How it Works#

The main features of novelWriter are listed in the Overview chapter. In this chapter, 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 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 useful features needed for writing a novel.

The main window does not by default have an editor toolbar like many other applications do. This reduces clutter, and since the documents are formatted with style tags, it is not needed most of the time. Still, a small formatting toolbar can be popped out by clicking the left-most button in the header of the document editor. It gives quick access to standard formatting codes.

Most formatting features supported are available through convenient keyboard shortcuts. They are also available in the main menu under Format, 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 chapter.


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 headings, in-line basic text formats, text alignment, and a few other simple features.

On the left side 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 Manuscript tool, and a set of project-related tools and quick access to settings at the bottom.

New in version 2.2: A number of new formatting options were added in 2.2 to allow for some special formatting cases. At the same time, a small formatting toolbar was added to the editor. It is hidden by default, but can be opened by pressing the button in the top right corner of the editor header.

Project Tree and Editor View#


A screenshot of the Project Tree and Editor View.#

When the application is 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 side contains 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 purpose if you wish. For instance if you need to check that the formatting tags behave as you expect. However, 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’s 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 View and Editor View#


A screenshot of the Novel Tree and Editor View.#

When the application is in Novel Tree View mode, the project tree is replaced by an overview of your novel structure for a specific Novel root folder. 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, not its parent/child relationship to other elements of your project. 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 in the same document.

If you have multiple Novel type root folders, the header of the novel view becomes a dropdown 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 triggered, or you manually press Ctrl+S to save changes. (You can adjust the auto-save interval in Preferences.) You can also regenerate the whole novel view by pressing the refresh button in the novel view header.

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

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

Novel Outline View#


A screenshot of the Novel Outline View.#

When the application is 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 your column order and size between sessions, and for each individual project.

Colour Themes#

By default, novelWriter will use the colour theme provided by the Qt library, which is determined by the Fusion style setting. You can also choose between a standard dark and light theme that have neutral colours from Preferences.

If you wish, you can create your own colour themes, and even have them added to the application. See Syntax and GUI Themes for more details.

Switching the GUI colour theme does not affect the colours of the editor and viewer. They have separate colour selectable from the “Document colour theme” setting in Preferences. They are separated because there are a lot more options to choose from for the editor and viewer.


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

Switching Focus#

If the project or novel view does not have focus, pressing Ctrl+T switches focus to whichever of the two is visible. If one of them already has focus, the key press will switch between them instead.

Likewise, pressing Ctrl+E with switch focus to the document editor or viewer, or if any of them already have focus, it will switch focus between them,

These two shortcuts makes it possible to jump between all these GUI elements without having to reach for the mouse or touchpad.

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 sub-folders or sub-documents, 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.


An illustration of how heading levels correspond to the novel structure.#

The four heading levels, Level 1 to Level 4, are treated as follows:

  • Level 1 is used for the novel title, and for partitions.

  • Level 2 is used for chapter tiles.

  • Level 3 is used for scene titles – optionally replaced by separators.

  • Level 4 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 heading level structure is only taken into account for novel documents. For project notes, the heading levels have no structural meaning, and you are free to use them however you want. See Novel Structure and Tags and References for more details.

New in version 2.0: You can add documents as child items of other documents. 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 so that you can rearrange scene documents freely without affecting chapter placement.

Building a Manuscript#

The project can at any time be assembled into a range of different formats through the Build Manuscript 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. The Open Document format is supported by most office type applications. In addition, printing is also possible. Print to PDF is available from the print dialog.

For advanced processing, you can export the content of the project to a JSON file. This is useful if you want to write your own custom 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 with either HTML formatted text, or with the raw text as typed into the novel documents.

See Building the Manuscript for more details.

New in version 2.1: You can now define multiple build definitions in the Build Manuscript tool. This allows you to define specific settings for various types of draft documents, outline documents, and manuscript formats. See Building the Manuscript for more details.

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 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, which means there is a smaller risk of losing data if the application or your computer crashes.

Secondly, having multiple small files means it is very easy to synchronise 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. All the JSON documents have line breaks and indents as well, 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, as a rule, manually edit files within it. If you really must manually edit the text files, e.g. with some automated task you want to perform, you need to rebuild the Project Index when you open the project again.

Editing text files in the content folder is less risky as these 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.