Using Scrivener on an 11-inch MacBook Air.

I’ve been a fan of the writing program, Scrivener, for a number of years. I first used the Windows version back when it was in beta, but I then purchased the Mac version when I got a new computer. There’s so much you can do with Scrivener to help you organize and write–so much so, in fact, that managing screen real estate can become a real issue if you want to take advantage of more than just the basic features.

Therefore, I thought I’d show you how I use Scrivener on a small laptop–specifically, on an 11-inch MacBook Air. The screenshots below are from my ongoing project, Secrets of the Conclave, a fantasy serial published over at JukePop Serials. I am using Mac OS Mountain Lion (10.8.2).

Note: in case you haven’t read Secrets of the Conclave yet through Chapter 12, many of the screenshots below contain spoilers. Don’t stare at them too closely (or click to enlarge) if you don’t want to be spoiled.

The image below shows my default layout. I use Scrivener in full-screen mode to maximize my working space. Then, I have the screen split into three sections: (1) the left side is locked in place for notecards (which I use for outlining); (2) the center section contains the text of the chapter; and (3) the right side contains the Inspector.

If you’re familiar with Scrivener, you might notice that the center panel shows a single document, rather than a composite of documents that correspond with each scene as depicted in the notecards. I like to have one general document for each chapter so that the information in the Inspector remains the same for the entire chapter. I keep scene notes on the notecards themselves. As a result, when I re-order notecards or add/delete them, it has no effect on the content of the center panel. This has not proven to be an issue thus far–I don’t mind cutting-and-pasting text–but I probably will play around with these features some more to see if I can optimize my workflow a bit better.


In full-screen mode, just like other Mountain Lion-compatible programs, the menu bar is hidden until I hover over it with the pointer. This preserves some vertical real estate.


What about the Binder, you ask? I keep it hidden from view until I need it. When I drag the pointer to the far left of the screen, the Binder pops out, and I can manipulate its contents. When I drag the pointer back toward the center of the screen (or click outside of the Binder if I’ve been doing more than just looking at it), the Binder hides again.


Here’s a closer look at how I use the Binder. Secrets of the Conclave has four point-of-view characters, and the color that appears on the icon for each chapter corresponds to one POV. (You can also see the colored label as the “Status” in the Inspector, above.)

I did not use notecards for outlining at first, which is why the earlier chapters do not contain nested notecards. Also, because I’m writing a serialized novel, I keep the chapters I’ve already published separate from those in process. Once the story is complete, I plan to compile everything in the “Published” folder into a single book.

Here’s a look at the bottom of my binder, which includes extra writing tools, such as deleted scenes that I might want to use later, character and location profiles, and story research notes.

I use my default, three-panel layout for the first few drafts of each chapter, when I’m often adding and removing big chunks of material. Keeping the notecard panel up also allows me to add, edit, and delete scenes for outlining purposes.

I also like having the Inspector panel open during this time so I can add notes that apply to the chapter as a whole and so I can take frequent Snapshots. I use the Snapshot feature of Scrivener a lot; I’m actually a little obsessive about it. I usually take at least one Snapshot during each writing session, and I also take one when I change the status of the chapter. With so many versions stored as Snapshots, it is easy for me to pull text from a prior version in the event that I change my mind about an edit.


Finally, when I have the general structure of the chapter fixed, I switch to Scrivener’s full-screen composition mode. This allows me to focus on editing without the distraction of a busier screen. I use the composition mode until the chapter is ready to publish, though I do close it briefly when I need to take a Snapshot or a quick look at something in the Binder.


And that’s it!

If you have ever considered using Scrivener for your own writing projects, I highly recommend that you give it a try. I hope that the above screenshots show that even if you have a small computer, Scrivener can be a great asset in your writing toolbox.

27 thoughts on “Using Scrivener on an 11-inch MacBook Air.

  1. Thanks!To auto-hide the binder, click on the Binder icon (the first icon to the left in the first screenshot above). Clicking this icon toggles the Binder view on and off; when on, it will always display, but when off, it will auto-hide until you drag the pointer to the left.To split the windows vertically, click the split icon in the main text panel (very tiny, just to the left of the Synopsis section of the Inspector). I think it defaults to splitting horizontally, so to split vertically, press the Option key (for Macs) before clicking it. When you press Option, the icon will change to show you a vertical or horizontal split, so you'll know which it will be before you click it. Then, once you have the split screen in vertical, select the left-hand panel and change it to the cork board view.

  2. This was really helpful, thanks. I've been using Scrivener for years..and now have it on my 11" air. What I didn't know you could do was have the cards and the writing side-by-side. That eliminates the need to have the binder there most of the time. Very cool.

  3. Here’s a new comment imported in from my former blog, where this post originally appeared, along with my reply:

    9/18/2013 from The Cooking Ballerina: Hi there! I’m a little late to this blog but it is a good help thanks. Question- how much memory does Scrivener take on an 11 inch and would you recommend getting 8GB of memory as opposed to the standard 4GB? Or does it take up flash storage?! And again how much do you have?

    9/27/2013 from Beth Raymond: Scrivener takes up about 50MB of memory on my computer. For Scrivener purposes, I think the standard 4GB is just fine; if you want to do high-process activities, like gaming, I’d upgrade to 8MB. If I were to do it again, though, I would definitely upgrade the hard drive; I got the base 128 GB and I’m CONSTANTLY running out of space, which, obviously, causes its own performance problems. So, I would upgrade that before the memory.

    • Hi Beth
      I posted this comment originally. I’ve only just seen your reply! Thanks so much for getting back to me and thanks for the tips, especially getting more hard drive. I was thinking of going with 256gb storage or even 512gb, even though it is expensive I won’t have to think about running out.
      It’s good to know that the 11 inch runs Scrivener so well for you – I was worried about the screen becoming cramped and hard to read but you seem to be doing just fine and enjoy using the 11 MBA! Thanks again Sarina

  4. Great post, Beth! I’m a long-time Scrivener user, and I’ve been considering an 11-inch MacBook Air for my next computer since all I use my computer for these days is writing and surfing the web. I was concerned about screen real-estate with Scrivener, but not any more. Thanks!

  5. Great post ! Thanks !
    Even if I had one of the first MBA 11.6 in a previous job, I didn’t try Scrivener at that moment.
    I definitely love the size, and the screen ratio, much better IMHO than a 13′, so your comments definitely help me about my future choice.
    BTW, my first MBA was 2gos Ram only and I had no trouble running Word, Excel, Safari and Mail simultaneously, so I definitely agree about 4gos on a current MBA as sufficient to work smoothly.

  6. Beth, was it hard to switch from PC to Mac? I’m seriously considering switching from my PC to an 11″ MacBook Air for writing only. I have Scrivener and love it. Thank you for the great post!

    • Thank you!

      As for switching to a Mac, it takes a little getting used to, as not everything works the way you’d expect it to on a PC, but I now love it and wish I could use it exclusively. When I first got the Mac, I still used my PC for certain things, but as time went on, I migrated all of my personal computing to my Mac. (I also have an iPad and an iPhone, so having all three in the same universe is nice.) I still have to use Windows for work, though, so there are days when my fingers get confused–in particular, the use of the “command” key for a Mac versus “control” on a PC; I tend to hit “alt” a lot on the PC as a result. 🙂

  7. If you need to see more of the structure of your book, or just need a more efficient use of the space, switch from corkboard to outline mode, with just titles and synopses showing. The outliner can show any number of levels, and you can expand or collapse chapters or parts to focus on just what you need to see. The Mac’s implementation is really nice because the synopsis appears under the title, instead of as it’s own column.

  8. Thanks for some excellent advice, particularly the ability to hide the binder. I didn’t know that was possible. 99% of the time, that binder space isn’t being used.

    You’ve also opened me up to the possibility that when I finally upgrade my aging MacBook, I might go with the 11-inch. When I compared the two current models at an Apple store, I was impressed that the 13-inch screen screen looked sharper, a big point in its favor. If next year’s MBAs go to a retina display, that would no longer be an issue. I like the compactness of the 11-inch better, and the money saved could go toward getting more of Apple’s overpriced RAM. Apple’s stock RAM tends to not be enough in about 3-4 years.

    And that Apple ecosystem is rather amazing. I recently placed an old iPhone 3GS on an AT&T prepay plan. Even though the plan wasn’t supposed to support an iPhone, it seems to be working fine. Both my Mac mini and my iPad picked up on the change and asked if I wanted to link messaging between the three, which I did.

    I’d much rather write than fuss with the technical details of computing.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

    • I’m glad to have helped! I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the 11-inch has worked with lots of different applications; I’m rarely annoyed by the small footprint. Next time, I will get more hard drive space first, though, as I’m constantly running up against my limit (only 10 GB remaining right now, as a matter in fact)!

  9. Pingback: Using Scrivener on an 11-inch MacBook Air | Everything Scrivener

  10. What awesome ideas on some of the best uses of Scrivener! I’ve been using the software for about 4 months now and while I absolutely love it, am still learning some of those best ways to use to maximize productivity. Thanks so much for the tips!

    • Yes; the manuscript text appears only in the top-level “chapter” document, which is what you see in the center panel. The notecards in the left-hand panel do not contain any text in the document associated with the notecard. The binder icon changes to a notecard when you have entered text in the notecard but the associated document is empty; if you add text to the associated document as well, the binder icon changes back to a document. Now, one thing to keep in mind is that this method is a little glitchy, and the only real reason to do it this way is to see the same Inspector information in the right-hand panel no matter what scene you’re writing (such as for seeing overall chapter notes while working through different scenes).

      If keeping the same Inspector information visible all the time isn’t important to you, then I’d actually recommend an alternative method that still uses a three-panel layout: (1) create a chapter-level document (or folder) in the binder; (2) add individual documents for each scene to the chapter-level document (or folder); (3) with the left-hand panel selected, click on the chapter-level document (or folder) and switch to the notecard view; (4) add text, such as scene notes, to the notecards; (5) select one of the notecards in the left-hand panel, which should change the center panel to show the document associated with the selected notecard; and (6) select the center panel and add text to the document. With this method, you won’t have the same Inspector information visible as you edit your text, but when you re-order the notecards, the associated document text moves, too. Also, if you return to the binder to navigate while you have the left-hand panel active, be sure to select a chapter-level document (or folder) in the binder to keep the panel’s appearance consistent.

  11. Pingback: Three-Panel, No Binder Layout in Scrivener: A Tutorial | Beth Raymond

  12. Dear Beth: Thanks for your blog post. It still comes up in google searches for “macbook air” and “scrivener”, you’ll be pleased to know. I currently own a MacBook Pro and use Scrivener, and am thinking of an 11 inch Air in 2014 (when, and this is just a guess, they might become retina display).

    I have a question, please. What do you have on your computer to run out of space with 128 GB? This is an honest question, as, my home Win PC (not my Macbook Pro) has MS Office, hundreds of doc files, thousands of photos, and it has 861 GB of 916GB avail (it has a 1 TB drive–the difference between 1TB and usable 916GB is the OS for the PC, which I think is much larger than a Mac OS). So, with everything I have ever put on a computer in my entire life, PLUS the bloated Windows OS, I’m using 139 GB (1000GB – 861GB left unused). lol

    What do you have on your MacAir? If it is graphics and photos, could those not be places on a 500GB $70 USB hard drive, or on a cloud (Apple, Google, Dropbox, etc.)? I don’t know the answer, and am not challenging; I just need to know in case there’s something for a writer on Apple that I’m not thinking of? Perhaps the Apple Mavericks OS takes up half the SSD memory or something. Thanks for any input you might have, Beth.

    Again, informative blog post.

    • Sven,
      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found the post helpful.

      As for my space concerns, the issue is more of a Mac thing and how it stores music and photos. I use Mac-native applications to manage both (iTunes and Aperture), and in so doing, I have single-file package libraries for each. In essence, on a Mac, you get one file that contains within it all your photos and all the metadata associated with those photos, and the same for music/videos/etc accessed through iTunes. What this means is that my photo package, in particular, is enormous and took up, until recently, well over half my hard drive space. I also backed up my iPhone and iPad to my laptop through iTunes, and those backups also took up a lot of space.

      Unfortunately, the nature of the Mac package file does not lend itself well to accessing through a network storage device or cloud server, especially when using non-Apple network hardware. These files really work best when they’re on the local machine you’re using. I could put them on a USB hard drive, but I wanted to have everything all in one place that would work with my already-existing local and cloud backup services (a USB drive, obviously, won’t get backed up if it’s not plugged in).

      Ultimately, what I ended up doing was getting a Mac Mini, which I now have hooked up to my TV, and I transferred my photo and music/video library (including iPhone/iPad backups) to that machine. It’s not ideal, because I still have to go to a secondary computer when I want to fiddle with photos, but I’ve gone from 8GB free on my MBA (and constant performance problems as a result) to 70GB free. Consequently, my MBA should now last me quite a bit longer than I’d been thinking it would.

      • I see, Beth. That is quite informative. I did not appreciate, until your post, how much of a memory hog Mac Apps and files could be. No wonder Apple sells a 2-3 TB Air Express port/drive. lol

        I also see your point about getting the Mac Mini as additional storage and a home work platform.

        Thanks for taking the time to answer my comment. Rock on, Beth! Sven

  13. Another comment imported from this same post as it appears over at my prior blog:

    By Unknown: My 5 year old Macbook runs Scrivener fine on 4GB of RAM. And thanks for this post! Since Scrivener is so flexible, it’s great to see how others use it. I never thought of splitting the screen with the corkboard to the side, but now I see how that would be a better use of screen space than the binder – especially when the outlining is complete and the actual writing begins. I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *