Scrivener and the Cloud: Best Practices 2013

Sony A-330 DSLRSo, you’ve emerged from your MSWord-induced fever dream and discovered the natural wonders of Scrivener. You relish it’s ability to help you process ideas, not just words, and you revel in exploring all that it can do for you. You have character fact sheets at your fingertips. You’ve dropped all your reference notes into your research folder. The inspirational photographs are all in place. You’ve chopped up, reordered, and reorganized your chapters and scenes a hundred different ways. In short, you are rocking your Scrivener existence.

Love it as you do, however, there are still some things that Scrivener won’t do for you. It won’t sync itself across the four computers you use for writing. It won’t facilitate your interactions with editors and beta readers. And it won’t manage the dozens of historical revisions and drafts you produce along your path from empty page to published masterpiece.

And it’s not just you. It’s me, too. And it’s many of the other authors I have spoken too in recent weeks. So in this article, I am setting out to develop a sort of “best practices” guide on how to facilitate an author’s life, with the tools we have at hand today. This won’t be a whiny rant on all the things that can’t yet be done. I’m just going to try to pull together the best advice I can find on how to build a credible creative writing workflow, centered on Scrivener as the main tool, and employing other tools, as necessary.

Before we dive into the details, I should say a word about my computing environment. For the record, I run a Linux shop around here, but you don’t have to. Everything I’m about to share with you will work just as well on a Windows platform, and should do on Mac as well, although Mac users will have access to some more advanced features in Scrivener than we lesser mortals do.

Side note for Linux users

If you do happen to be a fellow Linux user, I will tell you that I have found the Linux-native port of Scrivener to be incomplete, so I have opted to use the Windows version, running under Wine. It was easy to install and I have had no complaints at all in using it.

As the title of this posting suggests, I am going to focus on how to use Scrivener in the context of the cloud, to add a few elements to your workflow that are not directly supported within Scrivener itself. If you’re looking for a best practices guide to writing in Scrivener, this article by Gwen Hernandez is a great overview.

Synchronizing Copies

synchronyFor authors who only ever use a single computer for their writing will not have much need to sync their manuscript across multiple computers. Or if you only write at home, and you happen to know something about network configuration, you can easily set up a network filing system that allows you to access your writing files from on central location, regardless of which computer you happen to sit down at. But by far the easiest thing to do is to make use of cloud storage.

In this article, writer David Earle walks us through the pros and cons of two of the more prominent players in synchronizing cloud storage: Dropbox and Google Drive. In the article, which was written in April 2012, David  assesses the various features of the two systems, and points out their advantages and disadvantages for users with different needs. For the purposes of synchronizing a central manuscript among multiple computers, David gives the nod to Dropbox and the better tool. His reasoning is based on a somewhat special case situation in which it is possible to make changes to the same document from two different computers before they get synchronized back to the cloud. When this happens, David judges Dropbox to be better at helping you to detect and manage the problem without losing any of your work, and I agree with him.

So even though Google Drive gives you more storage for free – 5 GB as compared to 2 from Dropbox – Dropbox is the better tool for storing your work. All you have to do is move your .scriv folder from where you have it now, and put it in a folder somewhere in your Dropbox folder, and everything should just begin syncing like magic.

Backups and/or Revision Control

bucketbooksIn addition to storage of your working copy, there is another concept that we also need to look at: backups. We’ve all had the painful experience of losing a file, and then hunting desperately around our drive, hoping against hope that somewhere, you might have saved a temporary draft. It seems that the more desperate you are, the less likely it is that you have such a backup, or that you’ll be able to find it. Another, similar problem that can haunt an author is when you make a decision to change something in your novel, and you spend a month making all the necessary changes, only to discover later that you _hate_ the change and you want to go back. But when you made the decision, you were certain it was a good idea, so you didn’t actually make a special backup copy. You just went ahead and made the change.

So, from a strict data security point of view, you should only ever need a backup of the most current version of your work, in case the computer gets stolen or the file gets corrupted. But from the change management point of view, it would be a good idea to have backups of various key points along the history of your project too, and this is a concept known as revision control.

It turns out that Google Drive and Dropbox both offer revision management features, which David Earle’s article also examines. David’s advice is that Google Drive wins on this score, because Dropbox only keeps revisions for the most recent 30 day period, unless you upgrade to the pro account. But I’m going to disagree with David here. In a subsequent article, David talks about how to unscramble a Scrivener document in the unfortunate case where you happen to get things out of sync on your cloud storage system. I don’t think you should rely on your cloud storage tool to provide your revision control service (RCS) for you with Scrivener. Most RSC systems work best when they are managing changes to a single file, but Scrivener breaks your project up into dozens or even hundreds of files, all contained within a single, root folder. RCS tools handle this kind of thing as well, but using them is far, far beyond the ken of most authors.

Instead, I recommend using the built-in backup tool in Scrivener itself, with a few key options. First, in Scrivener’s Options window, set it to make backups automatically, and to retain ALL backups. (By default, it only keeps the most recent 10 backups on hand, deleting older ones.) Second, set the backup tool to include the date and time in the filenames it uses for backup files, which will make it easier to find a version from a particular point in time. Third, tell the backup tool to store your backups in a folder that is NOT part of your cloud storage folder. I have a folder called WritingBackups in my home directory, and Scrivener saves all my backups there. And lastly, tell Scrivener to save a backup every time you manually save the file.

By keeping your backups on your home computer, you are now protected in the very unlikely case that Dropbox gets blown up by aliens, or if your entire Google Drive folder gets eaten by a swarm of digital locusts. And since those backups have time/date stamps right in the file name, you also have an easy-to-manage revision control scheme. All you have to do to revert to an old draft is to unpack the backup zip file into a new working folder and open it in Scrivener. And I also like that with this scheme, it is really easy for me to force a backup at a crucial point. All I have to do is hit Ctl-S to manually save the file, and I know that if I later regret the decision to feed cousin Bernie to the Uber-troll in Chapter 17, I can always go back and revert the manuscript to a point in time when Bernie was still alive and undigested.

(In his second article, David Earle recommends creating a different directory in your cloud storage for saving these zipped backups, but because of the threat of digital locusts. I’m not a fan of having all your eggs in one basket. I think it’s better to keep working storage on the cloud, but I want my security blanket right here in my home with me. Call me crazy, but there are limits to my trust in the good intentions of corporations. Especially when it comes to services that I am not paying them for.)


Too many cooks spoil the brothThe last point of this version of the best practices guide is how to use Scrivener and the cloud for interacting with other contributors. Maybe you’re working with a single editor, or maybe you’re trying to coordinate input from a dozen beta readers. Some users might be tempted to use the built-in comments and annotation system that Scrivener provides, but I don’t recommend it. (If you’re not sure what these features even are, here’s a short article by Denise Barrett that gives you the quick low-down.) Why don’t I recommend using the built-in system? Because to use it, you would have to share the .scriv file with your collaborator, and Scrivener just wasn’t designed for collaborative editing. Those comment and annotation tools are an excellent place for you to keep notes, but they don’t play nice with multiple authors. And don’t fall victim to the temptation to simply share your cloud-based .scriv file with your collaborator(s) either. You want a quick recipe for munging your files beyond all hope of recovery? Just invite a few other people to be opening and updating the same file with you at the same time. But don’t come crying to me when the locusts come.

No, this is where Google Drive really shines. Google Drive is really just a new name for Google Docs, and one thing Google Docs does well is permit multiple users to edit and comment on one document at the same time. It’s quite similar to the track changes feature in Word, but you don’t have to send the file around to people one at a time. Everybody can play at once.

Now, when it comes to editorial or beta-reader feedback, I like to keep a bit of distance between my working draft and the comments that I get. I personally never want and editor simply marking up my draft and handing it back to me. Even if track changes are on. Call me paranoid, or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen too many problems with technology over the years, but in my world, nobody touches the master draft except me.

So that means I have to prepare a discussion draft to send to my collaborators. In the old days, this might have been a set of printed copies that we mailed around, but in today’s reality, it means that I’m going to export a copy of my manuscript from Scrivener, using RTF format. And then I’m going to post that RTF draft to my Google Drive, and invite my collaborators to mark it up to their hearts’ content. I can choose to post just one copy, and invite all 14 beta readers to mark up the same draft, or I can create a different doc for each collaborator, and keep their changes isolated to just their copy. Once I have all their input, I can then go through the Google Drive doc(s) and copy their notes over to my master draft as I see fit.


Is this a perfect solution? Probably not. But it is what I’m doing, and it is based on what I’ve been able to uncover as best practices from other intrepid explorers who have gone before me. Despite all those conditionals, however, your experience is almost certain to be different, so let me know if you find any other new tricks, or any caveats and I’ll make sure to keep this document up to date. And who knows? By this time next year there will probably be so many new options to consider that I’ll have to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. So stay tuned.

facebook twitter google_plus reddit pinterest linkedin mail
7 likes ·   •  18 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 23, 2013 09:17
Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by John (last edited Apr 26, 2013 07:32PM) (new)

John Christensen Hi Jefferson,
I've been backing up my book on Dropbox and on an exernal hard drive, which probably means I'm not very trusting.

As for beta readers, I've been sending my chapters as PDFs. I print the documents from Scrivener using the PDF option. The readers can post sticky notes where they have questions, highlight text and write notes in the comment section.

It's worked very well once I understood that the annotations in the right column don't always -- or even often -- refer to the page I'm looking at at that moment.

Anyway, thanks for the post. I'm always looking for a better way to do things.


message 2: by Jefferson (new)

Jefferson Smith Thanks John. Do you mean your readers print the PDF on paper or are they interacting with the PDF version digitally?

message 3: by David (new)

David Hayden My Macbook or iPad where I write synched with Dropbox which is also synched with my MacMini which is backed up locally via TimeMachine and offsite via Crashplan. Redundancy is my friend. To lose my work would require several hard drive failures and two cloud solutions failing. Whenever a draft is finished I email it to myself so it ends up sitting in Gmail as well. That part isn't necessary for me anymore, but I still do it.

message 4: by John (last edited Apr 27, 2013 06:08AM) (new)

John Christensen Hi Jefferson,
Good point. They're interacting with the PDF digitally.


message 5: by Jefferson (new)

Jefferson Smith So most of your beta readers are able to annotate PDF files? You're lucky. Many of mine aren't computer savvy enough for that.

message 6: by dave (new)

dave I had a few bad experiences using the same setup you recommend, and wound up changing a few things. I love Dropbox and use it on three computers, so naturally when I started using Scrivener I saved my projects in a Dropbox directory. And I also set Scrivener to automatically create a backup when I exit, and save this backup to Dropbox.

But over time I had a problem that caused me enormous grief. Every month or so, one of my scrivener sub-files would get out of sync, and Dropbox would create one of its "[conflicted file copy]" files. Maddeningly this broke the whole project, because Scrivener can't open the project until that extra file gets removed. Not good, especially because on a Mac you don't have access to the individual Scrivener sub-files. So you can't fix the project until you get to a PC.

My solution is sub-optimal, but at least it works for me. I moved my Scrivener project out of the Dropbox directory, so now Dropbox only syncs the backups for me. Then if my next writing session is on a different machine, I upzip the latest backup file into a work area, and start writing again. When I exit Scrivener, the project automatically gets backed up and the backup gets distributed to all my other computers via Dropbox, so wherever I write next will have the latest version.

Many users probably won't like the extra step. It suits me because I tend to write on my office computer during the week, then on my home computer on weekends, so the inconvenience is minimal.

Moving the project out of the Dropbox also happens to improve Scrivener performance (slightly). By default Scrivener saves your work continuously, updating files every two seconds. If your project is in a Dropbox folder, Dropbox then needs to sync these little files every two seconds and index the new versions, so it slows your computer down while you're trying to write.


message 7: by Jefferson (new)

Jefferson Smith Your solution has the disadvantage of requiring a manual step every time you change machines, Dave. If you forget to move the content even once, you can lose a pile of work. In my experience, the best data migration strategies are the ones that are entirely automated.

I had thought my solution would protect me from file corruption issues, but I've only just discovered that Dropbox's revision control system fails on Windows-based Scrivener projects because they are contained in a folder rather than a file, and Dropbox does not provide revision control of entire folder trees.


My new solution will now be to put leave my WIP Scrivener files on Dropbox as normal, but to place my Scrivener backups on my Google Drive, rather than offline. This way I will still be entirely automated, and I'll still be protected from digital locust failures on any one cloud system, but I will also have access to both my live WIP files on Dropbox AND my backups from Drive in the event of a problem.

message 8: by Michael (new)

Michael Gregorek Thank you for a great article. Without it I did not have confidence a) to give up scraps of paper to use Scrivener, and b) how to decide between Google Drive and Dropbox--or why I needed two cloud services, particularly one with less features than the other.

The ability to transfer from desktop to laptop is my primary interest. If the Db Gd options afford me that convenience then I will try them as you described the ultimate one-two punch of cloud storage strategies.

I have been and am overwhelmed by the features to learn in Scrivener, but to anyone seeking an environment as good as lil slips of papers and backs of envelopes, the learning curve is not bad with all the support from authors like the author of this article. To be frank, moving to Scrivener has on one hand frightened me about events like if someone invents a pendant that incites nano bots to eat all the electricity shutting down our computers. On the other hand, it has inspired me right through some writer's block/fatigue with the snake pit that is my current project.

message 9: by David (new)

David Earle Jefferson,

Thanks for the links! And I agree with you on keeping backups separate from the Cloud (praise be the Cloud); my backup folders get backed up to a separate hard drive on a weekly basis, on top of getting spread across multiple computers.

message 10: by Jefferson (new)

Jefferson Smith Glad it was useful, David. Now get back to the important stuff - more writing! :-)

message 11: by Paige (new)

Paige Hi Jefferson,

Thank you for that very informative article! I just bought a second version of Scrivener for my Mac laptop (I had been using a PC desktop). I wanted to sync the two computers as I use the PC when I'm at home and the Mac whenever I want to write anywhere different (coffee shops and whatnot). I tried uploading my .scriv file to Dropbox from my PC, but when I went to open it on my Mac, it said it needed to add a file extension. When I pressed ok, it gave me this message:

The file system would not allow Scrivener to add the .scriv file extension to the project package, so the project cannot be opened. Please check your permissions

Do you know how to solve this issue?

Thanks so much for your help!

message 12: by Jefferson (new)

Jefferson Smith Sorry Paige. I don't use Mac, so I can't be sure. But the Google+ group for Scrivener users has been very responsive when I've had questions. You might try there.

message 13: by Mojoboy31 (last edited May 03, 2014 11:54PM) (new)

Mojoboy31 I hope you're still willing to answer questions. I only just now found this.

My writing buddy and I are collaborating on a story, and we didn't both have Scrivener for a while. I finally got Scrivener, and now we're trying to figure a way to sync files, so we can continue writing more smoothly. But so far, we haven't figured out how to get her scrivener project over to me. Any help would be tremendously appreciated.



message 14: by Jefferson (new)

Jefferson Smith Collaboration is not one of Scrivener's strengths, unfortunately. Even if you get your friends files copied over, making sure that changes get copied back and forth can be tricky. One solution would be to put the project directory in a shared Dropbox, but I have heard some people say they've had trouble with this when both authors are editing the project at the same time, so I can't say whether it works well or not.

The best solution is probably to use a repository management tool like git or bazaar. These are tools that programmers use to create a place online where they each check in changes to a shared set of files. Since Scrivener projects are a shared set of files, this should work just as well for you as it does for programmers. The downside is that many people find these tools to feel strange and it can take a while to get used to them.

message 15: by Mojoboy31 (new)

Mojoboy31 Thank you so much doe the advice! :)

Our problem isn't really keeping both files up to date to all changes, but rather just trying to get me the scriv project. From there, as we write scenes, we send them back and forth as RTF files, which are easy to import, move around and what not. My buddy tried emailing me the scriv file, but it wouldn't import, and when I tried to open it, it was blank.

Thanks again for the help. It is very appreciated.

message 16: by Jefferson (new)

Jefferson Smith The .scriv file is not a file. It's a directory. Have him zip the entire directory up and send that.

message 17: by Mojoboy31 (new)

Mojoboy31 I will do that. Thank you again, sir.

message 18: by Faizan (new)

Faizan Hashmi sir,
I want to say that fabulous tips that are very helpful for us, thank you so much
Windows 7 Activator

back to top

Writing, Creativity and Tools

Jefferson Smith
I blog regularly about my fiction writing and about the world of computer tools for writers and artists. If you'd like to see more than what's here, come on over the The Creativity Hacker and get the ...more
Follow Jefferson Smith's blog with rss.