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.

  3 comments for “Why I’m Using Scrivener as a Multi-Project Writing Workspace

  1. 18/02/2017 at 12:46 PM

    Huh. I think you’ve just rather perfectly solved an issue I’ve been having.


  2. 28/05/2017 at 1:51 AM

    That’s a really cool idea … has the system stuck?

    • 28/05/2017 at 3:36 PM

      For the most part. I tend to do my thesis work in Word at this stage, since there’s a bunch of programs that will handle the referencing for me, but everything else tends to live in physical notebooks and scrivener until I’m ready to start editing.

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