Why I’m Using Scrivener as a Multi-Project Writing Workspace

I am surprisingly tolerant of cluttering in physical space. I take comfort in stacking books around me like a defensive wall, scatter notes across my coffee table along with errant mugs, and pile my laundry by the doorway leading from the bedroom to the balcony/laundry because I’ll remember to actually do it that way.

I’m far less tolerant of clutter in digital systems, to the point where I actually feel excessively uneasy and reluctant to work when my email, RSS feeds, or work folders start to get out of control. Talking to people who leave thousands of emails in their inbox make me break out in a cold sweat, and I will say nothing of tab junkies who just keep opening a new page on their browser every time they want to add something to their to-read list. Dealing with any kind of shared server within a company or organisation, where files are often layered seven folders deep via arcane and confusion logic, is enough to make me weep.

When it comes to writing, I used to maintain a pretty simple file architecture that looked a little like this:

The drafft archive – I never got around to fixing the typo – housed all the half-finished works that I wasn’t currently working on. The current folder housed anything I was currently working on, from story drafts to novels to blogs in progress to PhD applications, while finished drafts sat in the revision folder until they were ready to move on to submission.

It’s a system that served me pretty well for the last few years, but when I started examining my work processes for systems that were no longer pulling their weight, I realised the file architecture no longer suited my workflow. There were, for example, about twenty projects stacked up in the current projects folder. Starting some drafts in scrivener meant that some projects were half-written there, while others were sitting as word files in the draft archive. The revision folder simply fell off my radar a lot of the time, because my focus was now split between short stories, longer writing projects, blogging, essay writing, applications, GenreCon, and more.

The “recent files” feature in word went a little way towards mitigating the effects of clogged-up filing systems, allowing me quick access to anything I’d used recently, but it also showed had the potential to be an enormous source of distraction. My current project would be right there next to notes for my RPG campaign, or that recipe I’d downloaded and saved for my “Cook this, goddamnit” folder.

I spent the last month trying to figure out an alternative approach, but I couldn’t quite come up with an file system that worked for me. Everything involved too much segregation between work spaces (which meant things would get ignored, the same way I’d been ignoring the revision folder) or too much clutter (which meant too many options were present when I wanted to start work).

Then, last week, I remembered Michael Hyatt’s approach to Scrivener as an all-in-one workbench for projects. I’d previously used Scrivener for long-form narrative drafts and found it…well, a mixed bag. I really like it’s wordcount functions, I really disliked the cludginess whenever I needed to change paragraph indents or fonts. It’s ability to facilitate top-level planning isn’t really something I use a lot, outside of some very specific situations.

Ambivalent as I am about its abilities as a word processor, I do have to admit one thing: Scrivener kicks ass as a filing system. It’s what it was built to do, really well, and once you break past the idea of one scrivener file/one project it actually starts unveiling neat little functionalities. I started out replicating Hyatt’s set-up – a workbench for current files in use, and a filing cabinet where things are broken down by writing area – and it took about six seconds to realise that Scivener had one big advantage over ordinary file folders.

This is the view that greeted me every time I fired up my workspace this week, with every part of my writing broken down by category and the current deadlines/priorities listed right there on the front of the folder. I know exactly which files to move up to the Workbench before I start writing, can switch easily between projects without opening a new file, and can use scrivener’s features to quickly snapshot a version before I redraft.

Rearranging the top level cards lets me reorder the priority quickly and easily, which means I can drag Thesis/Uni tasks to the forefront when approaching critical deadlines and ensure I scan those priorities before I check short stories or novels. Keeping rough drafts and redrafts in the same system, marked using scriveners label function, means I can never pretend that the redrafts aren’t there waiting for me while I focus on new words. If I’m ignoring a project, it’s because I’m making an active decision that it is less important than other parts of my writing rather than simply forgetting it needs to be done.

It also eliminates any meaningful difference between the space where I plan work and the place that I write it, in much the same way that my bullet journal does when I’m working analog.

Most importantly, it does the three things I want from any system I set up, regardless of whether it’s a white board, notebook or digital tool:

  • Focuses my attention on what needs to be done
  • Provides necessary context when making decisions about what to do next
  • Decreases the resistance to starting on a project

The next couple of weeks will be spent testing this as a system before I finally bit the bullet and migrate the archives of unfinished work in, but it seems to be working okay as a means of making twenty-odd current projects comprehensible and achievable.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m working on short story that’s a slightly off-kilter portal fantasy where kids are sent to another world for the holidays. Having just made the very on-the-nose The Last Battle reference that will probably not survive to the final draft, I finally get to the bit where I get to engage in some fun secondary world hi-jinx.

What’s inspiring me this week?

So I wanted Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and– Nope. Can’t even finish that sentence as a joke. My dislike of Snyder films remains strong, even if I’m pretty sure I had a minor epiphany about putting together effective bad guys while comparing Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor to Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

What’s really interested me this week has been Riverdale TV series, based on the Archie comics. There’s been some incredibly weird re-interpretations of the Archie gang in the comics over the last few years, most of which have paid off really well, so it’s not really surprising this continues that trend. It’s high melodrama, as you’d expect, but the entire thing has been filtered through Twin Peaks and five years of internet commentary on intersectionality and representation.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

The portal fantasy is still more premise than plot, so I’ll need to figure out some deeper narrative issues to work through now that the introductory bits and voice are starting to come together. Still haven’t quite got my routine down either, what with everything getting rescheduled and shifted around last week, so I still need to really sit down and lock down a schedule for when writing will happen.

Transit

This was going to be a post about productivity systems and white boards, but I spent yesterday playing chess with my dad instead. Now I’m on a train, with the backpack that serves as my mobile office on my shoulder, pondering what the best use of the five hours a week that will now be spent on trains as I commute to and from uni or the QWC offices.

Right now, the optimal use of this time is writing a blog post, so I can erase that off the to-do list.

And, really, this is the point of productivity systems and white boards. They aren’t a magic trick that will make you especially awesome, even if the shiny allure that draws you in is the promise of being like yourself, but better. 

They’re a tool for cutting down resistance that talks you out of doing things – oh, I won’t blog on the train, the phone keyboard isn’t built for it – and makes you aware of everything you’re trying to do and the time you’ve got available to get it done.

It’s the latter that’s important. A to-do list gives you the former, but it doesn’t provide context. It doesn’t aknowledge the limitations of when things get done.

Today, and in most weekdays on the horizon, I have a half hour commute to and from.

That’s enough time to do things, if I stay aware of what can be done in those moments

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

Still working on the short story for last week, after getting distracted by PhD research through most of last week (it took about eight hours after getting library access for me to revert to a person who paces the length of the house, arguing with theorists and gesturing wildly). I did manage to pull the story draft and identify the major issues I was having during write-club last week, which means there are core problems that need to be solved in this week’s writing time.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I went to see the Amanda Palmer gig at the Brisbane Powerhouse last night. It was an incredibly uneven show compared to other Palmer shows I’ve seen, but what was inspiring about it was less the content and more the approach.

The show ended up being about three hours long, and swung from oh god, really to oh, this is fucking awesome along the way. Which actually makes it a pretty good microcosm of an artistic career, where the good stuff tends to come from doing less-good things and dedicating yourself to the long haul gives the really brilliant stuff a chance to show up.

Couple that with my general fascination with the way Palmer interacts with her fans, and it makes for a really interesting show.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

Still struggling with what my schedule should look like now that I’m not working around a day-job. I haven’t really divided up writing and research elements of my uni project yet, which means it’s incredibly easy to suddenly find myself going down a rabbit hole of productive distraction from the task at hand.

This week is ostensibly a little more controlled than last week was, with a better understanding of what my schedule will look like, so I’m going to try assigning some dedicated writing and research blocks that will at least let me know how accurate my guesses are.

Trash Day

I’m cleaning up digital spaces this morning. Clearing out the current projects folder on the portable drive, which ceased holding current projects back in November and simply became the place where narrative detritus and applications gathered. Clearing out the RSS reader, assessing which feeds I’m going to keep and which I’m going to cut because they have ceased being useful. Clearing out writing systems, so I’m not randomly switching between Word, Google Docs, and Scrivener for various projects based upon whatever random thought I’ve had about “fixing” my process while in a state of high anxiety.

And I keep streaming the film clip for Fiona Apple’s Not About Love, because Zach Galifianakis and his magnificent beard are hypnotic with their lip-syncing.

Forward

On Monday night I finally sat down and rebuilt the white-board that tells me where I’m meant to be going and what I’m meant to be doing over the course of the week. I sat down and wrote out the long-term plan for the next three months, identifying all the commitments and distractions that will keep me away from work. I spent some quality time looking at the next month, identifying what needed to be done and who I needed to see. I spent four hours re-reading Work Clean, making notes and fleshing out ideas, figuring out what I can apply. Realised I’m now through the parts of the book that’s really useful, so I can skim-read the rest and move onto the next book.

Some habits are like an engine you’re trying to start in mid-winter. It may take a few attempts to get the thing warmed up, but it’ll work fine once you’re up and running.

Yesterday I went and enrolled at University, which means I’ve now officially given up my nice, well-paying blogging gig in exchange for a nice, much-less-well-paying gig where I get a lot more time to research and write things. Turns out the enrolment process is particularly slow, so I still can’t do useful things like borrow research books or go work at the RhD office or get discounted movies with my student card just yet.

Today, I go write things.

Wish me luck.