Scrivener as a note taker

Scrivener, the best app for writers, makes a darn good project manager too.
Scrivener, the best app for writers, makes a darn good project manager too.

Scrivener is the world’s best software for writers. I gave Scrivener a perfect score when I reviewed it for Mac Appstorm a few years ago (note: Appstorm is closing up shop, so this link may not be good into the future). I have not written much about Scrivener on this site, except in passing reference, because it is so good there’s really no need — and many other people write about it too.

However, I have often thought that Scrivener is so well designed that it could serve other purposes. One of these is as a project management center. I was reminded of this in the past couple of days when I read a review of Scrivener as a note-taker (referred to that article via the always interesting Taking Note blog of Manfred Kuhn). The author of the review is spot on with his observations about Scrivener. Reading the review did conjure up my old thoughts about how Scrivener could be used for tracking a project — especially if the project requires a lot of heavy note taking.

First off, let me make this observation: The reviewer’s main objection to making Scrivener your go-to note-taker is that it isn’t really designed to handle thousands of notes. No argument about that, but I would point out that this is a fault in “note keeping” not “note taking.” This is a key distinction because, in fact, Scrivener is an outstanding note-taking environment.

It is also designed to allow authors to manage the complexities of their writing projects, so it has built-in features for project management.

The advantages as I see them of Scrivener as a note-taking/project management app:

  • A terrific, flexible editor
  • Ample ways to add meta-data to your information
  • A versatile folder/document structure (called the binder), which also allows you to stash various kinds of files (such as spreadsheets, PDFs, images, etc…)
  • A versatile cork board/index card view of your information
  • A decent outline view of your information
  • Ample ability to export pieces of the project to create a proposal, document the plan, or report on the outcome
  • Templates and saved searches (collections) save time

Features Scrivener lacks for managing projects:

  • Any type of calendar view, including, of course, Gantt Charts or timelines.
  • Synchronization with Contacts or Calendar apps.
  • Inability to add dedicated “date” meta-data to your notes (that is, though you can create your own data fields, you can’t choose to make them date-specific fields — though you can add dates as simple strings).

There are doubtless other drawbacks to using Scrivener for this purpose, ones that would reveal themselves when putting this theory to the test (which I have not, since I generally do not have projects this big to manage).

Anyway, you can see a rudimentary project management file* I’ve created in Scrivener. in the screen shot above. In my imagined workflow, I would first plan my project with this file, filling out the documents in the folder “Project Report.” This would then be the basis for a proposal to my boss… if there were documents I didn’t want to include in the proposal, I would uncheck the “Include in Compile” checkbox in the Inspector for those documents. I could then easily output a nice looking proposal in PDF, Word or other formats. Once the project is approved, I could compile a plan for distribution to the team.

I could then track the status of my project using the milestone/tasks documents, as well as logging other information in appropriate places (i.e. under contacts, or progress log, etc…).

The outline view is a handy way to see an overview of milestones and tasks.
The outline view is a handy way to see an overview of milestones and tasks. (Note: The checkmarks at the start of the task lines are icons, not workable checkboxes.)

You can see the outline view in the screen shot above. Note that I’ve added two custom meta-data fields: “Target Completion Date” and “Assigned To.” I’ve also edited the standard Status states that Scrivener comes with (which, not surprisingly are good for a writing project, but not so much for a project project). You can easily add your own custom meta-data fields (for now only in the Mac version of Scrivener) or edit the status fields with the Meta Data Settings control window (available under the Project menu).

Change meta data settings and create your own custom meta-data fields (only in Mac) using the Meta Data Settings control.
Change meta data settings and create your own custom meta-data fields (only in Mac) using the Meta Data Settings control.

When the project concludes, you can compile your notes for importing into a long-term notes management application like DevonThink (on Mac).

This is just a quick and simple example of how Scrivener could be used to manage a non-writing project. It certainly won’t take the place of a dedicated project management application for really complex projects. And it may be overkill for simple task-based projects. But for projects of mid-level complexity, especially ones that require a lot of reporting to supervisors, I think Scrivener could do an excellent job.

*The actual Scrivener term for the open file is “project” but it is awkward to write “project management project,” so I’m going to refer to it as a file.

3 thoughts on “Scrivener as a note taker

  1. Scrivener for Windows would be much better as a note taking program (and much better for other purposes) if it had the same capabilities for defining metadata as the Apple version.

    I know it’s supposed to be coming ‘real soon now’ but it does seem to be taking a very long time.

  2. I agree completely, Paul. Scrivener for Mac feels so much more polished, and the custom meta data fields are one reason why.

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