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.

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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:


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!

On Rabbit Holes and Writing Styles

There are two ways of writing a dissertation, broadly speaking. The first is to do all of the research that you will need to do before you even think about putting pen to paper: outline your argument, cover your bases, and then begin. The second is to start writing before you have completed your research: get a sense of where you’re going, be ready to change your mind, and write what you can when you can. Each approach has significant benefits and drawbacks.

With the first, the benefit is that you have charted a more or less clear path through the argument you’re going to be making. You know where you’re headed, who has been there before, and the path you’re going to take to get there. At least in theory, this approach makes the writing itself easier. The drawback to this approach is that it allows you to postpone the writing process indefinitely in favor of more research and reconceptualizing (a fancy term for procrastination). That is, if you’ve decided to do all the research before you begin writing, it is difficult to tell when enough is enough.

With the second approach, you discover much about where you’re headed while you’re on your way. You know where you want to go, and you have a vague idea of what the path you’re going to take looks like (or at least what you want it to look like). But because you are granting that you will uncover many things in the course of your writing, the second approach requires a degree of flexibility. And therein lies the drawback: you have to be willing to change your mind or alter your course after you’ve already begun.

Regardless of which approach you choose (I myself prefer the second), you will at some point encounter the phenomenon that some refer to as the “rabbit hole.” The rabbit hole is comparable to discovering a loose thread on a sweater. You see the thread and you pull it. Sometimes it will be an inch long, and you can remove it without difficulty and forget about it. Other times, it is much longer, and continuing to pull at it will undoubtedly destroy a portion of your sweater (if not the entire garment).

The same is true for rabbit holes. When you see such a hole, you have no idea how long the tunnel behind it is or where it leads. The only way of determining the nature of a rabbit hole is to dive in and take a look. You may discover that it leads nowhere, that it is little more than a shallow crevice. Or, you might find yourself in a veritable maze of new, unexplored territory. The question, of course, is whether to include what you find in your dissertation, to save it for another venue (an article, presentation, etc.), or to simply ignore it (not a smart choice).

Rabbit holes can be frustrating for a number of reasons. If the material you discover is relevant to your topic, then you have to make time (and space) to incorporate it. If it contradicts something you’ve already said (or planned on saying) then you may have to defend or alter your position. If it is truly interesting but simultaneously irrelevant to what you’re trying to say, you might have to find another outlet for it. To be sure, resisting the temptation to “say it all” is a challenge that all dissertating students share.

But rabbit holes can also be invigorating. If you are researching a topic in order to confirm a hunch (or a “thesis,” if we are being fancy), then you may uncover material that confirms your hunch in a way that you didn’t expect.  That is, you might uncover a path to your desired location that is different from and perhaps better than that which you intended. If this is the case, the challenge becomes determining what to do with the path you’ve already charted. Does it continue to exist as an alternate, albeit less-desirable route (i.e., in footnotes), or does it simply fall by the wayside? The latter of these two options is painful, to say the least, as it involves essentially trashing what may amount to weeks (or months!) of research. Yet even paths that end up being “less good” are valuable in the grand scheme of things, as we learn much from the roads we travel, regardless of whether they end up being the most efficient.

When is Enough, Enough?

This is the season for the Marquette library to send out the obligatory “please return or renew your loans” e-mail. Generally, I’m content to just login, select all my books, and hit renew, but lately I’ve been feeling as if my life is being consumed by library books. They are everywhere — piled up in front of my computer monitor, holding my study door open, occupying my shelves and the floor of my research carrel in the library. Driven mostly by a sense of morbid curiosity, today I logged in to my library account at Marquette to see how many books I had checked out. The answer:

Screen Shot 2012-12-06 at 1.00.51 PM





Now, this is neither terribly shocking or offensive, given that I am currently in the midst of writing a dissertation. Others, I’m sure, are far worse off. Even so, having this many books checked out at once makes me somewhat nervous. For starters, the more you have checked out, the easier it is to misplace something and incur a fine, and I am not a fan of paying fines. Perhaps more significantly, I find that having this many books checked out at once leads to a sort of “fog” in the process of research: as I sit in my study or carrell surrounded by piles of books, many of which I can’t even remember checking out, I cannot help but think I’m missing something. To try and clear this fog, I will on occasion play what has become (for me, anyway) a sort of game.

The first step is to go through my shelves and try to determine why I have what I have, whether I actually need what I have, and whether I need to keep it on hand for reference. Many of the books I have currently checked out (probably 20 or so) are reference materials that I consult on a fairly regular basis. I need these, and I know that I need them. They stay. This leaves roughly 80 that are unaccounted for. Included in this latter group are books that were consulted for chapters that are already done, books that may have looked relevant for subsequent chapters, and books that at one point looked interesting, for whatever reason.

The second step is to go through this larger pile, one book at a time, and weed. Several books reveal themselves instantly as irrelevant for my current research. This morning, for example, I discovered on my shelves a copy of D. C. Parker’s Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (riveting, I know). I checked this book out last year, after I saw it at SBL. I read the first couple of chapters, and then got busy with other things (a baby, to name just one). Because it is entirely unrelated to my current research, I made a note of it in my “books to read” file, and I put it in the pile of materials to be returned to the library. It will be there when I have more time. Others are books that I have already accounted for in the dissertation but have yet to actually return to the library. They go back too. The rest, admittedly, are not so easy.

These, I put into a “skim” pile to be evaluated. The process of skimming a book, as I understand it, should take no more than 10 minutes. It involves, basically, reading a book through the table of contents/index in order to determine whether there is anything of immediate value to your project. I skimmed two books before I left the house this afternoon: Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans’ James the Just and Christian Origins, and John Painter’s Just James: The Brother and Jesus in History and Tradition. As my dissertation is on the Proto-Gospel of James, I’m sure both made sense when I checked them out. In the process of skimming, however, I found that Chilton-Evans was hardly relevant for my purposes. A fantastic book, to be sure, but uninterested in matters pertaining to James in Christian Apocryphal Literature. Painter, on the other hand, was peppered with valuable little snippets and insights that, at the very least, would make for some interesting footnotes. Having discovered this, I opened up the dissertation file and went through the various sections in which Painter’s work contributed to my own. I netted about 100 words in the body, as well as about 8 footnotes. Not bad, and now Painter can go back to the library. He will be there waiting for me if I need him.

30 or so books made it into my skim pile this morning, and I intend to peruse each of them over the weekend. Some, I’m sure, will end up in the “reference” pile, and will stay on my shelves until the dissertation is finished. Others I will be able to simply return to the library, having discovered that they weren’t what I thought or hoped them to be. Others still, like Painter, will yield some valuable insights that can be accounted for quickly, at which point they can be returned. The hope is that, come Monday, I’ll be able to log in to my library account and see a number closer to 60. That will, in turn, give me an excuse to check out more books from the library, and in another two weeks I will have to repeat the process. Such is life.

If you’re reading this, I’m curious to know A) if you take note of or care how many books you have checked out from your library, B) if you have a record that you’re particularly proud of, and C) if you have a process for weeding unneeded resources.

Qualifying Exams as Boot Camp

Preparing to take one’s doctoral qualifying exams is a unique experience for the graduate student. I’m not sure what these exams are like for students in the sciences, but for the humanities, the amount of reading involved is grueling. In the theology department at Marquette, the examinee compiles five separate bibliographies with five separate professors. The bibliographies typically range in length from 1-3 (single-spaced) pages, including a nice mixture of articles and books. I once heard from a fellow student in the department that each bibliography was supposed to include roughly 1,500-2,000 pages of text. I never bothered to count the pages in my bibliographies, but this estimate seems accurate.

Opinions are varied with respect to the ultimate goal of qualifying exams. Some will say that they afford you the opportunity to synthesize material from your coursework, while others will say that they allow you to demonstrate your mastery of the field. Some will say that they provide one final chance for your professors to put you through the ringer (before the dissertation defense, of course). I would argue that they do all of these things.

Preparing for qualifying exams has an additional function which can only be seen in hindsight: the process trains you to write a dissertation.

Graduate-level coursework teaches you (or at least should teach you) how to compile sources. After you have chosen a topic for your term paper or research project, you journey to the library and begin sifting through the sources with which you need to be in dialogue. When you begin reading these sources, you ultimately encounter more sources that you add to your list. This skill is of course invaluable when constructing bibliographies for the qualifying exams. Yet, the knowledge of how to put together a bibliography does not necessarily translate into the knowledge of how to read a bibliography. When I first began studying for exams, I was confident that I knew how to read. After a few weeks, I realized that I was mistaken. I knew how to make sense of words on a page (obviously), but I had yet to master the type of reading required for writing a dissertation (or taking qualifying exams). That is, I had yet to learn that it is impossible to read every word of every book or article that you’re going to reference. The key is learning how to make your way through a text efficiently, gleaning the relevant points and leaving aside the “fluff.” There are certainly some texts that require closer reading than others. Many, however, demand little more than a cursory overview (on this point, see Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book). Because you are subject to a deadline while preparing for your exams (assuming you set a deadline for yourself), this type of reading emerges from the sheer force of necessity.

Preparing for qualifying exams also teaches one how to take and organize notes. Graduate coursework introduces one to this rudimentary skill, but the qualifying exams sharpen it. When you are dealing with roughly 10,000 pages of text, you have no choice but to get and stay organized. Sink or swim, I suppose. Only when I began studying for my exams did I realize how awful and disorganized my note taking and organizational skills were. The problem was that I began each semester of coursework with a different “strategy” for staying organized. I tried three ring binders, legal pads, word files, etc. Nothing really seemed to work. In the process of studying for exams, I realized that I needed to pick a method and stick with it. I gradually moved toward a system that worked for what I was doing. I made a folder for each of my “topics,” and everything related to those topics went into it’s proper folder: articles, notes, observations, question drafts and the like. I still use the system for organizing my dissertation chapters: each chapter gets a folder.

Preparing for qualifying exams also helps you learn how to get words on a page. This last point I suppose varies with the student. When I was studying for exams, I spent at least an hour a day practicing writing. I knew that in the end I was going to have to sit, by myself, in front of a computer for two full (six-hour) days, without notes, and produce something intelligible and (mildly) intelligent. My daily writing practice involved choosing a random topic on which to ruminate by writing. The topic didn’t really matter. Sometimes it was as broad as, “Give an overview of the current status of biblical studies as it relates to Christian ethics.” Other times it was as specific as, “Compare and contrast the viewpoints of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann on Christology.” (Ok, so I never wrote on the latter topic, but you get the point.) The goal was not to produce polished prose, but rather to begin synthesizing the material I had read and what I already knew from previous work. It was somewhat akin to “free writing.” The result was often less than stellar (I feel confident that no one will ever take interest in my practice writing sessions). All the same, at the end of an hour-long practice writing session, I often had 5-7 pages of text that I could reread, learn from, and often expand. Sometimes, you may even stumble upon an insight not previously seen.

I began work on the dissertation not long after I passed my exams, and I was shocked to see how much my work flow had changed. I never thought of my studying as some sort of habit-building activity, but this is precisely what it turned out to be. If you are entering the qualifying exam portion of your graduate career, you are embarking on a journey about which you will have mixed feelings. Part of the journey is obviously learning the material you have been assigned. An equally important part, however, is learning how to perform efficiently the craft of scholarship. You don’t have to love the journey, but you would be crazy not to learn from it!

Using Scrivener with Bibliographic Software

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I have seen in more than a couple of posts about Scrivener a recurring question – Does Scrivener work with bibliographic software? The answer, in short, is “Yes.”

For those who are currently writing a dissertation without the aid of a bibliography/citation management software, I strongly advise that you look into getting one. I cannot begin to emphasize the joys that such software will bring to your life.

I use Scrivener and Bookends together with little to no problem. Here’s how I do it.

Footnotes in Scrivener are displayed in an unconventional manner. They are off to the right of the screen and are unnumbered. When you “compile” your final product (in .rtf or .doc format), they look like regular footnotes. The layout takes some getting used to, but within a couple of days, you don’t really notice it.

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You’ll note in the following image that many aspects of my footnotes look like gibberish (i.e., {Foster, 2007, #992@577}). This is the format in which Bookends enters and recognizes various citations.

The first step toward integrating Scrivener and Bookends is to select Scrivener as your default word processor in the Bookends preferences menu:

When you’re typing along in Scrivener and you need to compose a footnote via Bookends, simply click the “add footnote button” in Scrivener. Then, go to your bookends window, select the source (or sources) you wish to cite, and click the “copy citation” option at the top of the window:

If Scrivener and Bookends are linked, then after you click the “copy citation” button, you will be whisked away to Scrivener where you will see your citations represented in curly brackets. The numbers after the “@” symbol represent the page numbers you wish to reference. Everything between the curly brackets is replaced after you compile your document and perform a “scan” with Word (or whatever word processor you choose for final formatting):

After you have completed your document in Scrivener, you will compile it and proceed to the final formatting steps. When you open the compiled document in Word (or whatever), your footnotes will still look ugly:

To fix this, you need to “scan” the document. The option to do so is located in the “script” menu of Word which, after you install Bookends, will display the option, “scan document.” Perform the scan, and your citations will be properly formatted:

Well, almost. You’ll note that there are a few instances in these particular footnotes where the author needs to be removed, parentheses changed to square brackets, a stray period here and there, etc. This is part of the final formatting process.

Bookends is the only bibliographic software I’ve used with Scrivener. The integration is not perfect, but I am convinced that even with all the final formatting issues that exist after the scan, the program saves a great deal of time.

I cannot speak to the functionality of EndNote (which I despise) within Scrivener. Sorry.

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Taking a Fresh Listen

The process of editing a dissertation chapter can be complicated and mind-numbing for so many reasons. Something that happens in the course of writing and revising is that you become callused and numb to errors that you would otherwise catch: strange word choices that “seemed like a good idea at the time,” missing words, etc. For those of us who like to write with spelling/grammar checker turned off, add to this list simple spelling mistakes.

Over the past two days I have been working my way through a 75-page chapter. As I found my eyes glossing over the words and pages that had become so familiar, I decided it was time for a new approach to editing. Enter Scrivener and the “speak” function.

If you select a block of text in Scrivener and then right-click on this text, one of the options that appears is “Start speaking.” If you select this option, you will begin to hear a computerized voice read your prose to you at a nice, easy pace. Yes, the voice sounds like a computer, and yes it is just a bit annoying at first. After a few minutes, you will get used to it.

As Scrivener read my document to me, I was able to catch not only egregious spelling errors, but places where I had duplicated and omitted words. What’s more, I was able to “hear” when a sentence just didn’t sound right, or when I had reused a similar word or phrase in too close of proximity.

The “speak” function is certainly not unique to Scrivener. I believe the most recent version of Adobe Acrobat Pro will read a .pdf to you, as long as it has readable text. Amar Sagoo’s Tofu has a similar function built in. If you write in Scrivener, however, the choice is obvious.

Go ahead, take a listen. You might be surprised!

Pacing vs. Sprinting

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons I love Scrivener is that it assists you in formulating writing goals. You input your target word count, due date, and how many days per week you want to write, and the software takes care of the rest. My project targets window currently looks like this (I’ve yet to write anything today obviously):

One of the entertaining things about this feature is that it will automatically recalculate your daily word goal if you write too little one day or too much the next day. Last Friday, I had a tremendously productive writing day – I surpassed my word goal by three times. I giggled with delight as I opened the window the next day and saw that my feat of strength had shaved off 8 words per day off my daily word goal.

Nice, right?

In a way, it is nice, but I’ve begun to realize lately that (for me) the benefits of a steady pace far outweigh those of occasional sprints. The occasional sprint is of course a nice way to make you feel as if you’re really plowing through your material. It makes you think that you are getting somewhere. However, the occasional sprint can also leave you fatigued and without much steam for your next writing session.

I imagine that most people do not sit down to write their dissertations having already done all the research. True, you know a general direction for your project, and you might have already collected the requisite pieces, but you are likely going to assemble them along the way. You read, you take notes, you outline, and then you write. Failure to strike a balance between these four things can I think lead to a certain level of despair. On the one hand, if all you do is read and take notes, then you will feel as if your research is not really taking you anywhere. Yet, without reading, you can only outline and write so much. On the other hand, if you write too much without making sure your research and outlining are keeping up, then you reach the dreaded writer’s block.

The feeling of not having anything to say is indeed a nasty feeling, especially when you’re talking about your dissertation. Balancing your research and writing in such a way that you always have something to write on is a skill we would all do well to learn, and maintaining a steady pace in your writing is I think the first step.

Dissertations and Roller Coasters

I once knew a roller coaster “fanatic,” and in retrospect I imagine his fanaticism would make him a candidate for placement somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He sought out roller coasters like some sort of addict…most weekends you could find him at Six Flags or, if he was out of town, at the theme park closest to him. I once asked the fanatic what he liked best about roller coasters. He answered, “I don’t know…I just like them.” I then asked him what he liked least about roller coasters, and he said, simply, “Lines.” He then went on to inform me of the best days to go “riding.” Mother’s Day, without a doubt, is the best…no lines.

Marquette is in the middle of spring break right now. As a consequence, the library is like a graveyard, as the undergrads have all departed (dorms are closed, apparently). This is the first spring break that I don’t really have anything pressing down…no assignments due in the next month, no in-class presentations, no lectures, etc. The only thing I have to do is research and write my dissertation. Some may ask, “Shouldn’t you take a break?” Maybe, but I have come to realize that writing a dissertation is much like riding a roller coaster. Allow me to explain my analogy.

Graduate School :: Six Flags as Dissertation Writing :: Roller Coasters

Six Flags, like graduate school, is filled with people of different stripes. Some have come to ride the roller coasters, and some have come because they want to be with their friends. Some have come because they feel forced to do so (for whatever reason). Those who have come to ride the roller coasters genuinely love to do so. They will keep riding until the park closes. Those who have come to be with their friends are indifferent to roller coasters. They will ride them, but without loving or hating them. Those who have come because they feel forced will hate every minute. They don’t care much for roller coasters, and will spend much of their time simply watching others have fun.

Roller coasters, then, are the things that you do in graduate school. In my analogy, I have used dissertation writing as an example, but that’s only because that’s where I’m at. Like the roller coaster fanatic mentioned earlier, those who truly love the work of a graduate student will take every opportunity to “ride.” Especially wonderful are those times where the park is otherwise empty, as when the park is empty yet open, you get to ride more than you normally would! I suppose spring break in this analogy would be akin to Mother’s Day…Six Flags (the library) is open, yet no one is there. Gone are the lines (papers to grade, office hours to hold, classes to attend, etc.)For the roller coaster fanatic, spring break is the time to ride!

There is, of course, a caveat to this analogy. Those who love to ride roller coasters must control themselves, as everyone knows that if you ride too much, you will throw up. The case is similar with dissertation writing.