Scrivener v. iOS, Part 6 – External Folder Sync Workflow Secrets

Image courtesy of Samarttiw /

Image courtesy of Samarttiw /

Update 20 July 2016:

Do not use the Mac/Windows Scrivener “Sync With External Folder” feature with Scrivener for iOS! If you are having problems setting up your Mac or PC with iOS Scrivener, please follow Megan M.’s excellent step-by-step instructions at

End Update

I’m finishing up my “Scrivener v. iOS” series, here. It’s still relevant — despite the hopes of all, both developers and users, Scrivener iOS is not yet imminent, so all the current ways to get work done on your trusty iPad and/or iPhone and get that back into Scrivener are still of intense interest (at least, so my blog stats say.) For reference, earlier articles in the series are:

Scrivener v. iOS, Part 1 — Overall Approaches
Scrivener v. iOS, Part 2 — Remote Desktop Sharing
Scrivener v. iOS, Part 3 — Preparing Your Project for Sync
Scrivener v. iOS, Part 4 — Index Card Workflow Secrets
Scrivener v. iOS, Part 5 — Index Card Workflow Concluded

Please note: All of this synchronization info applies to Mac Scrivener only.

In many ways, the external folder sync feature is the most robust and flexible way to work on your Scrivener project on your iOS device. You can choose any iOS editor, any editor at all, that will work with either .rtf files or plain text files, and also work with Dropbox or WebDAV. The syncing mechanism is flexible enough that if your Mac can see a directory, you can put your sync folder there. This means you can use any general purpose cloud drive system you want — DropBox, WebDAV… and if your iOS editor can access it, you’re in business. You can set up Scrivener to automatically sync your project when you open it, to get changes from your iOS device, and when you close that Scrivener project, to automatically put your changes into the cloud, available for your iOS editor wherever you might be. You can set up a saved search, so that you can automatically include new documents in your sync collection without any hand-updating of a collection. You can even export both your draft for editing and your text notes for reference.

This is all good news, but what’s the bad news? The bad news is that none of your metadata (synopsis, document notes, project notes, keywords, custom metadata and so forth) is accessible at all. You also can’t rearrange your documents, you can only edit them. For me, this is a deal-breaker; I want the visibility into and control over structure that Index Card provides, with its ability to rearrange documents and see my synopses. And yet, periodically I try external folder sync again just because of its superior sync flow.

If access to your outline, synopses, and document notes doesn’t matter to you, the comparative ease of synchronization of external folders may be for you.

I’m not going to recommend a particular iOS text editor, mostly because there are so very many of them! Brett Terpstra has an extensive list of them on his website, with capabilities and drawbacks. There are nearly a hundred editors listed with details, and a cool mechanism for filtering based on the characteristics you are most interested in.

I will venture opinions on four of them: Textilus, Editorial, Matcha and Notability. This doesn’t mean that one of the other 96 might not be the exact editor you end up preferring; it means that these are the only ones in the list that I have extensive experience with.

Textilus is the only editor in the entire list designed to create a .rtf file, edit a .rtf file and output a .rtf file. It has features intended to make it easy to work with Scrivener’s external folder sync. Personally, I find its handling of Dropbox sync awkward, but usable if working with formatted text (beyond bold and italic) is critical to your workflow. [I haven’t tried the new Textilus Pro — but preliminary reviews from the App Store are not promising.]

Editorial is my personal editor of choice right now when I use external folder sync. It recognizes subfolders! a feature that is rare in iOS apps. It has global search — that is, it will search all the files in a given folder for a bit of text, or just the file that I’m currently working on. I find this incredibly useful when I can’t remember the name I gave the protagonist’s grandfather’s girlfriend… Its Dropbox sync is absolutely smooth and transparent — edit a file on iOS and it Just. Gets. Synced. It has a lot of features meant to be used by web programmers, and is extensible, meaning you can write your own commands for it if you are so inclined. It works great just as it’s installed, though. I just ignore stuff not applicable to novels. It works with Markdown — so you will be able to see your italicized and bold text if you use these.

Matcha has many of the favorable features of Editorial. It is also a WYSIWYG editor, so that if you’re irritated by Markdown codes you need never see them there. Its one problem is that files are always presented in “most recently modified” order, rather than the carefully numerical order of Scrivener sync files. [Note that my remarks refer to Matcha, not the new Matcha 3 — which I have not tried.]

Notability is a great note-taking app. It can import and edit .rtf files, which get translated to its own internal format. It also will automatically “back up” all its notes to a Dropbox folder in .rtf format, which could easily be your Scrivener sync folder. However, it’s strictly a one-folder connection to Dropbox, which precludes having your text notes available unless via another app. It will sync your edits to Dropbox automatically, but you must manually re-import your Scrivener edits. It will put any other notes you create into the Scrivener folder, too — which you probably don’t want. If you don’t edit very often on your iOS device, and you happen to have Notability, it’s usable, but I can’t see it as part of a regular workflow.

If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest reading my article, Scrivener v. iOS, Part 3 — Preparing Your Project for Sync. Unless you are using an RTF editor (rare) you will likely want to set up your project to deal with text only on the iOS side. My workflow suggestions are based on text sync, with Markdown italic and bold in your Scrivener files.

Workflow details:Screenshot 2015-12-10 13.27.12

  1. In your Dropbox, or in your Webdav drive, set up a folder to receive your Scrivener syncs. This must be an empty folder when you start.
  2. In Scrivener, set up a search to find all the files you’re going to want available in iOS. This can include text notes — characters, settings, and the like. Be clever about it — I search on labels I’ve set up. Scene, Chapter, Notes, Character are all possibilities. Save the search and name it something clever like Auto Sync.
  3. In Scrivener, choose File> Sync> with External Folder…
  4. This and following steps refer to the “Sync with External Folder” dialog box. First, choose the empty folder you set up in Step 1 as the shared folder.
  5. Turn on all the options in the option section. Then select the saved search you created in Step 2 as the collection to “sync only documents from.” This enables you to add a new scene or note, label it, and have it automatically show up in your sync. You can modify your saved search to sync only a subset of your documents, and again it will automatically sync correctly.
  6. Be sure to keep the “Take Snapshots…” and “Check External Folders…” options on! These are what make the process both automatic and safe. The snapshots ensure that even if you foul something up on the iOS side, your Scrivener original document is still available. The “Check External Folders…” option makes this all automatic on the Scrivener side.
  7. Set up your file types and file extensions. If you’re going to be using an RTF editor, choose “.rtf” as your file type, and “rtf” as your extension. Otherwise, choose “plain text” as your file type. If you’re using a Markdown editor on the iOS side, set up either “md” or “markdown” as your extension. Otherwise, “txt” is safest.
  8. Finally, if you’re using either Markdown or plain text, check the “Automatically Convert Plain Text Paragraph Spacing” box. When you’re editing on iOS, put two returns wherever you want a paragraph. They will be converted to whatever paragraph formatting you’re using when your edits return to Scrivener.
  9. Click the “Sync” button. Close your Scrivener project.
  10. On the iOS side, navigate to the sync folder you set up with your iOS editor. You’ll find two folders inside it, “Draft” and “Notes.” Find the documents you want to edit, edit them, and make sure they are written back to Dropbox or the Webdav server when you’re done.
  11. Voila! When you open your project in Scrivener, the external folders will be checked for changes and you’ll be asked if you want to sync. Do so, and your changes are saved in Scrivener. Scrivener will create a special collection, “Updated Documents,” so that you can check your changed files.
  12. Now edit in Scrivener all you like, and whenever you close your project, your changes will be synced to the external folder. Repeat these last two steps as often as needed.

Have fun with your external folder synchronization!


2 thoughts on “Scrivener v. iOS, Part 6 – External Folder Sync Workflow Secrets

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