countries and over a dozen languages.

32 thoughts on “Author Friends Don’t Let Author Friends Drive MS Word

  1. Perfect timing on this. I’ve also heard a lot of writers sing praises for Scriviner, and I’ve been looking into it myself. From what I’ve read, it’s also a good tool for converting novels to various e-book formats—a huge plus for indie authors.

    I’m basically sold on giving it a try. The only reason I’ve hesitated is that I’m just wrapping up the first draft of my novel, and I don’t want to get distracted playing with a shiny new toy. Since my book is planned as the first in a series, I’d still benefit from a lot of the “planning” features of Scrivener.

    I’d love to know if others have switched to using it mid-novel and if it is something they’d recommend doing.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I am not a Scrivener user so I don’t want to pile on in a negative way, but I would agree that if you’re wrapping up a story and you’re almost finished this is not the time to get distracted. On the other hand, lots and lots of people swear by this thing.

      For me, I can’t figure out if I am a 2016 guy driving a model T or if Scrivener is a hovercraft or something and I simply don’t need it to get back-and-forth to work.

      My system in Word works for me – but It IS a system. Each chapter is it’s own file, each character description has its own file, the outline has its own file, interesting notes have their own files, and there is a numbering system based on the old BASIC computer language of labeling them, so chapter 1 is filed as chapter 01 with a three or four word description of what happens in that chapter, but a chapter I know comes later might be labeled chapter 40 or chapter 80 so that I can quickly grab it, change its number, to 12 say, and drop it in where it needs to go. Need details about a character? Open up the character description file in it’s own window. Need to know what’s coming down the road? Open up the outline file in its own window. You can bounce back-and-forth just by putting your cursor down to the bottom screen and clicking on the file you need open. The folder with all these files get saved and occasionally backed up to a different device with the date you saved it.

      It sounds complicated, but when you look at a list of stuff and it’s all in an organized list to move around any way you want, it isn’t complicated at all. I showed a screen shot of it to a pantser and she said she got nervous just looking at it but I think it would take about five minutes to explain to somebody. Maybe I should do a post on some day.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agreed. Although I don’t separate my chapters into different documents, I do use the automated Table of Contents feature in Word, which allows me to skip to wherever I need instantly.

        Meanwhile, I use an Excel doc, with different sheets for structure, characters, a glossary, places, timelines and my writing journal, to keep track of progress.

        Works for me – and that’s the point isn’t it? You need to find something that works for you and to blazes with anyone who tells you different.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Ha, I forgot to mention I use Excel, too! Great minds think alike.

          I create a an Excel file called Word Count (for that book) and list each chapter and how many words long it is. This keeps me apprised of how verbose I’m being and also helps me estimate how much longer the piece will take to finish.

          For example, if I have about 10 more plot points and I estimate each is a chapter at 3000 words each, I can assume 30,000 words to go. Looking at my start date and average days per chapter, I can guesstimate at a completion date, and set a reminder in Outlook to start lining up beta readers or whatever.

          If I jump ahead and do chapter 35 when the story is only complete to chapter 25, I have a running total for the overall work. Partial chapters that are just ideas that need to be fleshed out can be dropped in as estimates to keep my overall word count in line for the book.

          Mostly it’s a great way to feel a sense of accomplishment when you update it after a week and see your total words, total chapters completed, etc.


      2. I’m probably border-line OCD when it comes to being organized.

        I have a system very similar to yours using Pages (Mac), with all of the files neatly sorted and gathered in one folder—and they’re all backed up to a flash drive every time I make any changes. It’s efficient, and it’s working for me; but I’ve been wondering if Scriviner would take that “sense of order” one step further.

        I won’t be ready to jump in and give it a try for a little while, so I’ll sit back and enjoy watching the debate.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Halfway through my first manuscript I had a similar system: one MS Word file for everything. Although it’s easy enough for me to organize those files in a fashion that is aesthetically pleasing, I had a hard time with how disconnected it all felt.

        Enter Scrivener. I haven’t done some of what Al discussed, but the ability to rearrange scenes and chapters with a click-and-drag is amazing. Aside from what Al mentioned though, metadata is a really neat feature. You can completely customize whatever type of metadata you’d like to include (characters, scenes, items, statuses, idea, etc.) – it’s really as customized as you want it to be.

        While I still do my outlines in Excel (because Scrivener does NOT have the full spreadsheet capabilities that I desire, unfortunately), Scrivener is the best thing I’ve found for writing. I absolutely adore it.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. You should consider taking your MS Word docs for your current project, and importing them into a Scrivener project to see how well your system works there. A lot of the things you are doing as meta data – file names, numbering conventions etc, are done by Scrivener internally and pretty effortlessly. I am still learning the program and there is a lot to pick up with it, but its helped me immensely with revising an old project I was working on. The thing to realize though is that Scrivener is a writing tool but not a presentation tool from what I can see. If you need a table of contents, you will likely write in Scrivener and then import into MS Word to generate your table and produce the final version. Scrivener isn’t really a replacement for Word, as much as it is a system for organizing and doing the actual writing. Its trivial to reorganize scenes in Scrivener, effortless to attach notes to things. Its not a presentation tool though.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The only bad word I would say, and it is not really a bad word, is that you don’t need it.

      Millions of people seem to be able to write novels and get them published without using scrivener. However, if you are not an organized person and you buy a tool that get you organized, that might be worth it’s weight in gold. I happen to be a pretty organized person so tools other people seem to need to get organized I don’t understand the purpose of. That doesn’t mean there aren’t features to Scrivner that might benefit me hugely!


      1. I’m relatively organised.. I could be much better. The novel idea I have involves a dual narrative, and my suspicion is that I will need as much help as I can get to stay on track with it.
        I guess the best option will be to go for the free trial, try before I buy.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Can’t hurt. I’m reading a dual narrative story right now. I think ever since “Gone Girl,” it’s become much more of a popular thing to do. Good luck! If you do go with Scrivener, be sure to follow up with us and let us know how it works out for you and what your thoughts are.


  2. I bought Scrivener after Nano one year because you get a huge discount code if you win nano. Do I like it, absolutely! Is it essential if you have a working process? No. But if you don’t have a whole process or you are fumbling in yours, try this process, they do have a lot of cool features. And it’s easy to export a back up with scrivener. I keep copies everywhere just in case.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Top three in order:
        -Simple export for backup. No worry, did I get every file?
        -Having everything in one location, notes, files you’re working on, research, in one program. I used to have 27 word files and 12 sticky notes (digital) on my screen at every turn.
        -And while it has four billion bells and whistles built in you can just start using it with the evident easy stuff and add on as you need to.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the reminder/kick-in-the-pants today, Dan. I, too, got a NaNo discount for Scrivener and Aeon Timeline. I downloaded them and have been remiss in completing the excellent tutorials that come with the programs. Like my granddaughter says, “If you just work a little bit every day…”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome!

      I think things like reminders and stuff are fun, and let’s face it, I could put one it Outlook or my phone to ask me every day if I met my word count, but it’s probably better to have your writing system do it for you. (If you need that. Hitting a word count has never been an issue for me, really. I’m usually TOO wordy. I need a app to tell me to go edit stuff.)


  4. I love Scrivener. I especially like the features where I can write notes on the side and not see it in the finished project. I often move scenes around with the dragging of my mouse and it is so much easier than Word for that.
    I just can’t believe how much I learned from this. I never would have thought to use pictures from the web for my characters and scenes – that is just genius! I am going to have to share this because, even though I thought I was a Scrivener fan before, I can’t imagine not using it now.
    Also, they give you a free 30 day trial period where it is not calendar 30 days but actual use 30 day so there is no risk to try!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Whoops. I use Pages to do all my writing. As the Mac equivalent of Word, I assume this is frowned upon too? Ah well, I like it… and I think that might matter more than what others use!!

    (Excuse my shortness I’m having a really really bad week!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was using Pages, and Open Office and Libre Office on my Mac. They all had features I liked and reasons I didn’t like them. However they are all also programs made to let you lay out your writing to some degree or another. Scrivener is an excellent tool for just writing and organizing your writing project. It isn’t for presentation from what I can see so far. But for writing it seems awesome as a tool,

      Liked by 1 person

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