Note: This blog post pertains to upcoming features in Scrivener 3, which will be released on macOS later this year and will follow on Windows during early 2021.
Scrivener’s Compile feature is powerful and adaptable, but it also seems to be a stumbling block for many users. Whenever someone describes Scrivener as “complicated” and we ask which areas they mean in particular, Compile is usually the first thing mentioned.
There’s a certain degree of necessity to Compile’s complexity (bear with me on this). When I set out to create Scrivener—well over a decade ago now—one of the most important goals for me was that it had to be flexible. I had tried all manner of apps aimed at writers. Back then, most specialised writing apps outside of word processors were built around a particular paradigm. Some wanted you to follow a set story structure, such as Vogler’s 12-step hero’s journey. Those that weren’t built around a popular narrative theory forced a particular structure on you: three acts, each containing several chapters, for instance. Copywrite and Ulysses came the closest to doing anything like what I wanted to do (in that they allowed you to break a larger manuscript down into smaller components without an imposed structure), but they didn’t provide any way of organising the sections of your manuscript into an indented, outline-like arrangement.
What I wanted was to be able to define my own structure, which would be different depending on the project, and to be able to reshape that structure as and when needed. Maybe I’d work in parts, chapters and scenes; maybe I’d only need chapters and scenes, or only chapters. For nonfiction I might organise things differently again. To this end, I built Scrivener around the core concept of a flexible outline—the binder. In the binder you can create folders and text sections and organise and nest them however you want.
Another of my aims was to allow the user to write using any formatting he or she wanted, and then to allow all of that formatting to be changed (optionally) at the export or print stage. So you could write in your favourite font but still output to standard manuscript format.
These two core aims come together in the Compile feature, which takes all of those separate, structured sections and sews them together into a single manuscript, overriding the formatting depending on the output requirements.
The problem we’ve always faced is that these two aims—complete flexibility of organisation and the ability to stitch everything together into formatted documents with specific requirements—are, to a certain extent, at loggerheads. If an app knows that you are writing in parts and chapters, it can provide an export that formats the text accordingly. But if you can structure your manuscript any way you like, when it comes to creating the final document, how can the app know which sections should be formatted one way and which another? How does it know that, say, in Project A, this folder is supposed to be the title of a part, this folder is supposed to be the title of a chapter, and this text document is a scene? Or, in Project B, this text document is a preface but these text documents are chapters, and should be formatted as such?
This has always been the huge challenge underlying Compile, and it’s the reason it has always had a degree of complexity to it: it needs to provide options that allow for any number of possible project structures, along with the ability to format those projects for many different requirements.
For Scrivener 3, we wanted to rethink how we approached this problem. I’m not going to pretend that the solutions we have come up with will mean that you never scratch your head over a Compile option, because there’s no perfect solution (barring machines becoming conscious, in which case I hope Skynet sends back a T-900/715 rather than a T-800/101 to help me, but we’re getting sidetracked). I do hope that Compile in Scrivener 3 makes a lot more sense to people, though.
Compile in Scrivener 2
There are two aspects of Compile that, I think, cause confusion for a lot of people. The first is simply the way we throw all of the Compile options right in your face.