Introduction to Scrivener for Novelists

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I’ve been a PC user since the beginning of time. When I started hearing ecstatic references to a Mac program for writers called Scrivener several years ago, I was a bit envious, but I didn’t think much about it.  I’d been searching for the ultimate writing software program for years (preferably the one that Stephen King and Nora Roberts use, the one that writes whole novels in the time it takes me to do the laundry), but I kept going back to Word.

When I first started writing on a computer, back in the dark ages some thirty years ago, a word processing program file only held about twenty pages, so we had no choice but to break a novel length manuscript into short sections.  Figuring out the pagination was especially fun.  I went through numerous programs like that: the one that came with my first computer, which I think was called something imaginative like “Write,” Brown Bag, Electric Pencil, Sprint, and Ami Pro, which I used until Lotus bought and ruined it.  But at least with Ami Pro I discovered that I could keep a whole novel in one file.

I finally switched to Word, on the theory that it had gained such market dominance that even my using it could not doom it.  And I still use Word.  But for my last novel, I had files in four programs: the manuscript in Word, time lines in Excel, research in One Note, and outlines in Action Outline.  I may even have had an abortive attempt at a story board in Writer’s Blocks.

I have a large and unwieldy collection of writing software.  Over the years I’ve tried most of them.  WriteWay and Writer’s Blocks came closest to being all-in-one environments, but I was never comfortable actually writing in either of them, hence the reliance on multiple programs.

When the first version of Scrivener for Windows came out in 2011, I put off following up on it because I was busy, and because it was the first version, but last fall I decided to take the plunge.  Even though I’ve only scratched the surface, I’m glad I did.  I have always been a very linear writer, and I think that’s largely because of the structure imposed by a novel-length file in any word processing program.  Scrivener breaks a project into manageable pieces, and lets you work on them in any order without losing control of the whole.  The option of jumping easily from one section (or scene) to another is one of the features I am fast coming to love in Scrivener.

There is a lot to explore, and there is definitely a learning curve, but don’t let all the features overwhelm you.  Use what you like and ignore the rest, until you need them.  Every time I use Scrivener, I learn something new, hunt for something I thought I knew, and look for something I hope it will do.  

I’m going to tell you what you can do in Scrivener (at least what I’ve discovered so far), not how to do it.  Scrivener lets you write, outline, and plot, and these three functions are tied together so that a change in one (moving a scene, color coding, etc.) is reflected in the others.  It lets you store your research always at hand in the same file (called a project by Scrivener). It organizes your work in a hierarchical fashion, and lets you move sections around as needed.  And it throws in a number of fun bells and whistles (even more in the Mac version, but the programmers are working hard to catch the Windows version up to Mac).  

Getting Started

Scrivener organizes its files into projects.  On the left side of the Scrivener screen, you will see all the parts of your project listed under the binder.  A project can contain text, research (including copies of and live links to web pages), notes, snapshots (copies of scenes or sections that you might want to revert to after you decide you don’t really like changes you’ve made), pictures, and/or just about anything you’ve been keeping in your computer. 

When you open Scrivener for the first time, or when you hit the file/new project command, you are offered a number of templates to choose from, divided into the categories blank, fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, and miscellaneous.  Any of these are endlessly adaptable, and each (except the blank one) comes with a built-in guide (removable when you’re through with it).

The novel template (one of several templates in the fiction category) comes with pre-set sections for Manuscript (with chapter and scene to start you off), Characters, Places, Research, and so on.  Some you may not use, and you may add some of your own.

I used the Blank template for this article (although I was tempted by Miscellaneous, which offers “an outline for a motivational or persuasive lecture”).  It gave me Draft, Research, and Trash folders, which seem to cover all the necessary bases.  I jumped in with the cork board, filling in the features I wanted to include, and before I knew it I had a plan.  I’ve also used the Blank template for a project I’ve called “Miscellany,” to hold blog and article ideas that I’m not ready to work on but don’t want to forget.

The central portion of the Scrivener screen is the editor, where you do your actual writing. The text has all the features of a good word processor and, unlike some all-in-one programs I’ve tried, it is very comfortable to type in, especially with Typewriter Scrolling turned on (remember how a typewriter works?  This nifty feature keeps your current line in the middle of the page).  It has a good spell checker, but I turned the auto-correct off; either the feature is far too imaginative or I am, because it kept changing my characters’ names and rewriting various other things.  (The Auto-Save function kicks in whenever you stop typing for a few seconds; you can set the interval as you like.)

Text mode does not show you what your printed page will look like.  It simply fills up the available screen space with typing, in whatever font and magnification you choose.  If you print something directly from the screen or from the print preview function, you’ll get the font you are using for typing, without headers or page numbers.  If you use the Compile process, you will get whatever font, spacing, margins, etc., that you specify then, which can be entirely different from whatever font you are happy writing with.

You can split the screen, either horizontally or vertically, so that you can see two scenes, your scene and your cork board, your outline and your chapter, your text and a picture, or just about any combination you find useful, or you can hit F11 and fade everything but your text for undistracted typing.  If you want to see more text than just the scene you’re working on, this is the place.  A feature called Scrivenings allows you to see all of a chapter or even a whole manuscript at once. 

The editor section of the interface is also where you see the cork board and/or the outline, both of which are very well designed.  Three icons above the editor represent text, cork board, and outline.  As writers, we’ll spend most of our time in text mode, but I have also found the cork board immensely useful.

The cork board functions as a story board, and whatever you put on an index card on the board also shows up in the synopsis box to the right of the editing section; the first line shows in the outline. 

Novelists6

For fiction, I use the cards to jot down ideas for coming scenes.  If it is possible to show the whole manuscript this way, I haven’t figured it out yet.  If you look at the top level, the Manuscript, you get a card for each chapter.  If you look at a chapter, you get a card for each scene.  So at the moment I’ll throw all my idea cards into the last unfinished chapter and push them along as I write.

Someone else might think the outline is exactly what she needs. The outline is adaptable, showing whatever you need for each item, from title to word count, synopsis, label, status, etc., for a capsule picture of the project.

Scrivener cap 3

The binder is the section of the screen to your left.  It shows all the parts of your manuscript—if you want it to.  It can be collapsed or expanded like any computer file structure, so you can see the scenes or chapters you need while collapsing others.  You can grab a scene or a chapter with your mouse and move it wherever you like, and it will take the text with it.  Be careful—until you get the hang of moving sections it’s easy to “lose” something.  (It won’t be deleted, but it might slip into another file or folder and be hard to relocate; I have found the cork board a good view for locating AWOL items.)

You can use the color-coding feature to turn the binder into a quick view of whatever factor you like.  The binder for my novel in progress shows me the point of view character at a glance, yellow for the heroine and blue for the hero, but scenes (and their accompanying file cards) can be coded in any manner you like.

You can also use the binder to make collections of sections out of their usual order, save searches, and do any number of things that I haven’t needed—or quite figured out—yet. 

Don’t let the name Inspector, or the phrase General Meta-Data, scare you off.  The right side of the Scrivener screen is full of useful tools for the novelist.  The Synopsis box at the top picks up whatever you put on a cork board index card, or vice versa, and it can be reflected in the outline view.  Use the Synopsis box for planning ahead, or for looking back when you have to write an actual synopsis.

That scary-looking General Meta-Data box (sorry, but any phrase with “meta” in it alarms me) is actually the place where you control labels (useful for keeping track of point of view, setting, characters, or whatever factors you like), and the status of a scene (To Do, First Draft, Revised Draft, Final Draft, etc.)  Both of these are editable, and you can change them, add to them, etc.  They are reflected on the index cards, and in some cases in the binder.  The Label feature is where you can color-code your scenes by any factor you find important. 

The General Meta-Data section also features in compiling your manuscript, making sure that what you want is included and what you don’t (notes, research, pictures of hot actors) is not.

The Notes section in the lower half of the Inspector can hold information on the specific scene or on the entire project (it toggles between Document Notes and Project Notes).  The little icons at the bottom of the section change it to References, Keywords (you might use this to keep track of characters in each scene; Keywords can also be color coded, which will be reflected on the appropriate cork board index card), Snapshots (Scrivener’s way of saving past versions), and Footnotes and Comments. 

What I would have given for something like this in grad school, when I was up-to-date, if not cutting edge, with a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter, a box of carbon paper, and a large supply of non-virtual paper index cards.

Nifty Features

Project TargetsScrivener is full of handy little features of particular appeal to novelists.  Project Targets is a little widget that can float anywhere on your monitor screen and either tell you that you’re doing well or kick you in the butt.  Put your planned total word count in the upper part (Manuscript Target in the Novel template, Draft Target in the Blank template) and the bar tells you where you are, turning gradually from red to green as you approach your destination.  The lower bar, Session Target, is great for short term incentive, whether it’s one hundred words a day or the 5,000 words you need to meet your deadline.  Frankly, this gadget may be worth the entire learning curve all by itself.  (The Mac version has even more features; you can plug in your writing days and deadlines.  I’m jealous, but maybe not for long; updates have been frequent.)

The same section of Scrivener (the Project menu) also offers Project Statistics (word, character, and page count, although I haven’t found the latter to be particularly reliable) for the whole project and for the current section, and Text Statistics, including word frequency and paragraph count, for the current section, as well as an Auto-Complete feature.

The Format menu includes a Scriptwriting mode, with several different styles for screenplays, stage plays, radio dramas and comic books.  I’m one of the tiny percentage of writers with no interest whatsoever in scriptwriting, but for the other ninety per cent, this might be a deal maker.

Under Tools/Writing Tools, you’ll find direct connections to a number of reference sources (Google, Wikipedia, on-line dictionary, thesaurus, quotations, etc.), as well as a Name Generator.  Need a female character with a Swedish first name  starting with G and a Catalonian last name starting with R?  The Name Generator gave me ten, and only stopped there because the number of names to list was arbitrarily set at ten.  When I tried a combination of Zimbabwean first name and Dutch last name, I only got two.  Scrivener knows lots of Dutch names, but as it turns out, only two given names from Zimbabwe.  You may have to consult an expert for your African novel. 

Scrivener

Exporting Your Manuscript

When you finish a project or a manuscript in Scrivener, you don’t just hit print or email it to that agent who is eagerly awaiting it.  You have to compile it.  You can print straight from Scrivener but, as my critique group points out, you won’t get page numbers that way, or much other formatting.

The compile process is what makes it possible to write your manuscript in any font or size you like and still have it come out in 14 point Times New Roman (if that’s your preference) at the end.  It’s where you set your headers and page numbers and scene dividers and such, and it’s probably the last thing you’ll need to learn if you decide to use Scrivener, so I’m not going to pretend I know much about it to pass along.  My experiments with this project have gone well.  I sent an early draft to Word and had no trouble reformatting the header to my preference, adjusting the font size, etc.  I have yet to try it with a full-length novel; I expect to have to scroll through the manuscript to give it a final check and polish. 

In addition to good old Word, rtf and pdf files, Scrivener can compile manuscripts into e-book formats (epub or mobi) and a number of others, including dedicated script software and some I don’t even recognize (MultiMarkdown?). 

Although Scrivener was originally written for novelists, it is adaptable enough to be used for almost any sort of project.  The writing function is smooth and efficient, and organization by scene or section allows easy editing and manipulation, and makes writing out of order much simpler.  The cork board and outline features are extremely handy.  The program’s ability to store all sorts of research material eliminates the need for scattered outside files.  The more I’ve used it, the more I’ve found to like.

Scrivener also includes quite a list of built-in language support, including “science fiction.”  Switch to that and you get menus for Command, Maneuvers, Bridge, Mission, Data Files, Helm, Engineering, and AI.  Projects become Missions, Import becomes Assimilate, Export becomes Teleport.  Writing Tools becomes Sonic Screwdriver.  Text Mode is Operations View, Cork Board is Tactical View, and Outline is Strategic View.  Compile becomes Holodeck.  I’m not quite that adventurous, but some might find it entertaining.

When I returned to English, Scrivener said, “You have elected to exit Science Fiction Mode.  Perhaps you have decided there’s more money in romantic fiction.”

References and Sources

To learn more about Scrivener, to download it, and for all sorts of videos, forums, and FAQs, visit Literature and Latte.

The program opens with an excellent interactive tutorial in the form of a Scrivener project.  Do not skip it.  Consider printing it out for reference.

The Scrivener manual, available from the Help Menu or key F1, is a 294 page pdf file, and rather technical.

Gwen Hernandez’ Scrivener for Dummies is available at bookstores and Amazon in paper (which I recommend) and e-format.  Gwen’s web site is also full of valuable information, and she teaches periodic (and excellent) on-line Scrivener courses (the next one is in September).

A useful short e-book on the subject is Writing a Novel with Scrivener, by David Hewson.  (I recommend downloading the free Kindle app for your computer—whether or not you have a Kindle—and looking through this side by side with an open copy of Scrivener).

Everything Scrivener  is a blog devoted to collecting articles about Scrivener.  You’ll find posts on everything from scriptwriting to Ph.D. theses there.

35 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jo Eberhardt
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 17:29:50

    Great article, Kay. I’ve been thinking about Scrivener for quite a while — but usually I start thinking about it at exactly the moment in my WIP that my brain starts throwing up roadblocks to completion. I think I’m going to download Scrivener and have a play around with it for a short project and, if I like it, use it to write my NEXT novel.

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    • Kay Hudson
      Jul 07, 2013 @ 17:33:10

      Thanks, Jo. You can try Scrivener for 30 days (and that’s thirty days when you use it, not thirty consecutive calendar days) for free. I’ve started using it for articles and notes, too.

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  2. piperhuguley
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 18:30:05

    I’m still on the fence about it Kay, but what you’ve written makes a great deal of sense to me, so thank you!

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  4. Peter IngersollPeter Ingersoll
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 07:33:59

    I’m using Scrivener to compile a nonfiction book for two friends. It’s really great for organizing and getting to content sections quickly. At this point, I couldn’t imagine going back to Word for writing projects!

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  5. ferris robinson
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 07:46:09

    I have it and think I will like it if I ever figure out all the ins and outs! Your article helps, so thank you!

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  6. amdobritt
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 11:30:26

    This article really helps. I have Scrivener for windows, but haven’t really gotten around to using it very much, since all my work is currently being done in MSWord 2007. But I think for my next novel I will use Scrivener and learn as I type. :)

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  7. racu1952
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 13:13:55

    My project has so many details to keep track of, Word would be useless. Even One Note couldn’t stand up to it. I love Scrivener for this alone.

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  8. Ilse Turnbull
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 13:14:29

    Thanks so much for this. I hadn’t noticed the Typewriter Scrolling feature. I was hoping more and more for a way to get the text up higher on the page and it was right there the whole time. Appreciate you pointing it out.

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  9. internetreviewofbooksBob
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 13:31:21

    Kay, thanks so much for your detailed and helpful article. I used Scrivener for Windows briefly, but now use a Mac. I’ll have to get Scrivener for it.

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  10. internetreviewofbooks
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 13:32:16

    Great post, Kay. Thank you.

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  11. Elaine Colton
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 15:24:28

    you are all so much more evolved than I- I dare not even comment!!!

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  12. Ellen Oliver
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 15:50:50

    I’ve got a Mac and I’m using Scrivener – still learning all the functions that are best for me and my story – while transcribing madly from files that were almost lost on two other publishing format platforms. One was StoryMill, a good program but not for my computer and such a big file. Worked well for a short story.

    So Scrivener it is and I am delighted with its flexibility to change for those of us who are inspired in the middle of things to add/change/switch around. NOW if I can only get the time to switch over to figure out writing in the form that shows you the book as it would be – I’d be really happy.

    One other caveat: search and replace has not been working well – I don’t have time while inspiration is humming along to figure out why. I was updating a character’s name, that should have been simple but the program when nighty night, this happened several times.

    I’ve purchased the book for Scrivener and as soon as I hit a lull I’ll pour over it but while the characters are pushing me I want to play with them and write. I’m sure it will be perfect for me when I give it the time to learn its ins and outs.

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    • Patrick Maher
      Jul 28, 2014 @ 01:41:45

      Did you discover “PROJECT REPLACE’ under the Menu Bar EDIT drop down. So EDIT > FIND > PROJECT REPLACE.

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  13. joanleotta
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 19:16:00

    wow-scrivener is set for how I think! Can I use it on my ipad and send documents to my pc or do I need two copies of scrivener, one for the MAC and one for the PC?

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    • Kay Hudson
      Jul 08, 2013 @ 19:38:34

      I’m afraid I don’t know anything about iPads, Joanleotta, I don’t know of a Scrivener version for them. I do know that Scrivener for Mac and Scrivener for Windows are separate programs, but I don’t know if the files are interchangeable. Try the help forums at Literature and Latte.

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    • Ellen Oliver
      Jul 09, 2013 @ 14:12:25

      I’ve got multiple computers too… I do not know if Scrivener has a non-Mac version (my guess is no, it was developed for the Mac) but I do know it won’t load on my Ipad. I have it on my Mac desktop and rely on it. I still have a lot to learn as I go along to get the most out of it and I am enjoying it and it works well for me. I do know the license you get with Scrivener is very generous and covers several computers (up to seven) I wrote and asked.

      My travel computer is a new MacBookAir – really powerful – I downloaded Scrivener onto it and it didn’t do well at all there, I removed it. But even if it had worked on the laptop I do not think I could have merged the files from one to another to get it all in one Scrivener file. Also, the time consuming file management time that takes is better spent writing.

      When I travel now I write on my laptop in Word and then cut and paste into the Scrivener file when I return home – unless of course, I have my Mac desktop with me – I prefer that but if plane travel is involved that just doesn’t work.

      Bottom Line: I’m committed to Scrivener already and have even more neat stuff to learn about it as I go along. Good Luck

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  14. joanleotta
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 19:18:18

    Yikes–I forgot to thank you for such an amazingly detailed and helpful post–thank you!

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  15. Peter Ingersoll (@Peter_Ingersoll)
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 14:22:03

    To clarify, Scrivener files work on both the Mac and the PC. While the software for each platform is purchased separately, the files work on both. In fact, file sharing tools such as Dropbox or Box can be used to store and use files between Mac & PC. There is no mobile application.
    Info at: https://scrivener.tenderapp.com/help/kb/features-and-usage/cross-platform-compatibility

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  17. rochellebarlow
    Jul 12, 2013 @ 15:10:13

    I’m in the middle of my 30-day trial with them and so far so good! I’m sure I’m not using it to its full potential. I love that I can put my manuscript into full screen and black out the screen behind it so I don’t get distracted by all the visual clutter. I haven’t utilized the split screen just yet. Thanks for the walk through, there were things here I hadn’t tried out yet.

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  18. Alice Garber
    Jul 16, 2013 @ 09:49:58

    Kay, I used Scrivener to rewrite my mystery/suspense novel and, after trying three other writing software programs, believe it is the best organizational and writing software available. I use it on both my iMac and my MacBook Air (with the file in Dropbox) and it syncs perfectly. I use auto backups to back up locally and “back up to” on Dropbox to protect my work. I keep a separate Scrivener project called “Story Ideas” with each idea in a Chapter and a summary of the idea on the Index Card. My favorite writing craft articles, news articles which triggered the story idea, and inspirational quotes are filed in the Research section. When I start a new book, I create a new Project and delete the Chapter from the Story Ideas project. I also used Compile to export an e-book version of my novel and emailed copies to my beta readers who imported the file into iBooks and used their iPads or iPhones to highlight suggested changes and to email comments to me direct from the iBooks app. Another favorite feature is the built-in microphone icon which can be added to the toolbar so you can easily have Scrivener read your work aloud.
    Excellent post, Kay. You mentioned a couple of things I didn’t know about. But then, there’s always something new to learn about Scrivener!

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  19. Donna Maloy
    Jul 19, 2013 @ 11:05:13

    Kay, that was an awesome post! I’m sorry I had to miss your presentation to HBA but I think I’ve got everything I need right here. Thanks so much for going to all this trouble. Your explanations were amazing.

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  20. Trackback: Introduction to Scrivener for Novelists | Everything Scrivener
  21. E.E. Burke
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 14:09:41

    Now I have Scrivener envy! About a year ago, I signed up for a course by Gwen Hernandez (author of Scrivener for Dummies) but was swamped and didn’t get a chance to participate. And all the detailed new learning just scared me away. I’m hoping she or someone does a YouTube tutorial for Macs. Show and tell is my best way to learn. Thanks for posting, Kay!

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    • Kay Hudson
      Aug 12, 2013 @ 16:21:09

      Gwen’s course is excellent, and I believe she’s teaching it again next month. If you go poke around the Literature and Latte web site, I think you will find quite a few video lessons. There’s a lot of resource material on the site.

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  22. Gwynlyn Mackenzie
    May 18, 2014 @ 23:37:04

    I bought it and Gwen’s book, but like you, I started on a word processor (Word Star, anyone), upgraded to a PC (still prefer WordPerfect to Word, but got tired of fighting the tide), and continue to write as I always have—notebooks and file folders (I’ve never become accustomed to using multiple files for a single endeavor). I have several books in the almost there category, and I’m hesitant to mess with a system that’s worked for me. I really detest learning new software. However, you make a good argument. Maybe for book three of my Merlin trilogy. With luck, I won’t go crazy and will kick myself for waiting so long!

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    • Kay Hudson
      May 19, 2014 @ 10:16:36

      Gwynlyn, I was hesitant to “leave” Word, too, but I think the change has been well worth it. I do still have several manuscripts only in Word, and I don’t know whether I’ll ever have reason to pull them into Scrivener. I did move one as an experiment, and then had major trouble getting it back out through the Compile feature (in fact, I resorted to a lot of cutting and pasting!). However, I have since wrestled fairly successfully with Compile on my own (I should post that) and I recently took Gwen’s advanced Compile course, which smoothed out the bumps. I was thrilled to see how easily Scrivener compiles to ebook formats! I may well need that one of these days.

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  23. Jeffrey Perren
    Jul 17, 2014 @ 15:32:30

    Thanks relating your personal experience. Have you figured out any way to create paragraph breaks in an Index Card? I have short scene synopses in each one, but it would still be helpful to have a separation ala paragraphs on a single card.

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    • Kay Hudson
      Jul 17, 2014 @ 19:28:36

      I’m not sure what you’re shooting for, Jeffrey. Hitting “enter” will move your text down a line, and if you want a visual break you can leave a blank line between text segments. I don’t see any way to indent on card, though, except for the old-fashioned space bar technique.

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  24. Alice Garber
    Jul 20, 2014 @ 14:36:00

    Jeffrey, if you use the Inspector pane to edit the index card, you can add blank lines and indents. Whatever changes you make in that text will appear on the index card as well.

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