Never Stare At A Blank Page Again With Scrivener and iThoughts

The Techie Scheky series offers tips and tactics for being more productive and creative through technology (especially with a Mac).

While what I am about to say is not true for everyone, it is sure has hell true for me: A blank page is the most terrifying part of writing. I don’t care if you are writing in a notebook, a Word document1 or a text file; it is just intimidating to looking at a whole lot of nothing. More often than not, the stress of staring down at a blank page and trying to decide out where to go next often leads to the same place… nowhere.

Now, there are two ways that I tend to write, the first is to quickly capture an idea in Simplenote and then allow myself to get lost in creating the post2. While this is great for the kinds of free-form pieces I traditionally post on Wednesdays, it isn’t ideal for more structured efforts like this series. Thankfully, David Sparks introduced an amazing workflow that has made it so I will never have to start a complicated project with a blank page again. By starting with a mind map in iThoughts HD and saving your thoughts in Dropbox you can create a fully outlined document in a word processor called Scrivener. Sounds complicated, right? It is, once you get the hang of this, there will be no going back.

What on earth are you talking about?

Ok let me try to boil this down a little bit by explaining what each application is and what it does:

  • IThoughts HD (Available in the iTunes App Store for $9.99) – Once you’ve come up with a title or an idea that you want to write about, this slick iPad application3 lets you create a new mind map with your thought initial already at the center4. For those who have never used them, Wikipedia defines a Mind Map as “a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea.”. Essentially it serves as a visual reference for whatever it is you are looking to create. iThoughts also integrates well with Dropbox which is what will help us to make the most our mind map a little later on in Scrivener.

  • Scrivener (Available at Literature and Latte for $455) – I’ll be honest, this Mac-based word processor6 has a learning curve (check out the Geeky Quick Tip at the bottom of this post for a great resource), but it is so very, very worth it. It offers a remarkable approach to writing and manipulating your words. By treating each segment (this can be a chapter, a paragraph or even a sentence) as its own card, you can quickly move things around without playing an endless awkward game of copy and paste. It even offers three modes, traditional word processor, outline and index cards so you have a variety of ways to play around with your thoughts. For those of you who are tied to or work with people who are tied to traditional (read: crappy) word processors like Word, fear not! Scrivener makes it easy to export and import from all of your “favorite” writing programs.

So why the hell is this any better?

I don’t know about you, but I hate outlining. 1) I suck at it. 2) See #1. It’s an awkward process and a full page worth of notes never does me much good once I try and get to work. Mind mapping however has proven to be a far more intuitive way to get ideas out of my brain and into the world. I’m able to quickly create a file that already based on any given idea and quickly start planning from there. Once I’m done or at a point where I feel like I am ready to get started, I simply save it in Dropbox in OPML format (this sounds geeky, but iThoughts HD makes this easy) and then import my outline into a new or existing Scrivener document. Each piece of my mind map is automatically converted into those cards I mentioned earlier that are titled with the text I added in the mind map. Once imported, it’s simply a matter of filling in the blanks rather than worry about that it is I want to write about.

Still lost? Let me show you!

Let me walk you through the process. This post started in iThoughts like this:

Then I added what are known as “siblings” and “children” off of the main idea until I had this:

iThoughts HD Mind Map for The Techie Scheky Series

From there, I saved it in Dropbox in OPML format:

After that, I jumped into Scrivener, imported the file and was left with this:

Once I have everything filled in, I jump into Scrivener’s full screen mode, read things over to make sure that the everything works together and do whatever editing is necessary to give the whole piece flow7.

I know… I know…

This must seem like a lot, but if you constantly find yourself battling the blank page, it has the potential to change the way you approach writing. Rather than wasting time trying (often fruitlessly) to figure out what to write, you can quickly organize your thoughts in a way that actually helps your thoughts out onto the screen. If you’ve stuck around this long, you’re going to want check out the quick tip below as there is solid gold for those of you looking to get a better idea of what Scrivener can do. Happy writing!

Geeky Quick Tip

This week, you get two tips for the price of one. A tip from your’s truly and one from the always amusing Yuvi Zalkow.

My quasi-useful tip: You can import new mind maps into existing ones maps… confused again? Let me show you: As you can see, the entire series started as its own mind map and as I continue to write, I create a new map for each post and add it to the original file. It’s useful if you want to think out the series as a whole, but then need a deeper focus in order to work out an individual post.

Yuvi’s far more useful tip: As I mentioned earlier, Scrivener has a fairly strong learning curve. I was quickly lost when I started out, thankfully Yuvi’s very thorough video will get set you straight:

To learn more, subscribe for free by Email or RSS to automatically receive future Techie Scheky posts from

  1. Although I can’t understand for the life of me why you would do that to yourself…  

  2. Sometimes this happens right away, but more often than not, I’ll come back to an idea later.  

  3. There is also an iThoughts app for the iPhone, but I find it to be too small to be useful.  

  4. Like I promised, no blank pages.  

  5. They also offer a free trial here  

  6. They also have a window’s version now, but who gives a crap…  

  7. Hopefully…  

22 Responses to Never Stare At A Blank Page Again With Scrivener and iThoughts

  1. Say I don’t have an iPad… say I have FreeMind for mind mapping on my Mac. Any idea what format I could export into that would accomplish the same thing? OPML isn’t available, but I have HTML, XHTML, OpenOffice, and a few others that don’t seem likely.

  2. Question: I love the idea of using a mind map app to import an outline into Scrivener. I use and love Scrivener. I don’t have an iPad, but a MacBook and an iPhone. I also currently use Inspiration mind map software, but I don’t see an option in it to export to DropBox. I also don’t see a version of iThoughts  for Mac (ie: not iPad), and though I use an iPhone, I can’t see the point of such a small mind map screen.

    Your post has come the closest of any in convincing me to try DropBox, but I haven’t taken the step, because of it won’t work for my set up, I don’t (quite) see the point. (I only have one computer and I back it up to Time Machine regularly.)

    Can you suggest a workaround or alternate mind map source for importing an outline into Scrivener?

    • As long as you can export it or save your mind map as an OPML, you can import the file. To be honest, you wouldn’t really even need Dropbox for that (unless you would be doing this on two different computers). Simply save the mind map into OPML and then import that file into Scrivener.

      If you only have one computer and don’t need Dropbox on the iphone, there isn’t much of a need. Except it serves as a pretty solid free backup for 2GB of your most important data.

      • Thank you, Mike. Apparently I can’t save Inspiration files as .opml, but your information is useful anyway as I determine if another program would work better for me. I ‘can’ save Inspiration files as .doc, which gives me an outline that I could transfer into Scrivener and split into separate files. Sounds a bit cumbersome, but might be worth it for some larger projects.

        I really appreciate you having opened my mind to the possibility :)

        • you may want to see if whatever Mac app you are using can open in the iThoughts iPhone app, could be a faster work around. That said, tons of mind map programs export to OPML these days. I haven’t really toyed with any of them, but David Sparks (the guy who I stole this workflow from) uses Mind Node Pro.

  3. cool! Thanks for all of this. I’ve used Scrivener for about 3 years and love it – and I didn’t find it hard to use, even from the beginning. I don’t have an iPad, so no iThoughts for me, but I used to do mind-mapping by hand and was impressed with how much I could do.

    Michael, I really appreciate how much you’ve offered in this post – very generous. Thanks so much.

    • My pleasure, the app has been so helpful for me and has really made larger projects just so much easier. You may want to consider trying a free mind map program for the Mac. Most of these can export to OPML and you would be able to make a lot more use out of your maps!

    • It’s been really useful. Actually, I mainly use standard Markdown (haven’t really had time to kick the tires on Multi just yet). And then I use WP-Footnotes to quickly format the footnotes. Haven’t really figured where I would use MMD beyond the footnotes and the plugin seems to make those easy.

  4. Great post. @Ed_Dale covered a similar creative process. I think this really works. Just need to practice it.

    • @ed_dale:twitter has taught me a ton of great tricks along the way as well. This one has a bit of a learning curve to it (more getting used to it than any technical challenges), but once it clicks, you never look back.

    • It’s finally crap rationalized the purchase of the iPad for me :) Didn’t know @cspenn:twitter was a Scrivener guy, but not surprised. Great for the kind of meaty, well researched posts he writes.

      • I’ve been using it to write a lot of posts as well as ebooks. I love the views and the workflow of it. Much better than working from a standard outline. I find I actually write a lot more with it too as I only focus on one section at a time.

        And speaking of ipads, I was this close ‘ ‘ to buying one today – the iPad 2. It’s only a matter of time before I completely rationalize the purchase.

        Thanks for putting out so much geeky stuff Michael. Awesome stuff.

        • Agreed, it almost feels like “fill in the blanks” at times. Managing to move a lot faster through larger projects. You’ll never quite be able to rationalize the iPad, but you’ll be surprised how much use you manage to get out of it.

    • My pleasure! It’s made a massive difference in the way and the speed at which I write longer form articles. Being able to really leverage those maps made them all the more powerful for me. Hope it proves useful for you as well.

Leave a reply