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Scrivener: how do I get my stuff out of there and into Word (or Pages, or whatever?)

Published on March 7, 2012 by in useful stuff

Note: this post assumes you’re using Scrivener – originally designed by an author for use by authors, Scrivener is a god-send to barristers and anyone else who’s trying to wrangle rather a lot of information into some form of sense.  It allows you to put together a document in a non-linear way, so that you can break the document down into small chunks and work on those independently, and move them around without having to cut & paste.  You can also add your research to the project and see it in a window next to your writing, so that you cross reference etc.  I’ll do an intro to Scrivener at some point but, by request, this post is about how to get your stuff out of Scrivener and into a form that you can send to the court, solicitors, clients, etc.

PS: I’m procrastinating this evening, I can’t promise this quick a response to requests every time.


Welcome to the magic that is Scrivener’s compile function.  Or possibly the absolute confusion that is Scrivener’s compile function.  What does compile do? It turns your chunks of text – the cards on the corkboard – into a single document, stitching the separate chunks together (assuming that you do write in chunks in Scrivener, as that’s one of its key advantages over Word etc).  It can be used to do some formatting on the way, but that’s not recommended.

This is the point where I’d better confess that I make the compile function do as little as possible beyond the stitching together, removing any stray highlights etc and adding in page numbers. Broadly, I just don’t want it to mess up what I’ve produced already.  I do most of the formatting in Scrivener directly, towards the end of the writing process, as part of a review of the document.

I’m going to head off at a mild tangent, into formatting, but it’s important if you don’t want to spend the time sorting all this out in Word/Pages etc afterward because Scrivener really isn’t designed to to produce a legal-style document via the compile process alone.


I use the presets in Scrivener to help here; you can find them in Format > Formatting > Apply Preset (and various other options). These mean I can quickly make sure that text looks the way I want it to – the right font, the right indents, the right formatting (bold, italic etc) for headings.  They’re much the same thing as paragraph ‘Styles’ in Word.

Usually, you’ll want to define your presets because the standard ones probably don’t look the way you want them to – the helpful thing is that, once you’ve got things working as you want, you can save all the presets etc as a template so that you don’t have to go through the rigmarole every time. To define a preset, get the text looking the way you want (font, font size, any indents etc) and then select Format > Formatting > New Preset from Selection – then name it.  Or select Redefine Preset from Selection if you want to modify an existing preset. Then, to format a paragraph, just place the cursor anywhere in that paragraph and use Apply Preset as above.

There’s another way to get to presets to apply them: the left-handmost drop-down box in the formatting menu, just below the ‘No entry’/delete button – looks like [¶a].  This will show a list of your presets. Just click on the one you want to apply it to that piece of text.

I don’t tend to clutter opinions etc with too many settings – I have presets for headings (bold), sub-headings (italic), numbered text (hanging indent), and quotes (fully indented). I happen to also have a couple of presets for the overall title, but that’s mostly out of laziness.

Numbered text

Yes, I mentioned numbered text as a preset.  This doesn’t actually number the text directly, it just gets into shape for numbering.

The one thing that Scrivener doesn’t do well is numbered text.  You may have found the numbered lists function (in the Formatting menu, or the right-handmost button on the format bar), thought “great” and then sworn when you realise that it resets every time you want to put a heading or sub-heading in the way. The numbered list function in Scrivener is intended for short lists at a time, without any ability to continue the numbering from one list to another.

But – and there had to be a but – there is a way to do this.  It’s not wildly user-friendly, but you get used to it. Or, at least, I did.

There are handy little placeholder tags in Scrivener, that turn magically into something useful in the compile process.  One of these is <$n>. This tag turns into a number during compile.  More helpfully, each time the tag is encountered in the compile process, it’s turned into the next number along in the list. So the first time the tag is found in the document, it compiles to 1. The second time, it compiles to 2. No matter what else is in the way, or how many pages later, or whether or not it’s in a different chunk of text that’s being compiled together.

So, voila. Numbered paragraphs.  My ‘numbered text’ preset is just a hanging indent. I type in (or cut & paste, more usually) the <$n> tag at the beginning of the line, then tab and the whole thing lines up and – on printing – is numbered (see the examples in the files linked below). I don’t have to worry about moving chunks of text around etc, it’ll sort itself out in the compile.

Note: those of you who have looked at the numbered list function might have noticed the ‘custom list’ option, which allows you to put a prefix in and thought “aha! I can save time and hassle and just set up a list that has this prefix and all will be wonderful. I won’t have to add it in at all, it’ll be automatic”.  Step away from the custom list.  At least, unless you export everything to PDF. For reasons best to known to the tech gods, if you do this, it looks great in PDF. Numbered paragraphs, just as you want. If you have to export to Word though, all you’ll get is a series of paragraphs with ‘<$n>’ at the start of them.  Compiling into Word doesn’t translate the <$n> if it’s the prefix to a numbered list. Go figure; life is never that easy.

Back to compiling

So, what do I do in compiling?  Well, make sure all the chunks of text you want to include are in the Draft section, put into the right order.  You can’t re-order during the compile, so it has to be sorted first.  I keep notes and research in separate folders from the Draft section to make sure there’s no confusion.

Then start the compile process: File > Compile (it’s the last option on the list) or click the button that looks like a document with a blue arrow on it at the top of the window.

You don’t need to play around with this much.  All the chunks of text in your Draft section are automatically selected. I have a compile preset for opinions which strips out any highlighting that I’ve left in by mistake, any text colours that I’ve also left in by mistake, and strips out any hyperlinks that might have got included if I cut & paste a case reference, for example.  All these are in the ‘Transformations’ section.

I change the standard separator to a single return – note: this bit is up to you. Single return, empty line, it’s all much the same.  The main thing is that if you have any trailing lines your chunks of text, you will end up with double (or more) lines in the resulting document.  Either tidy it up afterwards, or make sure you remove the trailing lines in the chunks. There’s no option in Scrivener to tell it to tidy up trailing lines for you.

You can modify the header and footer if you choose (I usually just have Page <$p> in the footer and DRAFT <$date> as the top right header element for draft opinions).

I don’t try and use the Formatting or Layout overrides – they just don’t do what I want them to do, hence the formatting beforehand in Scrivener.

Select the type of document you want to produce (not .docx – it loses too much formatting; pick .rtf or .doc if you’re not producing a PDF). There’s no export to Pages because the .pages format is weird. You’re best compiling to .rtf and opening that in Pages.  Ignore the LaTex/Markdown etc options unless these mean something to you (they’re a particular way of dealing with document formatting that is more than slightly geeky).

Once you have everything the way you want, you can save the compile structure as a preset – click on Format As (below Summary/All Options) and select ‘Manage Compile Format Presets’. Click the + sign, and name it. It’ll be saved as a standard compile preset that you can select in future.


You’ve got all this sorted, all the presets organised as you want, and the compile presets working too.  Now save the whole lot as a template (File > Save As Template) so that you don’t have to do it all over again next time.

If it helps, I’ve uploaded a a Scrivener example (Example for opinion.scriv) with the .doc (Example for opinion) and .pdf (Example for Opinion) compiled versions as well.  The .scriv example file has the heading/sub-heading/numbered text etc presets that I use so, if you save it as a template, you can re-use this for other documents.  The compile presets are also in the file so, using the ‘Manage Compile Format Presets’ option noted above, you can save these as a compile format as well (I would have uploaded the template and compile presets if I could, but they’re technically system files and WordPress doesn’t like it when you upload these!)

Note: the .scriv file will default to a font on your system because the font I use isn’t a standard one*.  It’ll probably default to Arial, but might turn into almost anything. Change the font to whatever you want to use as part of setting up the presets.

Finally …

In summary:

  • make sure all the chunks of text that you want to stitch together are in the Draft section
  • order your chunks of text as necessary – essential, otherwise you’ll be cutting & paste in Word, which seems pointless
  • add in top & tail information (court information, opinion header, that sort of thing) if you want – if you don’t do it now, you’ll have to do it in Word
  • make sure the headings, <$n> numbering etc are all in place as necessary, using presets – I usually do this as I go along, but then go through for a quick check & tidy up at the end
  • open the compile function (click the button on the bar, or select from the menu)
  • select your compile preset from the Format As: drop down menu, or tweak the settings if you need to (mostly, you want to avoid doing too much here). Check the footer and header in particular.
  • select the type of document you want to create
  • go.

This is one of the times when it becomes really clear that Scrivener isn’t intended specifically for legal use despite its otherwise general fabulousness.  To get the numbering right, in particular, you’re either going to have to insert <$n> into the relevant paragraphs in Scrivener, or do the numbering in Word afterwards. It’s up to you …

And yes, it all sounds like a lot of work.  But, really, how much time do you spend trying to get Word to put the right numbers in the right places, and looking the way you want? That’s probably about the same amount of lost time, if not more!

* for the curious: I use Equity by Matthew Butterick, the author of Typography for Lawyers.

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4 Comments  comments 

4 Responses

  1. Naomi Cunningham

    Thank you – that worked! Well nearly; I’ll need to fiddle a bit, but I can now see where I’m going.

  2. Naomi Cunningham

    Is there a way of getting sub-paragraph numbers e.g. (i), (ii), (iii) or (a), (b), (c)?

  3. editor


    – for (i), (ii) etc use < $r> instead of < $n> and use < $rst_r> before the first one in the list each time to make sure it re-starts at (i)
    – for (a), (b) etc use < $l> in the same way, and < $rst_l>.

    As an example, to create the following:

    2. Blurb heading
    (i) blurb blurb more blurb
    (ii) blurb blurb etc etc

    You’d use:

    < $n> Blurb heading
    < $rst_r>
    < $r> blurb blurb more blurb
    < $r> blurb blurb etc etc

    The < $rst_r/l> is needed because otherwise Scrivener would just continue with the line of roman/lowercase numbers throughout the document – you need to force it to re-start with each sub-list.

  4. editor

    [ignore the space between < and $ in the lines above - that's just there to stop the HTML freaking out]

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