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Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising

ScrivenerMagic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising metadata is one of my favorite not-so-secret tricks when it comes to drafting and revising.

I’ve seen some posts about the metadata options Scrivener offers, but none of them use it the way I do, so I thought I’d add to the noise.

For a person who likes to be crazy-levels of organized, this is a lifesaver on both ends of the writing process. But even if you don’t consider yourself borderline fiendishly obsessed with lists and colors, there are ways to adapt my insanity to the flexibility your methods (or lack thereof) require.

(This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links and end up buying something, I’ll receive 20% of sales. Why? Because Scrivener is amazing. I’ve used it for five years and love it. And I thought, you know, since I talk about it literally all the time, maybe I should have it help pay for this blog.)

Metadata and Drafting: All About The Outline

First, let’s talk about drafting.

Context: My most recent WIP is on a quick turnaround, so I’ve had to do a lot of front work to make the writing faster. The basic gist is that my MC has to trade his way to $700. With so much to keep track of (characters, locations, dates, traded goods), I had to sit down and map the story or else risk getting hopelessly mixed up.

Here’s what my outline looks like under the Outliner view option:

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising
(Click to see the image bigger)

I’ll explain how I made this, but first let’s look at what’s here.

On the far left, the blurred out bits of text are my detailed chapter outlines. Each is about 200 words long (my entire outline clocks in at 5k). Beside that we have the status of each chapter marked (except where I’ve forgotten to update it, whoops). The colored bits of text are my metadata notes.

You can change what you want to display by clicking the little down arrow in the top-right corner. This allows you to look at whatever elements you want side-by-side. Here’s a picture of that:

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising
(Click to see the image bigger)

(Note: You can rearrange the different categories by dragging them across the screen.)

Obviously, there are plenty of options. I’m not even sure what half of them mean, so let’s just stick with the metadata for now.

To make your own metadata, go into one of the chapters. Your screen should look something like this:

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising
(Click to see the image bigger)

To see the metadata on that right sidebar (the inspector), click over to the tag icon (four from the left). If you haven’t added any metadata yet, it will look blank.

For outlining, first add your chapter synopsis in the designated spot. You might want to play with the label or the status in those drop-down menus.

Open the metadata settings by clicking on that little gear next to “Custom Meta-Data” and selecting the edit option. This window will pop up:

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising
(Click to see the image bigger)

Click on the plus sign (+) there on the bottom. A new slot will open, and you can type in a metadata category. As you can see, my categories are: Characters, setting, time, hook, trade, Sami’s savings, Sami’s goods to trade.

Those first three (characters, setting, time, and hook) are great to have regardless of your project. This saves you from having to wonder about who’s in the scene, the place it’s happening, the time of day, and the hook you want to end with (what will keep the readers reading?).

I love having this information down ahead of time so I can free up brain space to actually write.

My last three (trade, Sami’s Savings, Sami’s goods to trade) are specific to my project, but necessarily things I have to know in every scene. Think about what to track from the get-go that might save you some heartache later, and add it in.

Next to your new metadata title are two check boxes (automatically unchecked when they’re new). Check them both. I like to use wrap text so that my lines don’t go on and on off the screen, and I like to use colored text because I love colors they are so pretty.

To change a color, click on the category you want (see picture above). The category’s color will show up on the bottom-right, just over “OK.” Click that square, and this pops up:

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising
(Click to see the image bigger)

Pick whatever color your heart desires, and there you go.

Fill in the metadata blanks with the notes you need. Once you have put them in, you can click on your manuscript folder and do Outliner view. Your chapter should now look like mine in the first picture, with lovely colors and ready information.

Now that we know how to make metadata and use it for drafting, let’s look at using it during revision!

Metadata and Revising: The All-Important Checklist

In drafting, metadata is great for telling you where you’re going and helping you track certain elements of your story. In revision, it’s about catching mistakes, strengthening weak points, and fixing errors.

For my full revising plan, check out my Madwoman’s Revision Technique.

But in brief: Before I begin “real” revision, I sit down and look at big overarching categories that need work. For Illuminate (the WIP I’ll be using below), my categories were: Worldbuilding, the antagonists, MC being pro-active, writing quality.

Though I’m not displaying it on my overall look, I also had categories for magical elements, stakes, consistency, backstory, critique history… etc. etc. Clearly there was a lot of form for revision.

Here’s what that looks like on the Outliner View:

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising
(Click to see the image bigger)

As you can see, my metadata notes aren’t so much notes as they are a checklist. Once I had my list of necessary, big-picture problems, I wrote out a series of smaller fixes.

For instance, in “worldbuilding” I knew I needed include more about the masks my characters wear and the plague that’s currently ravaging their school. You’ll see notes on those included in almost every chapter.

But I also individualized the checklist for chapters I knew had special problems. And when I couldn’t fit an element into a chapter neatly, I didn’t check it off – I just put a question mark instead.

So let’s look at the actual metadata:

Magic Metadata: Using Scrivener for Drafting and Revising

I found having this information right next to the document as I edited extremely helpful. It challenged me to keep these issues in mind, always, but it also allowed me the freedom to focus on one issue at a time. One of my biggest struggles in revision is that I get distracted and forget what I was meant to change. With this, I’ve got my bases covered.

If you don’t want to go full-speed checklist, you can also make it easier by just leaving yourself little notes.

Like I said at the beginning, modify it to your needs. But at least now you can see what’s there, what needs doing, and how the process is going.

And that, friends, is how I use metadata and Scrivener to make my drafting and revising life easier!

Questions? Additions? Leave a comment below!

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Alyssa was born in small town Milton, Florida, but life as a roving military kid soon mellowed her (unintelligibly strong) Southern accent. Wanderlust is in her blood, and she’s always waiting for the wind to change. Stories remain her constant. Alyssa received her bachelor’s in English/Creative Writing from Berry College and her master's in Creative Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Alyssa is represented by Amber Caraveo at Skylark Literary. Her debut The Eleventh Trade – "a powerful story of love, loss, friendship and hope, centered around Sami, a young refugee from Afghanistan now building a new life with his grandfather in Boston" – will be published Fall 2018 by Macmillan (U.S.) and HotKey (U.K.).

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  1. Ive just started using Scrivener and seeing your actual use of one of its features is a great guide. Thanks.

  2. That’s an awesome approach. I’m going to have to incorporate some of that into my process! Thanks!

    My current workflow involves scene cards, templates, and Comments.

  3. This was really helpful. Thank you for taking the time to compile this and sharing it with others.

  4. Thanks for the detailed post Alyssa .. I knew this Scrivener functionality existed but haven’t used it before (there’s just so much to learn isn’t there?). But after reading your article I’ve realised how useful Metadata will be for my ebooks. I write travel guides, and being able to add another level of content tagging will make it easier to update, and keep them current.

  5. This is awesome! Thank you! Someone posted it in the Scrivener Users group on Facebook.

  6. Thanks for this great post on one of Scrivener’s most important features! It’s not clear to me from what you have said (and I am not a fiction writer so this is outside my home territory), but I would guess that you have one scene per chapter in the manuscript you described in this post? It’s worth noting that for writers who have multiple scenes per chapter, they would probably want to split up each chapter into multiple documents so that they have one scene per document and can then apply metadata to each scene.

    You can also use Scrivener metadata to track what Steven Pressfield has called “narrative lines” (which may correspond more or less to some of the metadata you’ve described above). Here’s how Pressfield described narrative lines in a series of blog posts titled “Files I Work With” (Pressfield has to use multiple files to do this since he apparently doesn’t use Scrivener, but writers who use Scrivener can easily do it all in one Scrivener file):

    “An early scene will plant an open-ended question in the reader’s mind. She, I hope, will keep turning the pages till she gets an answer. I want to have as many lines as the story will hold and to keep each of them escalating all the time…. Here’s a trick that soap opera writers have been using for decades: Give every character a story-line with every other character. If we’ve got eight main characters, linking them can generate (theoretically) sixty-four lines. And that’s only counting binary relationships. We can also up the ante by introducing alliances and coalitions of characters and having each rival faction compete with every other. This is what Game of Thrones does so brilliantly. Then it goes itself one better by making the roster of these dueling cabals constantly shift and evolve…. The questions I’ll ask myself as I survey each ‘line’ are: 1. Is this story-line compelling? Will it hook the reader? 2. Is it on-theme? Am I reinforcing What The Story Is About? (If not, I’ll have to reconfigure or eliminate the story-line in question.) 3. Are the stakes escalating as the story progresses? Is the line becoming more interesting or is it starting to repeat itself? 4. Can I combine this line with any other line? Will that new double line help the global story? I’m trying, as well, to keep as many lines alive as possible and to have as many as possible converge and pay off simultaneously in the climax.”

  7. Scrivener is equally impressive, attractive and intimidating to me as a writer. I love the idea of being able to see everything laid out like that, but I also tend to be afraid of the crippling effect of structure. It’s a constant balancing game for me.

    I might try it out someday! Thanks for sharing your methods:)

  8. This is fantastic, thank you for sharing this! I can’t wait to include these meta data fields with the GALAXY novel I’m about to restart.

  9. Hi, came across your blog thanks to the Google Scrivener group, as I’m looking for a way to batch-edit my research documents using my custom meta-data. (Using the Mac version, for historical fiction research, btw). I’ve already got reams of files and PDFs and notes in subject-labeled folders in my main Research folder. Now I want to batch-select several files at once to apply the meta-data I’ve created, instead of manually entering it file by file by file. Surely there’s a way to universally apply the custom meta-data to many files at once, and maybe you’ve got the answer. My goal is to view my research in the Outline mode to group events by time and year, location, people involved, etc.

    I’m studying up on how you are using your meta-data, thanks to your screenshots, and finding they are very helpful. Thanks in advance if you can help!

    1. That sounds like an awesome use for the metadata! Unfortunately I’m not sure if/how Scrivener allows it to be applied to multiple files at once. Maybe someone else will come to the comments section with an idea?

    2. Jann, I don’t have an answer, but another place where you could ask your question, if you have not already done so, is the Scrivener forum on the software’s website: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/forum/

      You could also consider trying DEVONthink Pro in the future, which is well designed for organizing large quantities of research files in the way that you seem to want to do, and is also well designed to be scripted (automated) for batch operations like what you have described. In my research, I use both Scrivener and DEVONthink Pro, as well as other tools (such as BibDesk + Zotero for my bibliographic database). The DEVONthink web site is: http://www.devontechnologies.com/products/devonthink/overview.html

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