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Scrivener for Dissertation Chunk Drafting

A favorite procrastination technique of dissertation writers is to waste time searching for that perfect tool for writing the dissertation in a more efficient manner. I indulged in this sinful habit a bit two nights ago and revisited the software “Scrivener” for OS X. I’m impressed and encourage my fellow PhD students to give it a closer look as a possible environment in which to compose and collect chunks of writing for ‘da diss.’

When I last looked at the software, I didn’t think it had anything striking to offer and seemed like a kind of bizarre combination of clip collection software like Yojimbo1 and the writer’s software Copywrite.2 However, after being prodded to give the software another look by a friend, I now believe there are some features in Scrivener that are worth considering by students or scholars writing longer research papers or one’s dissertation.

Obviously, a simple word processor and citation management software may be best for most dissertation or other academic projects. It may be justly argued that I have hopelessly over-organized my life in the digital medium, with hundreds of note files in OmniOutliner, all my tasks and snippets of ideas stored in OmniFocus, mind maps for my writing ideas in NovaMind, serial numbers, short reference files, and screenshots of webpages stored in Yojimbo, a diary written in MacJournal, thousands of pictures, PDFs, and documents tagged and organized with Leap, various personal data tracked in a Bento database, and flashcards for the various languages I have studied daily reviewed in Anki. And so on. My name is Konrad, and I am an organizational software addict. The irony of this is only truly appreciated by friends of mine who know how disorganized I am.

So why is an application like Scrivener useful for dissertation or research paper writing? Read on for more detail, but if you want the quick and dirty tips on what to look for download the trial and especially consider the following: 1) the corkboard for organizing writing chunks, 2) the “edit scrivenings” for immediately reassembling several writing chunks 3) the multi-level hierarchical writing chunk organization with the possibility for separate synopsis, notes, and tags 4) the “snapshot” feature for document versioning. 5) links for creating internal links between documents or documents and note snippets (not a full personal wiki like the excellent VoodooPad but close) 6) a “Research” dumping ground for various file formats that can serve as a kind of mini-Yojimbo/Evernote 7) A status and label feature for writing chunks. 8) Possibility of two pane viewing for simultaneously editing two chunks or combining a writing chunk with the corkboard view.

It is actually hard to appreciate Scrivener because it is an unusual hybrid. Users of the other applications mentioned above will note many features it has in common with other programs out there.

Most importantly, at its most simple Scrivener is a kind of basic word processor with a beautiful full screen mode that allows you to write without distraction. The full screen mode is highly customizable and a delight to work in.

At the next level, being explicitly designed for writers of larger structured works, it provides an environment in which you may divide and hierarchically organize chunks of writing as one might in outlining software. The “binder” on the left of the screen divides everything into a “Draft” and “Research.” The former contains only text chunks which, at the conclusion of the drafting process may be “compiled” and exported to a word processor. The latter is a place where one may drop snippets and various files such as images and PDFs for you to refer to as you write.

The Binder and Documents – One nice aspect of the files in the binder is that they may be multiple levels deep, like any good outlining software. One’s “draft” may be made up of folders (chapters, for example) which have sections that themselves have sections with sections.

Each section can be viewed as its own document alone or sharing the screen horizontally or vertically with another panel in which you may display another document or, as we shall see an outline or corkboard. These individual documents have a nice word count at the bottom and, via a small target icon, the easy ability to establish a word count target for each section. Also, these individual documents may have their own title, a “synopsis,” as well as “Document Notes,” reference links to other documents, tags (keywords), colored labels, and a customizable status (draft, complete, etc.)

The Outline and the Corkboard – In addition to viewing any document in the binder directly in one of the viewing panes, as one might in a program like Yojimbo, there are two other views. The Outline view displays a list of documents along with their synopsis, labels, and status. I have yet to find this very useful given the appearance of the resulting outline. The corkboard, on the other hand, is one of Scrivener’s best features. Once it has been stripped away, via the preferences, of its silly looking pins, blue lines, and corkboard background appearance (this cheesy look was one of the things that turned me immediately off from Scrivener the first time I downloaded it, but it can be easily removed), this view allows you to view a collection of writing chunks (their title and synopsis) as cards across the screen. Somehow, I find this view much more useful than an outline view. I can order and reorder these large notecards, with their synopsis displayed in one pane, while I read or edit the content of the chunk in question in a second pane below it. The visual juxtaposition of them feels closer to a mind map view and thus stimulates the thinking process in fresh ways (one could always dream of an ultimate application that could seamlessly combine the powers of NovaMind, OmniOutliner, OmniFocus, Zotero/Sente and a writing application like Scrivener or at least allowed a smooth drag and drop relations between elements of these various apps but we ask too much).

Edit Scrivenings – This is a brilliant feature that allows you to experiment putting different chunks together or edit them together as a whole. When you have written several separate chunks of text that are displayed by their title in the “draft” section of your “binder” to the left, you may select several chunks from the list arbitrarily or consecutively, and press the “Edit scrivenings.” This temporarily combines the texts in a pane for you to see them together and allows you to edit them each directly (they are visually distinguishable by a slight variation of background color. Note that you may not edit across two chunks, but only within each chunk separately).

Versioning – One of the features I loved about the software Copywrite was that you could work on a chunk of writing, and then at any time easily save a “version” of it. You could then edit the document at will and easily return to any previously saved version of it, as displayed in a list at the right, not entirely unlike software versioning software. The Scrivener equivalent to this is Snapshot. You can create a snapshot of any chunk of writing and restore it at a later time.

Three Simple Suggestions for the Developer:

1. Sometimes I get stuck in a view and find myself a bit lost, trying to get back to the body of text for a document. This usually happens when I click on a text chunk in the binder and find myself with an empty outline view. The trick is to “deselect” the outline view in the toolbar (or press Command 1 again). It would be better if there was an explicit “Text View” which feels more natural than getting back to the text view by deselecting the outline view.

2. The snapshot feature works great, but I don’t think it belongs only in a separate window at the universal level of the application. It should be, as it is in CopyWrite, displayed at the level of the document or writing chunk. In the “inspector” we can choose between “notes,” “references,” and “keywords” panels – why not add a “snapshots” panel here so that we can immediately see, for any document, what previous snapshots there are for each document here.

3. Allow a view of the corkboard with only the titles of the writing chunks displayed (and not the synopsis as well) and which has a “free” mode to allow full and free movement about of the cards or, even better, rudimentary mind mapping features.

One Power Feature Suggestion

Implementing the following would, I believe, instantly quadruple the value of the application for dissertation writers:

Currently, when you create a new “link” in a text document or chunk for the first time, a new folder appears called “notes” which seem to be something separate and distinct from the normal writing chunk documents in the draft.

This is where my theory of medium level organization for dissertation writing could be perfectly applied if Scriviner strived to expand this “notes” feature a little more.

Here is how this could be done, and you will see this follows from the ideas laid out in the third of my series of postings on the topic:

1. Make the “notes” a much more robust feature-packed section of the Scrivener binder separate and distinct from the writing chunks in the ‘draft’ section of the binder. Allow the user to very easily create hundreds, if not thousands of small notecards which may each be tagged using Scriviner’s keyword feature. Allow them to be attached to a “source” (separate from its tag or keyword) such that all cards can potentially belong to a source and notes deeper in a hierarchy can inherit the “source” of cards higher up the chain. As in the case of “Draft” documents – allow multiple levels of hierarchy and folders for further organization. Allow the inheritance of tags to note cards at lower levels.

2. Allow each of these notes to be linked to writing chunks where the writer wants to deploy them. (this can already be done)

3. Allow the notes to have a status – or more simply a check mark to indicate when the idea or content they have has been incorporated into the main writing.

4. Allows the notecards to be viewed in the “corkboard” mode or ideally assembled in a more visually complex form (ie. mind maps)

5. Allow easy creation of “smart outlines” (See my post for an explanation of this)

6. Allow easy access to a list of “sources” – ideally connected in some relational way to an external citation management software.

One Difficult Challenge:

This is a great environment to bang out quick chunks of writing for the dissertation, but despite the fact there is a simple inline footnote feature, many dissertation writers will want to do their footnoting as they write that first draft and, if they use a citation manager such as Zotero, Sente, or Endnote, this will mean that they will want to do even their drafts directly in an application which can interface with these applications (Word for Endnote, Word or OpenOffice for Zotero, or Word, Apple Pages, and Mellel for native support with Sente). For those writers, Scriviner will never be able to sufficiently draw them in.

For the rest of us who don’t mind revisiting this process after getting a good draft going, you can draft up a chapter in Scrivener, making simple notes to yourself with the Scrivener inline footnote feature and then add the real citations with your favorite citation software after you “compile” the draft into a word processor document of the desired format.

  1. Evernote, Together, Devon Think, and other examples abound, but Yojimbo is my favorite []
  2. Journler, MacJournal, StoryMill, and WriteRoom are also tools for writers I have looked at which have various strengths[]

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Katrina | 2009.11.28 at 9:15 | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. I am in the process of finding a new writing program, and was somewhat stumped by the role Scrivener could play. Your explanations are very helpful.

  2. LexM | 2009.11.28 at 12:54 | Permalink

    And what, exactly, makes you think Scrivener can’t interface with a citation manager? Much discussion of how it works in the Scrivener forums.

  3. brunus | 2009.11.29 at 18:14 | Permalink

    Hey mate,
    thanks for this: very precise.

    Integration with Zotero is possible to acertain extent:
    but some glitches are still there when dealing with page numbers.

  4. Anders | 2010.11.26 at 3:24 | Permalink

    Hi, and thanks for an excellent analysis of Scrivener. I actually have the app, but have never really come to use it for my journal articles/dissertation writing. May be I’ll give it a go again. And, this could really have been written by me :-) So, procrastinators of the world – unite :-)

  5. Myrta Mcmurtrie | 2012.6.7 at 21:58 | Permalink

    Really useful, appreciate your submitting this.