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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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.

Why I use Scrivener

I will admit, the first time someone explained Scrivener to me, I was skeptical. I had used Microsoft Word for years, and it had suited me just fine. I had turned in one paper past its deadline, so I didn’t need any sort of writing software to make writing easier. Writing was already easy, wasn’t it? I was wrong, and I only found out how wrong I was after I started using Scrivener.

When I first started to write my dissertation, I downloaded Scrivener. To be completely transparent, I downloaded it so that I could stall for a bit and not have to start writing for another couple of days. It was then that I realized I would never look at writing the same way again.

So, Why do I use Scrivener?

1) Scrivener enables and encourages non-linear writing. Some have the ability to sit down in front of a keyboard and write 20 pages of an argument from start to finish…no skipping around, just writing straight through. I envy them, but I am not one of them. One of the best things about Scrivener is that it enables you to outline your work in such a way that you can see your entire project all the time and skip around as you see fit. Here is a screenshot so you know what I’m talking about:

At the center of the screen is your document. To the right are the comments and footnotes. To the left is the “binder” where all the parts of your project are housed. Each point of the outline is effectively a separate document, and you can easily switch from one to the other. I love this feature because, when I was first ready to start writing, I really wanted to just get some words on the page. The nature of my project was such that I had lots of introductory stuff to say, but not a lot else (that’s what reading is for). So, I just skipped around and filled in as much introductory matter that I could muster, and before I knew it I was at 10,000 words. This leads me to my next point.

2) Scrivener lets you set goals for yourself. One of the hardest parts about writing a dissertation (so I’ve heard) is that you are your own boss for the first time in a long time. Essentially, unless you have an advisor who is super motivated to keep you on a schedule, you are accountable to no one but yourself. Not surprisingly, it is easy to lose weeks, months, and even years in the blink of an eye. Scrivener has an absolutely brilliant feature that enables you to set goals for yourself, and it will even tell you how much you have to write to meet your goals on time. Could you do this with Microsoft Word? Sure, but you’ll need a calculator and a heck of a lot of patience. Below are some screenshots to illustrate what I’m talking about.

This first image is the Project Targets box – as you can see, I set myself a goal of Feb. 15, 2013. I have chosen Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as my “writing days,” and I have opted to have Scrivener automatically calculate my daily goals from the deadline.

This second image is what I see when I want to know what type of progress I’m making. As you can see, today has been a great day for writing (at least for me). The beauty of this is that if I go over my goal for the day, Scrivener will automatically recalculate my goal the next day (or when I click reset). This is some nice motivation to write just a bit more each day than I have to. Stick with your writing goals and you finish your project. Simple.

3) Scrivener facilitates distraction-free writing. This last point is a bit absurd for a couple of reasons. If you are prone to distractions like I am, then no writing on a computer will ever be truly “distraction-free.” There will always be a blog post to read or write or an e-mail to send or Facebook to check…you get the idea. When I say that Scrivener facilitates distraction-free writing, what I mean is that Scrivener allows you to write in such a way that you simply can’t worry about some things. Scrivener is designed for text input, not text formatting. So, if you find yourself writing along thinking to yourself, “I think I want to change the way my headers look” or “Hey, that line shouldn’t be on that page…I need to change the spacing of this or that paragraph,” you are distracted by formatting issues and are likely not writing as much as you should. Scrivener doesn’t make it difficult to format your final manuscript…it makes it impossible. This is a good thing. With Scrivener you can focus on getting words on the page, and you can rest assured that eventually you will have the opportunity to make sure it all looks pretty on the page.

With this last benefit comes an annoyance – if you are working on a document for which formatting matters, then Scrivener cannot be your only word processor. You will need Microsoft Word or one of the numerous word processors out there (many of which are free, FYI, like Open Office or whatnot) in which to execute the final formatting of your document. Not a huge deal, but worth mentioning.

One more screen shot that illustrates one of the distraction-free writing features of Scrivener: compose mode – truly an awesome feature that allows you to eliminate everything on your screen except your main document.

So there you have it – three reasons why I love and use Scrivener. There are many more reasons to love the software, as I continue to find new gems almost daily. If you’re curious about trying it for yourself, head over to their website and download their extremely generous trial version. I use the Mac version, but I see that they have it for Windows as well…I cannot comment on the functionality of the Windows version, however. Enjoy!