Scrivener, Dropbox, Elements and an improved process for the iPad

When I am at home in my office, I do all of my fiction-writing on my MacBook using Scrivener. It used to be that when I was away from my office, I took my laptop with me, but after getting my iPad last spring, I decided to leave the laptop at home and do my writing on the iPad. The trick was, how best to sync my Scrivener projects with my iPad.

For a while, I synced my Scrivener projects with SimpleNote, which had a nice app for the iPad. But over time, I found three problems with the process:

  1. SimpleNote didn’t have the clean screen editing I was looking for. It’s maximum font size was too small for me.
  2. The way the files are organized is a bit confusing.
  3. SimpleNote’s cloud system is proprietary for its editor.

Maybe it’s just me, but I felt there could be improvements in the process. So I went about looking for a really good text editor for the iPad and what I came up with after a fairly exhaustive search was Elements by Second Gear. Elements has the font sizes I want, the clean screen look to it, and it synchronizes with Dropbox–which means I can make it sync seamlessly with Scrivener.

Why is font size so important to me?

When I write on the iPad, I use an external BlueTooth keyboard–the very same keyboard I use when writing on my MacBook. This is so that the feel of writing is the same, even if the screens are different. But I am also more comfortable if the iPad isn’t sitting right in my face. I like setting it back a bit, and it helps to have  font size that I can still read easily while I work.

Having just returned from a 10-day vacation in which I wrote using nothing but my iPad, I thought I’d share the process in case anyone else was interested. Here’s what I did:

1. Create a project in Scrivener

This is straight-forward, and particularly easy with the SFWA Short Story template I created. Nothing special here.

2. Sync the project with an External Folder

Here is where things get interesting:

  • You will need to install Dropbox and have a Dropbox account for this to work
  • The external folder I select is a folder within the Dropbox folder on my MacBook. See the screenshot below for a sample of the settings I use:

Scrivener Dropbox1.jpg

  • Note that the folder that I’m syncing to (first red circle) is my Dropbox folder. Any files saved and changed here will automatically be replicated to Dropbox.
  • While the screenshot doesn’t show it, I usually check the “Check external folder on project open and automatically sync on close” checkbox. This ensures that I don’t exit without syncing first–something I’ve done before, much to my dismay.
  • Finally, the format for files in the external Draft folder has to be set to Plain Text as Elements does not read RTF files
  • Click Sync and you’re all set

Those steps need to be done once per project. Once they are done, you can access the project in Elements on the iPad.

3. Opening the project in Elements

Elements is a Dropbox based tool. When you first install it, you configure it to work with your Dropbox account. Then when you open it, you are presented with a list of the folders and text files in your Dropbox.

I organize my projects by folder on Dropbox, so I select the folder that I want to work with, drill down into the Drafts folder of that project, and select the file I want to edit. Once you are in edit mode, you get a nice clean screen to work with. It is especially useful to have an external keyboard so that the digital keyboard doesn’t clutter your screen. With my large font settings and wide margins, here is an example of what my Elements screen looks like on the iPad:


Clicking the Information icon on the top-right of the screen will give me a word-count for the document, which is a useful feature. I can now add text, edit or otherwise update the file and my changes are automatically saved to Dropbox. If I go back into the project in Scrivener, my changes will be reflected when the Project syncs with the external folder (which is why I check that extra box in the first screen).

Over the course of my vacation, I found this an easier process than what I did with SimpleNote. I also found Elements to be a better text editor, in terms of its flexibility to my needs.


There are a few things to be aware of:

  • This works well for syncing between Scrivener and any text editor you would use via Dropbox. But it doesn’t let you sync a project between two versions of Scrivener. Save yourself some time: I already tried that.
  • You are dealing with plain text files so any formatting you put into Scrivener will be lost when it is synced to plain text. Since I use very little formatting in my stories and let Scrivener generate the manuscript this is easy for me to work around. When I’m working on a draft, when I want to underline something, I ‘ll _use underscores_ like that, instead of actual underlining. I do the same in Elements. Once I’m back in Scrivener and ready to produce a final draft, I replace those underscores with underlines.
  • Elements is not free. I think I paid $4.99, but it is well worth it. It’s the only text editor I use for fiction writing on the iPad now.
  • Scrivener will eventually be available for the iPad, in case you want to hold out for that version. In the meantime, I think the combination of Scrivener, Elements and Dropbox works very well.


  1. Although I haven’t used it with Scrivener, I use Notebooks for iPad as my main writing tool when working on the iPad. As far as structure goes it works similarly to OneNote. You make Notebooks as the top level folder. Within each book you can make your notes or nest things further and make more books. It supports plain text and RTF files. I’ve used it to keep a journal for this year with an entry for each day and each entry coming out to a page or more of written text. I find it works extremely well and it integrates into Dropbox very cleanly.

    I agree with you on font size and Notebooks allows you to change the font size as well as the background. It also supports word count, not just for the current document, but gives you a total for all the notes within a folder. I tried using Pages, but Notebooks has a much better feature set and the file management is far superior.

    Eventually I will bring all the writing tools together and see how they work together.

  2. I’m new to the Scrivener for Windows but have an ipad. Can I use elements? Can’t find the sync option in Scrivener for Windows.

  3. Good advice – many thanks. ?
    But my project saves in rft format and i cannot find where you select plain text. .can you assist please?

    Many thanks

    1. Libby, see the first screenshot in the post. Toward the bottom, I’ve circled the setting for changing the output from RTF to plain text. This is the only place I know of to change the setting–and it is for the Mac version. I’ve no experience with the Windows or Linux versions.

  4. I was similarly working on establishing a remote writing capability on the iPad that could conveniently work with Scrivener on my home-based Mac. I’ve started with Pages on the iPad, Scrivener on the Mac, and using Apples neophyte iCloud as a connection (really more of a store and forward capability). While I’ve not done any real work towards a novel, my experiments in file exchange going each way seem to work fine. So that is another possible combination…

  5. I’m a new i pad user, and have been looking for a way to utilize it for writing and transferring the work to scrivener or Microsoft word for the Mac. Your post is exciting, passed along to me by my daughter in Austin TX. I’ll experiment with your method. Thank you for taking the time to give us a hand up!

  6. Hey Jamie,

    How’s it going? I have a question for you: On your SFWA short story template, do you find when you open the document in Word or TextEdit that the word count text is set a half inch further in from the left of the page than the text margins? I modified the short story template that came with Scrivener, have been finding this problem, and haven’t been able to find any command or preference that might fix it. So far I’ve had to manually change the table parameters in Word after every compile. If your template doesn’t have this problem, could I grab a copy off you?

    Anyway, good article, and I’ve been quite happy with Elements so far myself, so thanks for pointing it out.


    Rich (from Codex)

    1. Rich, sorry for the delay, this comment got past me somehow. You know, I have never notice that, but I will take a look at it and if it’s that way on my machine, I will see if I can find a way to fix it. Stay-tuned…

  7. THANK YOU for posting the details and how-to of this workflow! I’ve been hunting for a good iPad/Scrivener writing workflow for weeks and until your post, wasn’t able to find one. Elements is bare-bones and is exactly what I need and no more. (I’m eagerly anticipating a Scrivener iPad app, but until then, this will do. 🙂

  8. thank you for this – I just recently discovered Scrivener and am now looking for ways to optimize my workflow. just one question: does Elements autosave? and if so, how often, and how many undo-steps does it provide (i.e. say I delete a paragraph by accident and have enabled the syncing in scrivener for opening and closing the document, how would I prevent the paragraph from vanishing in Scrivener as well?)

  9. Thanks very much for this handy little workaround! I am still wondering whether an iPad is the best portable writing solution for me, but it sounds like it works well for some. I’ve been a big fan of Scrivener for a while, and I have an iPhone and a Mac but nothing in between. Can’t afford a Macbook Air (yet!) so this might be the answer.

    I tested this technique using Elements for Dropbox on the iPhone. iPhone’s not great for writing on obviously but occasionally I do make notes on it and it can be quite liberating working that way from time to time. It actually helps me stop re-reading all the time as the screen’s too small to comfortable read/review – so it’s good for bashing out words when editing isn’t needed. So, it’s good t have that option at the moment and the iPad is creeping up my list of possible things to invest in.

    Many many thanks for this helpful info and for taking the time to share…

    Andrea H.

  10. Looking into this and it looks great. However, I can’t find the settings that you show when setting up the scrivener project. Also, I can’t find any structure in the folder I create in drop box that relates to the folder names in the Binder. Any pointers to how to set this up?

  11. For all you windows users out there using Schrivener and wondering how the heck to sync to dropbox…I have finally figured it out.

    1. Have drop box available on your desktop.

    2. go to shrivener – On File menu, scroll down to ” back-up”, then “back up to”…desktop. (The recent projects name will show up with a bunch of numbers).

    3. Go to desktop…drag and drop this project into the drop box.


  12. I can not find the sync option in scrivener at all. Can anyone plz clarify if its available in a mac version only? Or some new version can we have the version number plz?
    I recently started scrivener and even more recently got the ipad3. I have a windows laptop n scrivener for windows (wel obviously).
    Plz help

  13. Does not work with Scrivener for PC and now have to try getting a refund from Apple, which I am told is nerly impossible 🙁

  14. Hi Jamie,

    I was curious how you get around formatting issues with regards to paragraph breaks. In Scrivener, by default, there are no line breaks between paragraphs. This resulted in a wall of text in Elements for me.

    In my project, I changed the formatting within Scrivener to match Elements, but now that I’m in the compile stage, I’m getting double hard returns between paragraphs in the compiled manuscript.

    I love this workflow, and I can work around the issue by cleaning up a compiled word doc, but I’m hoping there’s a way to resolve the issue entirely with a setting in Scrivener I’m missing.


    1. Jeff, as indicated in my response to Russell, I have since switched from Elements to iaWriter. I can’t recall having the paragraph break issue you describe, however, in either case. But as you indicate, I think there was some setting I had to make on the Scrivener end (in the Sync settings, somewhere, if I recall correctly.) I love iaWriter, but of course, the ideal solution would be a Scrivener App for the iPad. I know that the guys are working on one, and even posted a screenshot on the Scrivener boards some months back. No ETA of when the app will be released.

  15. This is a great set-up. The post is about a year old now, and I would suggest that readers check out Daedulus. it looks like Elements have kind of dropped the ball on furthering their app in terms of features (or maybe they just wanted to keep it simple).

    I would further urge authors here to look in to MultiMarkdown, an excellent plain text syntax for formatting while you type.

    Not only do I write in markdown in Scrivener on my Mac and Daedulus on my iPad, but WordPress has a markdown plug-in so that it can automagically format your posts. I do all kinds of formatting for my fiction: letters, phone calls, television scripts, etc. and I accomplish all of them in plain text. Check out by fiction blog to see the results for yourself.

  16. Hello,

    I have elements in my drop box, i have all my scrivener project in this elements folder in my dropbox on my ipad, i can see them. But i cannot edit my texts. WHY?

    Thanks for helping me and you should know, I am not a computer freak and I need step-by-step information.



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