Exploring Scrivener Compile: Simplifying the Compile Feature

scrivener app compile screen shot

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If you use Scrivener and have had to print your manuscript or send a Word document version of it to anyone, you’ve probably seen the Scrivener Compile window. It’s intimidating and looks complicated. Perhaps you did what I did and used the default settings, thinking you’ll learn about this later when you really need it.

As I get closer to publication, I’m reaching the point where I need to learn how to use this function properly. I’ve searched through many articles covering Scrivener Compile and they’re either a general overview with no details or very detailed and hard to follow. So I thought I’d cover the basics.


Before we go further, please note:

  • I use Scrivener 3 on a MacOS. While the functionality in Windows is similar, you may find it under a different menu than the one I reference, and it may look different from images I include.
  • Scrivener does a lot of things based on the structure you have set up in your Manuscript or Draft folder. The section types used (act, chapter, scene, etc.) will vary based on your unique structure. The options shown in your project are based on the structure you used.

Getting Ready to Compile

What do we mean when we say compile? Compiling in Scrivener means exporting your work (usually your manuscript) to another type of file, such as a Word document, eBook, or PDF.

Scrivener keeps the format settings for compiling your work separate from the editor format settings. Why separate them? In Scrivener, you have one manuscript and many output options, each with distinct formatting options. This means you can produce multiple and varying outputs (paperback, eBook, etc.) from a single source of input (your manuscript).

Before you do your first Compile, there are a few things to verify within your project. To make compiling easier, make sure your story structure is solid, and the documents you want to include in the compile are marked accordingly.

Story Structure

Story structure in this sense refers to the section types assigned to the items in your Binder. For example, are the levels in your Binder correctly placed as Acts, Chapters, and Scenes (or whatever structure you prefer)? This is important for determining the Table of Contents and the way the Compile feature formats these components. (To view your Section Types, go to Project > Project Settings….)

Additional resources:

– Gwen Hernandez’s article on setting up Scrivener for easier compiling has a great explanation on the Binder structure and how the different levels work.

Anne Rainbow’s article goes even further explaining how section types work in relation to the Binder structure.

Include in Compile

You must check the Include in Compile box for each folder, document, or document group you want included in the output. This one small setting in the document Metadata tab (found in the Inspector) has a large impact on what gets compiled.

Compile Overview

What kind of document are you compiling your work into? Are you exporting it to Word so you can print it out or send to an editor? Are you compiling your project for an eBook? Maybe you’re writing a blog and need to compile the document to a web page using multi-markdown.

Whatever the case, everything starts with the File > Compile… menu, which opens the Compile Overview screen.

Compile For

First, select the type of document you wish to compile your Scrivener project into. There are options for PDF, MS Word, eBooks, and even web files.

scrivener app compile screen shot

Formats Column

Under the Formats column on the left, there are three different format types: Project Formats, My Formats, and Scrivener Formats. Note: As you change the preferred output at the top, the formats available on the left will change to match your selection.

  1. Scrivener Formats are the default formats that come with Scrivener and cannot be edited. You may, however, duplicate them and create custom formats which you can edit.
  2. Project Formats are custom formats that are saved in THIS project only.
  3. My Formats are custom formats that are available in ALL projects.

Compile Options Column

The untitled column on the right of the Compile Overview window shows the settings available for the format you have chosen. Different settings are available for different formats.

The icons across the top represent the following tabs (from left to right):

  • The selected folders and documents to include in the compiled output.
    • Unchecked items are those with the Include in Compile setting left unchecked. Checking the box here will change it in the manuscript.
  • Metadata for the compiled document. (This includes the title, author name, and other information about the work itself.)
  • Options such as removing comments, trailing white spaces, etc.
  • Replacing text during compile.
  • Cover Image information (if applicable)
  • Table of contents options (if applicable)

Section Layouts Column

The Section Layouts column in the middle is where you choose how you want each section type to appear. You can scroll through this column to see the layout currently selected for each section type.

If no Section Layouts have been assigned or you wish to change which layout to use, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Assign Section Layouts… button at the bottom of the column.
  2. Select the Section Type to change or assign on the left-hand side.
  3. Scroll through the options and click the one you like.
  4. Click OK at the bottom right.

Customizing Formats

Create a Custom Format

Most of the time, the default Scrivener formats will be all you need. But if you want to make changes, here’s how:

  1. Right-click on the Scrivener format you want to start with.
  2. Click on Duplicate and Edit Format….
  3. In the Format Name box, type in a meaningful name for the customized format that lets you know why it’s different.
  4. In the Save To: drop-down, select if you want to save this custom format for this project only (Project Formats) or for all projects (My Formats).
  5. Click on the Save button in the lower right corner.
scrivener save format screenshot

Editing a Custom Format

To edit a custom format, right-click the name and select Edit format…. The window that pops up contains the individual elements you can change for that format. The elements listed differ in each available format.

screenshot of scrivener custom format window

The left pane shows a list of different formatting elements available, and the right pane shows the options you can change for the element selected.

The Test… button on the bottom left allows you to compile without saving so you can see what the output looks like before you commit any changes.

Commonly used elements are:

  • Section Layouts is where you set the font used, margin size, title prefix, etc. for each section layout. Select the Layout Name in the top right window pane and click the different headings in the bottom right to see the options available.
    • This article by Anne Rainbow goes into great detail on how to use the Section Layouts to format your compiled document. I highly recommend it.
  • The Separators setting controls how sections are separated from each other. This is where you add indicators like # or *** between scenes.
  • The Transformations setting is where you set options on how to handle conversions. For example, whether to convert “smart” punctuation to “dumb” punctuation or leave it as is.
  • The Footnotes & Comments section contains options for formatting the appearance of footnotes, endnotes, and comments.
  • Use Page Settings to set the paper size, margins, header and footer, and other options for printed output like Paperback or PDF documents.
  • Use PDF Settings for PDF format options such as generating an outline.

Getting It Right

Now that you know where to find these settings, it’s time to compile. Start with a standard format and see how you like it. It may be all you need.

If you need something different, set up a custom format as described above, then play with the different format elements. It’s best to change one thing at a time.

Start with one setting. Make the change, use the Test button, and review. Keep tweaking that element until you’re happy with it, then save the format with the new settings before moving on to the next change.

By saving one change at a time, you can avoid losing all previous changes if something goes wonky.
Remember, you can compile as many times as you like, and changing the compile format settings does not change your manuscript formatting.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, this is enough to get you started and if you need more, check out the following resources for more information:

  • Scrivener User Manual – In Scrivener, go to Help > Scrivener Manual to open the PDF. This help manual is excellent and covers topics in an easy-to-understand manner. Sections 23 and 24 cover the Compile function.
  • This article by Anne Rainbow goes into more depth on each element of a compile format.
  • Once you’re comfortable compiling, check out Bobby Treat’s notes collection on more advanced settings. Go to this link, then type compile in the search box on the right side below the Workflows heading.

Bonus link: If you’re compiling into Word, check out this article on navigating Word after compiling for a step-by-step process to convert the chapter headings in the compiled Word document to actual TOC headings in Word.

What tips do you have for compiling in Scrivener? Let me know in the comments.

Happy Compiling!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anne Rainbow

    Thanks for pointing your readers to my ScrivenerVirgin blog. And for writing such a detailed and informative blog.

    1. Lancy McCall

      You are so welcome! I use your blog as a first stop reference when I’m exploring a new feature. 🙂

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