How it Works#

The main features of novelWriter are listed in the Key Features section. Here, we go into some more details on how they are implemented. This is intended as an overview. Later on in this documentation, these features will be covered in even more detail.

GUI Layout and Design#

The user interface of novelWriter is intended to be as minimalistic as practically possible, while at the same time provide a complete set of features needed for writing a novel.

The main window does not have an editor toolbar like many other applications do. This reduces clutter, and since the documents are formatted with style tags, is more or less redundant. However, most formatting features supported are available through convenient keyboard shortcuts. They are also available in the main menu so you don’t have to look up formatting codes every time you need them. For reference, a list of all shortcuts can be found in the Keyboard Shortcuts section.


novelWriter is not intended to be a full office type word processor. It doesn’t support images, links, tables, and other complex structures and objects often needed for such documents. Formatting is limited to headers, emphasis, text alignment, and a few other simple features.

On the left edge of the main window, you will find a sidebar. This bar has buttons for the standard views you can switch between, a quick link to the Build Novel Project tool, and a set of project-related tools as well as quick access to settings at the bottom.

Project Tree View#

When in Project Tree View mode, the main work area of the main window is split in two, or optionally three, panels. The left-most panel contains the project tree and all the documents in your project. The second panel is the document editor. An optional third panel on the right is a document viewer which can view any document in your project independently of what is open in the document editor. This panel is not intended as a preview window, although you can use it for this if you wish as it will apply the formatting tags you have specified. The main purpose of the viewer is for viewing your notes next to your editor while you’re writing.

The editor also has a Focus Mode you can toggle either from the menu, from the icon in the editor header, or by pressing F8. When Focus Mode is enabled, all the user interface elements other than the document editor itself are hidden away.

Novel Tree View#

When in Novel Tree View mode, the project tree is replaces by an overview of your novel structure. Instead of showing individual documents, the tree now shows all headings of your novel text. This includes multiple headings within the same document.

Each heading is indented according to the heading level. You can open and edit your novel documents from this view as well. All headings contained in the currently open document should be highlighted in the view to indicate which ones belong together.

If you have multiple Novel root folders, the header of the novel view becomes a droopdown box. You can then switch between them by clicking the “Outline of …” text. You can also click the novel icon button next to it.

Generally, the novel view should update when you make changes to the novel structure, including edits of the current document in the editor. The information is only updated when the automatic save of the document is initiated though. You can adjust the aut-save interval in Preferences. You can also regenerate the whole novel view by pressing the refresh button at the top.

It is possible to show an optional third column in the novel view, The settings are available from the menu button ath the top.

If you click the arrow icon to the right of each item, a tooltip will pop up showing you all the meta data collected for that heading entry.

Novel Outline View#

When in Novel Outline View mode, the tree, editor and viewer will be replaced by a large table that shows the entire novel structure with all the tags and references listed. Pretty much all collected meta data is available here in different columns.

You can select which novel root folder to display from the dropdown box, and you can select which columns to show or hide from the menu button. You can also rearrange the columns by drag and drop. The app will remember you column order and size between sessions, and for each individual project.

Colour Themes#

The default colour theme of the user interface is the default theme from the Qt library. By default, novelWriter is loaded with the Fusion style setting. (You can override this with the --style= setting when starting novelWriter.)

There is a standard dark theme provided as well, which is similar to the default Qt theme. Some other light and dark colour themes are also provided. You can select which one you prefer from in Preferences .

A number of syntax highlighting themes are also available in Preferences. These are separate settings because there are a lot more options for syntax highlighting.


If you switch to dark mode on the GUI, you should also switch syntax highlighting theme to match, otherwise icons may be hard to see in the editor and viewer.

Project Layout#

This is a brief introduction to how you structure your writing projects. All of this will be covered in more detail later.

The main point of novelWriter is that you are free to organise your project documents as you wish into subfolders or subdocuments, and split the text between these documents in whatever way suits you. All that matters to novelWriter is the linear order the documents appear at in the project tree (top to bottom). The chapters, scenes and sections of the novel are determined by the headings within those documents.

The four heading levels (H1 to H4) are treated as follows:

  • H1 is used for the book title, and for partitions.

  • H2 is used for chapter tiles.

  • H3 is used for scene titles – optionally replaced by separators.

  • H4 is for section titles within scenes, if such granularity is needed.

The project tree will select an icon for the document based on the first heading in it.

This header level structure is only taken into account for novel documents. For the project notes, the header levels have no structural meaning, and the user is free to do whatever they want. See Novel Structure and Project Notes for more details.


You can add documents as child items of other documents if you wish. This is often more useful than adding folders, since you anyway may want to have the chapter heading in a separate document from your individual scene documents.

Building the Manuscript#

The project can at any time be assembled into a range of different formats through the Build Novel Project tool. Natively, novelWriter supports Open Document, HTML5, and various flavours of Markdown.

The HTML5 format is suitable for conversion by a number of other tools like Pandoc, or for importing into word processors if the Open Document format isn’t suitable. In addition, printing and printing to PDF is also possible.

You can also export the content of the project to a JSON file. This is useful if you want to write your own processing script in for instance Python, as the entire novel can be read into a Python dictionary with a couple of lines of code. The JSON file can be populated either with HTML formatted text, or with the raw text as typed into the novel documents. See Additional Formats for more details.

A number of filter options can be applied to the Build Novel Project tool, allowing you to make a draft manuscript, a reference document of notes, an outline based on chapter and scene titles with a synopsis each, and so on. See Building the Manuscript for more details on build features and formats.

Project Storage#

The files of a novelWriter project are stored in a dedicated project folder. The project structure is kept in a file at the root of this folder called nwProject.nwx. All the document files and associated meta data is stored in the other folders below the project folder. For more technical details about what all the files mean and how they’re organised, see the How Data is Stored section.

This way of storing data was chosen for several reasons. Firstly, all the text you add to your project is saved directly to your project folder in separate files. Only the project structure and the text you are currently editing is stored in memory at any given time. Secondly, having multiple small files means it is very easy to sync them between computers with standard file synchronisation tools. Thirdly, if you use version control software to track the changes to your project, the file formats used for the files are well suited. Also the JSON documents have line breaks and indents, which makes it easier to track them with version control software.


Since novelWriter has to keep track of a bunch of files and folders when a project is open, it may not run well on some virtual file systems. A file or folder must be accessible with exactly the path it was saved or created with. An example where this is not the case is the way Google Drive is mapped on Linux Gnome desktops using gvfs/gio.


You should not add additional files to the project folder yourself. Nor should you manually edit files within it as a general rule. If you really must manually edit the text files, e.g. with some automated task you want to perform, you need to rebuild the index when you open the project again.

Editing text files in the content folder is less risky as they are just plain text. Editing the main project XML file, however, may make the project file unreadable and you may crash novelWriter and lose project structure information and project settings.