Blast that Month! How to Prepare Your Scrivener for NaNoWriMo in 3 Simple Steps

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Prepare Your Scrivener for NaNoWriMo

Having only a few days in store before the November madness begins, we need to make sure we are armed to the teeth to fight that novel dragon. To help you win for sure, I will share my three top steps to set up the Scrivener the right way.

Following my recommendations, you end up secured with automatic backups, cloud synchronization, basic structure for your future novel and easily trackable progress of your daily writing sessions and your total word count. Let’s start.

Step 1. Set up automatic backups (with optional syncing)

(I have a Mac version of the Scrivener, but I think the same results can be achieved with Windows version too. Also, these tips will work perfectly with Scrivener for iOS that’s finally out!)

It’s always better to be prepared than cry over spilled milk later when something would’ve gone not quite as you’d expect.

I use Scrivener on two MacBooks. One of them I fire up at my day job and leave in office in the evening. Sometimes I have a couple minutes to add a couple sentences to my book. That laptop is my personal computer, but it’s really tiresome to carry it every day from home to work, even when I’m riding my bike.

So when I’m home I use my wife’s Macbook with gorgeous retina display (mine has a good old slightly blurry screen). The magic happens when I open this home laptop and launch Scrivener – I have my book project updated, in the state I left it on the work laptop. I can just sit down, buckle up and start the ride in the world I’m creating.

Chances are you don’t need this kind of synchronization. But you will surely thank me for helping you with your backups.

1. Lift yourself up to the cloud

You will need some kind of cloud storage. I would recommend going for Dropbox since it’s awesome in nearly every aspect (except for the starting amount of free storage, but that’s enough for us writers to back up our projects).

Here’s the basic tutorial on how to set up Dropbox on your laptop in no time.

One of the cool features you will love is to be able to restore your files to their previous versions: Dropbox keeps the history of all changes in the past 30 days. So if you made a mistake and deleted something, you can have it back. One day this feature saved my sanity when I accidentally deleted a folder containing all my mind-maps about my “How to Save a Princess” book. I restored them with a few clicks. Phew!

2. Introduce Scrivener to Dropbox

Open up your Scrivener app and then go to Preferences window. You need the rightmost tab called Backup.

Scrivener Backup preferencies

Turn on automatic backups here and choose whether you want Scrivener to do backups when it starts or when it closes. Note that depending on the size of your project, it takes a little time to create a backup. So arm yourself with patience if you choose the first option.

If you’re not on a budget in terms of hard drive and cloud storage, you can turn off zip compression as it will quicken the backup process.

Make sure to tick off Use date in backup file names option. It really clears things out when you’re looking for a particular date backup.

Decide how many of the recent backups you want to store and then hit the button Choose to select your Dropbox folder.

Actually, you can use any local folder or, say, a folder on you thumb stick or external hard drive. It just doesn’t make sense to me to have your files backed up to some external storage when you can set up fast, easy and reliable cloud backup.

For example, I use the following folder structure to store my Scrivener backups:

Dropbox/I Am Greatest Writer/Scrivener Projects/Backup


After July’s gift from Literature and Latte (Scrivener for iOS finally released!), I moved the backup folder to another address: Dropbox/Apps/Scrivener Backup. Since the new Scrivener for iOS app stores all the projects in the Apps/Scrivener folder, I decided it makes perfect sense to have the project folder and the backup folder together in one parent folder.

So yeah, I have this little folder in my Dropbox to fancy myself as a great(est) writer, then I have a folder for Scrivener projects inside (since the upper level folder is of more general use, not only for Scrivener files), and then inside this Scrivener folder I have a separate backup folder. Here’s how it looks on my laptop:

Scrivener Backup Dropbox list of backups

That way, if anything ever goes wrong, I can find the right backup to restore easily.

3. Let it sync

(One of my readers – thanks, Robertjm! – kindly told me there’s no such an option in the latest Windows version. Sorry, Windows users. Just skip up to the next step.)


Since this article was published, Literature and Latte released Scrivener for iOS, which syncs with Scrivener on both Mac and Windows via Dropbox. If you use the iOS app in conjunction with the desktop, you won’t need to set up this kind of syncing, I suppose. But for those out there who don’t use Scrivener for iOS, I will leave this section here.

Remember I told you how I use two different laptops and never worry about losing a letter in my projects? That’s so easy: I just saved my Scrivener project to the Dropbox folder. So when I close my laptop at work, it syncs the files with the cloud. And then I open my wife’s laptop at home, wait a minute to make sure the cloud contents are synchronized with the local Dropbox folder and open my Scrivener. I see the book exactly as I left it at work.

Now, there’s another kind of synchronization, for occasions when you’re away from your laptop and still need to be able to work on your manuscript. Of course, you might be using only one computer so you don’t need to sync. You’re good to go with automatic backups.

But for those of us on the go, it’s a very useful trick. You can sync you draft files in RTF format with a Dropbox folder and then edit them on your smartphone or tablet while you’re on the train, waiting in line or sitting at the cafe table.

Open File menu, hover over Sync and choose with External Folder. 

Scrivener Sync with external folder

Now you see a new pane with a few options. First, choose the folder you would like to sync your current project with. For me it’s Dropbox/I Am Greatest Writer/Scrivener Projects/Kingdom Paths Sync.

Choose what contents you would like to sync and check other options. Make sure to tick off the option Check external folder on project open and automatically sync on close. That way, when you’ll open your Scrivener app next time after having edited some files on your tablet, first it will check if there were any changes and will show you the comparison of the files. Also, it will sync the project with external folder when you’re done on your computer and shutting Scrivener down.


Don’t ever try to use this syncing method as a way to sync two computers. For that, just keep your Scrivener project file in the cloud so that it’s always up to date and open it on different computers.

If you try to sync computer A with computer B using the method I’ve just described above, the contents of your sync folder from computer A will be overwritten with the contents of the computer B and you will lose any changes you made on computer A.

If it sounds complex – just don’t do it, that’s it.

Step 2. Create basic structure with Outliner and Corkboard

Once you’re sure you won’t lose your work due to spontaneous Scrivener crash (the app is actually very very stable, but things happen), power cord accidentally unplugged, hard disk failure or even the loss of your device (they’re so portable nowadays), you’re ready to dive into actual creative work. That is, outlining your novel in Scrivener.

You have Binder, Outline and Corkboard to organize the contents of your manuscript. First, you can create a few folders for chapters in Binder.

Scrivener Binder basic structure

You can give them the numbers but as well leave them empty since you will definitely want to move them around a little bit trying to find the perfect order for the pieces of your story. Corkboard will help you to do exactly that.

Scrivener Corkboard basic structure

I find that in the Corkboard mode it’s easier to pour your ideas onto the, well, virtual corkboard. Just create a new chapter using the button on the panel…

Scrivener Corkboard creating new one

…or via context menu…

Scrivener Corkboard creating new one via context menu

…and fill in the blanks. Again, don’t try to make up a perfect name for a new chapter and a rich detailed synopsis right away. Just jot down some ideas you have for this chapter and move along, create another one. Never break the flow of creativity.

Some time later you will have a nice overview of your novel. You can see chapters’ names and indexes with a small synopsis. Look at them now and rearrange as you see fit. You dropped some bricks earlier and now you need to put them in some kind of order.

Once you’re done with the chapters, choose each of them one by one via Binder and add and arrange the scenes inside those chapters using the Corkboard. If you’re not such a thorough plotter, feel free to stop right there at chapters. You already have the road map for your novel.

After that you may want to see a nice outline of your future manuscript. The Outliner mode will help you here.

Scrivener Outliner

You may see something isn’t right, maybe you want to move a chapter or two around. Just go back to the Corkboard and do the changes. Or drag the folders and files in the Binder until you’re happy enough to move ahead.

Step 3. Set up your goals

Now that you have the rough outline of your future novel before your eyes, the time has come to set up some goals to keep you on track every day and during the whole month of November.

Hit CMD+Shift+T on your keyboard (in Mac) or open Project menu and choose Show Project Targets.

Scrivener Project Targets

Here you can fill in your desired word count for the whole manuscript and for only a session. Make sure to go to Options as there some useful stuff is hiding.

Scrivener Project Targets options

First, you might want to set a deadline for yourself. We all know what that deadline should be, right? 😉

Then move down and choose how a session target should be reset; you have 4 options here.

You can count text written anywhere in the project, meaning your character sketches or notes will be counted too. If you don’t want that (and for the NaNoWriMo project I believe you don’t), leave this option unticked.

Also note that text written in footnotes or comments won’t be counted. That’s really frustrating for me since I have a lot of footnotes in my book and their total adds up to the total word count of the manuscript.

Don’t forget to turn on target notifications. That way, you will see a popup in the top right corner of the screen when you will reach your session goal.


By now you should be good to go with your new Scrivener project for NaNoWriMo. You have your automatic backups in place, stored in the cloud for reliable and easy access anytime and anywhere.

Then, you created a basic structure of your book and are able to change it whenever you want just rearranging chapters and scenes like cards on the corkboard.

Finally, you know how to track your progress throughout the novel and easily find out how many words you typed away today.

I hope this little tutorial helped you to prepare to NaNoWriMo. Surely you have your own tricks up your sleeve, right? Be it for Scrivener usage or for something else. Share them in comments below.

  • Robertjm

    The most recently released Windows version (v1.9.0.0 – 10/6/2015) does offer the steps for the Sync option.

    • You mean Windows app allows you to sync two computers?

      • Robertjm

        My bad. that should say does NOT offer…

        I was trying to point out that option is not available in the Windows version, which your article didn’t clarify. I just edited it to reflect what I meant.

        • Sorry, but somewhere in the beginning I mentioned I have a Mac and I’m describing how to set up Mac version. I haven’t ever had the chance to even see Windows version of Scrivener. 🙂

          Thanks for your comment, I will update the article now.

  • Kristen Reed Edens

    A great article, but I’m stuck at the first step; setting up automatic backups. I cannot find the Preferences tab. I’m on Windows. Is there a secret hiding place for this?

    • Well, Kristen, frankly I never used Scrivener for Windows so I can’t really help you here. 🙁 Sorry for that. But I do think Windows version should have this backup functionality. Try contacting Literature and Latte (folks behind Scrivener) asking this question. They are very responsive.

      And I’m glad you like the article nevertheless. 🙂

      • Amy P. Reed

        Kristen, I use Screvener for Windows. You can find the Backup by clicking the ‘File’ option on the top row. If you need more help, give me a shout. I’m AmyPReed on NaNoWriMo.
        Thanks for the article, Alexander. I found it enlightening, because I’m a Pantster and would like to learn how to do at least some plotting. LOL
        Good luck!

        • Amy, welcome! I’m glad it turned out useful to you. If you don’t mind, I will try and find you on NaNoWriMo site to add as a buddy. I’m more plotter than pantser, but it got me into some troubles. So now, working on Nano novel, I’m trying to balance things and I’m a total pantser now. 🙂

          • Amy P. Reed

            Alexander, I don’t mind at all. 🙂 I’ll buddy you back. LOL

  • Annamatopoetry

    Thanks! The word count thing is driving me crazy (I can’t find a way for it to display total count, just per-section), but at least the target menu is a good hack, allowing me to see it without opening a calculator. Kudos!

    • Maybe you should check ‘Count documents included in compile only.’ Don’t know what can be a problem, it’s hard to tell for sure without having a look.

      Yeah, to count up how many words you did today with a calculator is annoying. I hope I helped you to get some peace of mind. 🙂

  • Getting involved on a site is a great way to keep yourself motivated, because it’s a reminder that there are thousands of other people out there who are going through the exact same experience. This article on NaNoWriMo also sends out pep talks to registered users throughout the month, which are bound to help keep us all inspired.