Using Scrivener to Write a Dissertation – Why I’m Glad I Did and What I Would do Differently Next Time

My younger colleagues often ask me for dissertation advice. How do you keep your research and notes straight? How do you structure and restructure your argument? How do you motivate yourself to write on a regular basis? How do you do all of this without losing your precious sanity? Regardless of which question I am being asked, my response almost always involves a common refrain: Scrivener.

Developed initially for novelists and other creative types, Scrivener is writing software that has earned quite the following in the academic community. In this post I would like to outline why I chose to use it while writing my dissertation, why I am glad that I did, and what I would do differently if I had to do it all over again.

[N.B. — Initially designed for Mac, Scrivener is currently available for Mac and Windows. Everything in this post is in reference to the Mac version. I have never used Scrivener for Windows.]

Why did I choose Scrivener initially?

A fellow graduate student introduced me to Scrivener years ago. I will confess that while he was explaining several of its features, I found myself wondering why he was so excited. How could this software be useful to ME, someone responsible for writing serious and scholarly things? I already had Microsoft Word, and it had brought me through college and two masters degrees, right? So what, I asked, was the point? I concluded (hastily, in hindsight) that it should be placed alongside font selection as one more way that graduate students could procrastinate while still appearing productive.

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About two years later and after several other encounters with devotees of the software, I passed my comprehensive exams and jumped headfirst into the dissertation. And because I was a graduate student, I also began to search for clever and efficient ways to procrastinate: I started printing out test pages to determine which font I was going to use; I began experimenting with alternative/therapeutic lighting schemes and furniture/book arrangements in my study; I discovered that not all note-taking paper is created equal; and I learned that Microsoft Word is neither the only nor the best word processor for long, book-length documents. Realizing that I was deceiving myself into thinking that such pursuits were good uses of my precious time, I devoted one day—and one day only—to figuring out which font, paper, and word processing software I was going to use.

I downloaded a few options to start with: Nisus, Mellel, Bean, LaTex (which I never did figure out). After toying around with these a bit, I remembered Scrivener. I’m not sure why, but when I opened up the software for the first time something about it just clicked with me. Perhaps it was because I found the programs I had looked at thus far to be downright clunky, but Scrivener’s user interface struck me immediately as clean, well organized, and intuitive in many ways. After about an hour with it I was hooked; I took a few of the tutorials and had a detailed outline set up in no time. So yes—ironically, what began as an attempt to procrastinate ended up yielding what I now consider to be the single most important tool in my toolbox.

Why am I glad that I chose Scrivener?

Anyone who uses Scrivener on a regular basis has an opinion regarding its most useful components. Below are three of the features of Scrivener that I found to be the most helpful in the process of writing a dissertation. The list is not intended to be exhaustive.

1) Outlining — One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to in Scrivener is the “binder” that is situated to the left of the text input window. The binder is divided initially into three sections: draft, research, and trash. The draft and research sections allowScreen Shot 2014-05-30 at 2.58.21 PM you to create outlines to guide you in the process of writing and research. These can be about as detailed or broad as you want.

The outlines you create are actually systems of tiered text files. So, let’s say you make an outline for “Chapter 1.” Under this broad rubric you construct five headings, and under each of these headings you create three subheadings. The benefit of this—aside from more or less requiring you to outline your project before you start writing it—is that the system of text files allows you to skip quickly from one section to another, which helps move you away from thinking of the whole thing in strictly linear terms. Most of us don’t think in straight lines from start to finish, yet the expectation (for whatever reason) is that we need to write this way. No wonder the experience of staring at a blank page is such a common one!

Scrivener’s outlining feature certainly does not eliminate writer’s block, but it does remind you that your larger project is made up of individual components, and that you don’t necessarily have to work on them in order. In fact, the whole thing may move along more quickly if you don’t work on them in order!

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2) Automatic Writing Goals — If you know roughly how long your project should be, and you know when you want to have it completed by, Scrivener can help you figure out how many words per day you need to write every day in order to reach your goal on time. I am aware of no other program on the market that has a feature like this.

I knew that my dissertation needed to be around 65,000 words, not including footnotes, and I also knew that I wanted to finish writing it in one year (that didn’t happen, but that’s a story for another day). So I opened up Project Targets, entered my figures, told Scrivener to Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM“automatically calculate from draft deadline,” selected the days on which I planned to write, and that’s it. Turns out that if you want to write 65,000 words in one year, and you only want to write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you can accomplish your goal by writing 414 words per day. If you set a more aggressive schedule, i.e., write on every day of the work week, that figure drops to 249 words per day. Either of these is entirely manageable and a lot easier than sitting down every day not knowing if you are ahead or behind. If you get inspired one day and write more than you are supposed to, Scrivener will update your goals so that you will write less the next time. Alternately, if you take a week off of writing, Scrivener will have you write a few more words to catch up.

This feature was valuable to me because it showed me that the only way to complete long writing projects is one piece at a time. And it reminded me throughout the process that regardless of how small an accomplishment it seemed at the time, writing 400 words was in fact bringing me closer to my ultimate goal, namely, finishing.

3) Design and Stability — One of the first things that really struck me about Scrivener was just how smart the layout is. It’s clear that the software was designed, from start to finish, by people who could imagine themselves using it on a regular basis. Nearly every aspect of the user interface, from the layout of the toolbar to the color of your backgrounds, can be easily customized to fit your own needs and preferences.Like any software, there are some learning curves. But if you are willing to spend a little bit of time working through the tutorials that come packaged with it, you will figure things out quickly.

One final point of praise, related to design, is that Scrivener is a remarkably stable program. In the two years that I spent using it to write my dissertation, it NEVER CRASHED ONCE. Anyone who uses Word will marvel at that last sentence. Go ahead. Marvel. I imagine there are ways to crash Scrivener—the point is that you are going to have to work at it. Even if you did crash it, however, Scrivener automatically saves your work every two seconds. So even in the unlikely event that you throw more at it than it can catch, odds are you will lose maybe a total of five words.

What would I do differently next time?

By now you can tell that I’m a huge fan of this software. I could certainly have written a dissertation without it, but the task would have been much more arduous. To close out this post, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what I would do differently next time. While I will never (ever) have to write another dissertation, I have recently started work on another project in Scrivener that should keep me entertained for at least the next year. So what am I doing differently now?

1) Use the research section of the binder more — Scrivener is first and foremost a writing tool. But it also sports a number of features that can help you organize the nuts and bolts of your project. One of these is the research section of the binder (mentioned above). This section can support pretty much any sort of file that you can imagine. In the project I’m working on currently I am keeping images and article .pdfs in the research section as well as outlines and notes. Scrivener’s split screen mode makes switching between your writing window and .pdf viewer unnecessary; you can have both open at once. While I am still using bibliography software for citations, I’ve found that using the research section is helping me stay more organized.

2) Take more snapshots — A snapshot enables you to save a version of your project that you can later go back and compare against newer versions. It is similar in many ways to Word’s “track changes” feature, though more smoothly executed (surprised?). I knew that this feature existed when I started using Scrivener, but I didn’t start using it until I was Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 3.00.18 PMfinishing the final chapter and beginning to edit. To be sure, the editing phase is the point at which snapshots are most valuable; if you find that you were a bit too zealous in your cutting, you can always go back and retrieve what you have chopped out.

In the project I am working on right now, the first thing I do EVERY TIME I open the file is take a snapshot. It takes seconds, and I have peace of mind knowing that there is a limit to how bad I can screw things up if I’m having a bad/off day.

 

3) Use the scratch pad. This is a feature that I rarely spend time telling others about because I don’t think all that many people would understand the idea behind it. The scratch pad is tucked away in Scrivener’s “window” menu (I think it is also possible to assign a keyboard shortcut that will open it). When you select it, a little text entry window appears. In this window you can do some free writing, record a stray thought that may have entered your mind, or sketch an idea you have about reorganizing a chapter, etc. You could use it to write out a grocery list if you want.

What the scratch pad does is give you a blank document quickly, before you have to waste a whole lot of time deciding where to type whatever might be on your mind. It’s akin in many ways to keeping an index card and a pen with you at all times, just in case something pops into your mind and you don’t want to forget it.

What makes the scratch pad different from all other text entry windows (as I understand things) is that the text you enter in it isn’t really linked to any project in particular. If you have a Scrivener file set up for your dissertation, another for your blog, and another for, say, teaching resources, all of these would share a scratch pad. So, if you are in your dissertation and open the scratch pad to make a few notes, those notes will be there when you open up the scratch pad while you are working on your blog. I use this feature when I am in the middle of writing for one project but have a thought related to another; the scratch pad lets me record that thought quickly without worrying about getting too sidetracked or forgetting where I put the note to myself.

At the end of the day, being a successful writer, i.e., completing what you set out to write without losing your mind, is as much about having the determination to sit in one place for long periods of time as it is about anything else. But coupling this determination with the right tools can make your task a little more pleasant.

If you found this post helpful and are considering purchasing Scrivener, please consider doing so through the following link!

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Obligatory “Most Popular Posts of 2013” Post

Another year in the bank (almost). And that means that it’s time again to look back and see why people continue to wander to this blog that (let’s be honest) has seen better years. So without delay, I give you some of the most posts of 2013, none of which were written in 2013.

  1. Using Scrivener with Bibliographic Software — This is the single most read post on this blog, receiving more hits per day than every other post in this list combined. “Scrivener“, for the uninitiated, is one of the greatest pieces of word processing software in existence. Without it, I would still be stuck in the drafting stages of my dissertation. If writing is a part of your livelihood, you need to take a look at Scrivener. This post was intended for academic authors (like me) who use Scrivener in conjunction with bibliographic software. The title is somewhat deceptive, I suppose, as the only bibliographic software I talk about in the post is Bookends, another “must-have” for (mac-using) academic authors. I hope that the amount of traffic to this post means that people have found it useful!
  2. Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness — In second place we have an entirely non-original post from almost three years ago. So far as I can tell, the reason this post is so popular is that 1) the image I have posted is one of the higher quality ones out there and 2) a few people “pinned” this post, causing it to shoot up the ranks in Google image search. Click on the link above if you have no idea who Ron Swanson is or why you should care about his pyramid of greatness.
  3. The Shadow of the Galilean (Review) — This post receives pretty insignificant traffic for most of the year, but it peaks toward the middle and end of the fall and spring semesters (when papers are due). I think I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before. My guess is that I am not the only one who assigns it for reading in a college-level New Testament class.
  4. Why Writing a Dissertation is Harder than Having a Baby — Like post #2 (above), the content of this entry is also largely not my own work. I posted this in the fall of 2010, just over a year after entering the doctoral program at Marquette. Since that time, I have written a dissertation and watched my wife give birth. I continue to find the post amusing, but I now question the accuracy of its central claim.
  5. How to Write a Paper Proposal — This is the oldest post on this list, written in the summer of 2010. As the title implies, it’s about how to write a paper proposal. I’m not entirely sure that I was qualified in 2010 to write a post like this. Truth be told, I still have some doubts. I leave it up because about once per month I receive a kind e-mail from a stranger telling me that they’ve had a paper accepted at a professional conference and that they used this post as a guide. To me, the central points in it are 1) be bold, 2) be clear, and 3) be concise. Come to think of it, those are pretty good pieces of advice for graduate students in general.
  6. Dissertations, Fonts, and Wasting Time — And finally, a post about one of the greatest time-wasters that continues to taunt ranks of graduate students like myself: choosing a font. This post was written almost exactly two weeks before I began writing my dissertation (I know that because I wrote it on the day before my daughter was born). It originated as a sort of “aha moment”/confessional. You see, I love fonts, and at several points during my graduate career I became convinced that most people cared as much about fonts as I do. Hence, I spent an inordinate amount of time agonizing over which typeface to use for which paper. Does Garamond seem to flashy? Does Gentium Greek go well with Palatino Roman? Ugh. I remain convinced by the wisdom offered at the end of the post: nobody cares. The ironic thing is that people who find this post typically do so with search strings like “what is the best font for a dissertation” or “most impressive dissertation font.” As long as it looks nice (i.e., isn’t too big and has serifs), it just doesn’t matter. You will note that when I spoke of my love for fonts earlier I did so in the present tense (“I love fonts”). You see, I continue to live with my addiction. I still love fonts and I will, on occasion, allow myself to indulge. But then I snap back to the mantra that I used to overcome my tormenter: “Do your work. Don’t be stupid.”

Thanks as always for reading, and best wishes to you and yours in this new year.

Word Goals (What Are They Good For?)

…absolutely nothing? Yes and no.

In a previous post I mentioned that I’m a huge fan of Scrivener, a piece of software that was originally designed for novelists and playwrights. I have used it exclusively over the past 1.5 years of dissertation writing, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could not have written as much as I have without it.

There are many reasons to use software like Scrivener for longer writing projects. One of these is that it allows you to set a word goal and due date for your project. After you have done so, it tells you how many words you must type each day in order to reach your target on or by your deadline. If you write less one day, the daily word goal increases slightly. If you write more, it decreases. As you come closer to your goal, the status bar changes from red to orange and, finally, to a lovely shade of green. This is what popped up as I was writing yesterday:

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM

It was accompanied by a simple message: “Your project target has been reached.” I paused, overcome with joy. After 1.5 years or so, I had finally reached my goal of 65,000 words (which does not include footnotes — I’m actually closer to 90,000 if you include those). My (almost) daily diligence had paid off, and I had finally arrived. I had written a dissertation.

Then reality hit. Had I actually written a dissertation? Not really. I had written something that was as long as a dissertation, but my dissertation wasn’t finished…not by a long shot.

As I watched the status bar turn greener and greener over the past few months, I convinced myself that it was actually telling me something about my progress. That is, I came to believe that the bar would finally reach its telos as I typed the final sentence of my conclusion, and that when it did, I would be done. But this isn’t what happened. I actually hit my project target while I was in the middle of touching up a fairly insignificant paragraph in chapter 3, and I haven’t even started writing my conclusion yet. And I still have to write a section of chapter 1, not to mention go back through and edit the sucker. There is much left to be done.

But I have not lost total faith in Scrivener’s project target feature. I have simply come to think about it differently.

It is extremely helpful for those of us who have difficulty thinking in terms of page counts, and who prefer to break up larger projects into more manageable chunks. By allowing you to stipulate a word goal and deadline for your project, the target feature encourages you to see your project as something that you are going to work toward gradually.

Too often, graduate students set bad goals for themselves: “Today, I need to write 20 pages,” or “Today, I need to write.” The former is unreasonable (for most of us) and the latter is amorphous (are you just going to write until you pass out?). It’s really not all that surprising that so many of us experience writer’s block and/or burnout.

With Scrivener’s project target feature, what you get is a daily goal that (assuming you have set a reasonable deadline for yourself) is manageable and typically on the short side. Over the past 1.5 years, my daily  goal has fluctuated between 200 and 500 words, depending on the deadline I had set (this changed at several points in the process). That’s about 1-2 pages a day. Couple that with writing 3-4 days per week (every week) and you’ve easily got 300 pages in a year.

In sum, the project target is deceiving if you think of it in terms of “this many more words until I’m finished.” If you simply stop writing as soon as you hit your target, you are likely going to end up with some lacunae (maybe this is why the Gospel of Mark ends so abruptly?). But it is invaluable as a time management tool, a rough guide that will help you see how much you need to accomplish each day in order to stay more or less on track.

Now, back to work.

 

Running, Writing, Pacing and Consistency

*caution: this post contains running analogies.

I am not a “serious” runner by any means. More serious than some, I suppose, but not over-the-top crazy. 10-15 miles a week is typically my goal, give or take. When I accomplish this goal, I find that the next week it is a bit easier to accomplish the same goal. When I don’t, the next week takes a little more effort. As any good coach (or beloved wife, in my case) will tell you, running is not something that most people are just “good” at on their first try. It is a sport that takes a while to work up to…the first few weeks are painful, but if you want to be a runner (or lose weight, get in shape, etc.) you just have to work through them.

When I first began running I started with a run/walk program…run for X minutes, walk for X minutes. I did this on a two-mile loop for months. My goal was to be able to run the entire loop without taking any breaks. It took a while (I was pretty out of shape). After that, my goal was to run a 5K. After that, a half marathon. You get the point. Now, I typically run about a 5K distance or more each morning. And I typically don’t feel like I’m going to die when I finish. It’s become easy because my body is used to it…I did it often enough and for long enough that it’s now not that big of a deal.

When winter comes to Milwaukee, running is more difficult, either because there’s too much ice or because I simply don’t want to go outside and be cold. During the winter it is not uncommon for me to not run for several days, even a week at a time (or two, if I’m being honest). When this happens, runs hurt a bit more than normal: as my body becomes less accustomed to the task, it takes a little while to build back up to it.

But how does this relate to writing?

Well, I have recently returned to dissertation-writing after about two weeks of research, editing, and other related activities. In doing so, I am reminded of advice that I have come to cherish as empirical fact:

Writing gets easier when you do it often; it gets harder when you don’t.

My dissertation director tells incoming doctoral students to “write a page a day.” Doesn’t matter what it’s about…just write something: pick a newspaper article to comment on; complain about the weather; keep a journal; write a blog; or (obviously) work on your dissertation. It is advice that I have attempted to follow over the past year, and I think that it has paid off. Writing becomes easier (not easy, mind you) when it is part of a daily routine. What I discovered today after my two-week hiatus is that it’s going to take some effort to get going again.

Why I “Loeb” the Salzmann Library

Lately I’m a bit obsessed with the Loeb Classical Library. There, I said it. For the “uninitiated,” the LCL is a collection of texts spanning about 1,000 years (from Homer to Bede). Each volume contains a citable Greek or Latin text with an accompanying English translation. For students of ancient history, it is an indispensable resource. As each of the exegetical chapters of my dissertation necessitates some engagement with classical Greek and Roman authors, I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year pouring through the Loebs.

I’m fairly certain that the Raynor Library at Marquette has most if not all of the volumes of the LCL. The only problem is that their collection is that it is spread over 5 floors of other books: the Iliad and Odyssey are with works pertaining to Homer; Herodotus’ Histories is located with other comparable ancient works; and (for reasons I have yet to understand) Strabo’s Geography exists alongside books related to travel in modern Greece. Because they are classified according to the Library of Congress rubric, the distribution of the Loebs in Raynor makes sense. But for those of us who need access to various different volumes of the collection at once, a great number of stairs and hunting through stacks awaits.

Enter the Salzmann Library at St. Francis de Sales Seminary. Located about 10 minutes south of Milwaukee, Salzmann is a quaint place, just far enough off the beaten path that it doesn’t attract droves of patrons (at least not that I’ve seen in my limited time there). It has a friendly and helpful staff, a respectable reference collection, some journals, and a fantastic reading/study space (with large windows, which is a nice change of pace from my dark cell at Marquette).

But the main reason that the Salzmann library is awesome (at least from my current perspective) is summed up in the following picture:

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That’s right: the Loeb Classical Library, organized according to author, all in one place. Beautiful, no? Now, instead of trekking throughout the Raynor library in search of the volume(s) that I need, all I have to do is saunter over to this shelf, take a volume, and go back to my workspace. The other day I was able to consult 10-15 different volumes, and I didn’t even have to look them up in the catalogue! As I am nearing the point where I will need to go back through all my citations to make sure I’ve gotten the translations and references right, this resource alone is going to save me days if not weeks worth of time.

Thank you, Salzmann!