Tuesday Tool Tip: Using Scrivener for Complex Academic Writing Projects

I became aware of Scrivener, an alternative writing tool, several years ago, and have been intrigued ever since.  At first glance, the benefit for creative writers is clear, but numerous scholars also use Scrivener.  Here’s part of the description from the product page:  “a powerful content generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents . . . . its focus is to help you get to the end of that awkward first draft.”  While word processors really focus on generating text in linear fashion, Scrivener is adapted for managing writing projects which take shape in a more reflexive or piecemeal style.

How could this fail to be of interest to academics?  However, because I no longer undertake such project, I’ve looked at how academic researchers report using it.  This post summarizes what I’ve found.

Benefits

As an example of a general endorsement, Ryan Cordell had this to say on  ProfHacker on March 8, 2010:  “Scrivener is essential [to daily workflow] . . . . I don’t remember how I wrote before discovering it, and I can’t imagine writing without it.”  When I first became aware of it, I spoke with a researcher who estimatedtimesaving at 15% over Word.  I found examples of academics who use Scrivener for writing books, articles, literature reviews, and dissertations, as expected, but I also found other imaginative uses:

  • a professor who uses it to put together syllabi, keeping all related course material in one place
  • a PhD student who expected to use it as the main locus for studying for comprehensive exams.

The features that make Scrivener so useful are that you write in chunks and can keep multiple documents open at the same time.  That facilitates reorganizing material, invaluable to those of us who think and organize as we write, maybe even through the writing process.  You can bring your associated research material (standard files like pdfs and text documents, but also audio, video and image files) into Scrivener, so that you don’t have to open multiple applications to see your support material.  This is what makes Scrivener more project than document driven.

A “corkboard” allows you to develop index-card sized summaries of portions of your work and to keep those in front of you as you go.  In short, Scrivener allows you to begin with bits of ideas, flesh them out in parallel, shuffle them around, comment on what you’ve written and on your background materials, and iterate the process until your work makes its best sense.

You can have multiple views of your work, such as file structure on one side, one or more open documents, the corkboard or, when you want it, the document you are currently writing in full screen mode.  You have flexibilty to design the screen you need for different stages of work.

There is a companion product, Scapple, for making maps of your ideas, which can then be imported into Scrivener.  Scapple isn’t either a mind mapper or concept mapper, though it could be used as either.  Rather, it’s a free-form tool for making visual connections among ideas.  It imposes no form, unlike other tools which are usually either hierarchical or radial, or both.  Scapple’s main purpose is to allow the quick generation of thoughts and the capture of the relationships among them.  You can expand in any direction and apparently as far as you want to go.  Scapple’s strengths would appear to be flexibility and ease of use, whereas I would think a potential drawback is that you could get lost in a large set of ideas as your map goes off the visible area of the screen.  (Some other mapping programs, such as CMap, allow you to nest or hyperlink maps when they get large and complex; this can help the user stay oriented).

Scapple map of a few take-aways from my note-taking reading: it’s very simple, but I did this in under 10 minutes. I could drag in or attach images and other files, and I could do more formatting:

Scapple map

 

Limitations

One user loves Scrivener for solo projects, but not for collaboration, since a draft has to be converted to a standard word processor to be shared for co-author’s edits and comments (see Macademise, 11/20/2012).  As stated on the Scrivener site, the tool is meant for drafting, not producing final versions.  This leads to the next point, one that has to be considered very seriously by anyone preparing citation-heavy manuscripts.

Scrivener has some internal citation function, but it does not work seamlessly with many citation management programs. There has been extensive discussion of using different citation managers with Scrivener in the forums, so advice from seasoned users is available. Users report different processes for handling citations.  One reasonable-sounding approach was suggested in the Scrivener forums: use Scrivener’s internal citation handling in the drafts (“insert the unformatted reference in your footnote (e.g. {Jones, 1931 #21} and never convert it until the document has been converted from Scrivener to Word”; KevinR, 2012). Once the document has taken good shape, you can work with Word and your citation program on final format.  Other users follow more complex processes involving exporting to RTF and then to ODF (open document format), and then having to fix citations.  This, combined with the way Scrivener is meant to be used to move text around, can lead to citation problems.  One professor who has advised dissertation writers reports seeing an error rate of over 50% with Scrivener, compared to 10 – 15% with conventional word processors (reported in the Zotero forums by DWL-SDCA on 10/20/2013).  This person believes that “the typical writer of a thesis is more likely to need to think more about the topic and citing authority than the process of writing.”

Clearly this is a big worry, but I think this writer has hit the nail on the head.  People write differently.  Some, like me, are more circular writers, and for us, Scrivener can be a great tool. Others won’t want to invest time in learning something new, especially if their writing process is straightforward, if outlines are adequate guides for them, and if they do not want the uncertainty of exporting to a word processor and back while writing drafts and getting comments.

Scrivener has been around since 2006.  Both Scrivener and Scapple are affordable: full price $40 and $14.99, respectively; academic prices $35 and $12.  There are both Mac and Windows versions.  The developers are focused on delivering a stable tool for complex writing; they state that their intent is not to deliver ever-more elaborate versions which seek to be everything to everyone.

Support is provided via pdfs, an online knowledge base, and support forums. The forums seem quite active.  A search turns up a modest number of videos and demos.  There are now also several commercially published manuals available:  Scrivener for Dummies (July 2012) and Scrivener Absolute Beginner’s Guide (June 2013).

See also:

Five Things Scrivener Can Do for You (Besides Word Processing),” Kim  Mann at Academic Technology at the College of William and Mary, 6/26/2012

One More Reason to Use Scrivener for Thesis Writing,” Aleh Chirp, at Academic Workflows on the Mac, 11/12/2013

Scrivener – A Perfect Program for Dissertation Writing,” Daniel Wessel at Organizing Creativity, 8/26/2009 (Wessel says this is mainly still valid in 2013).

Scrivener, Scrivening, Scriverastic,” Ryan Cordell at Profhacker, 3/8/2010.

Using Scrivener to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams,” Steve Thomason at Deep in the Burbs, 5/18/2013.

Writing Academic Texts with Scrivener: Making Your Non Linear Writing Projects Pleasurable,” at Macademise, 12/11/2013.

 

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  • Hoi,

    thank you for the reference, and yup, the posting (“Scrivener – A Perfect Program for Dissertation Writing”) is still valid. And I still use Scrivener. And you’re right, it is not really meant for collaboration, although few programs are. If you are doing serial writing and the other person has Scrivener, it should not be a problem. And it is likely better than using Word (esp. if you switch between different Mac and Windows versions). I strongly recommend trying out Scrivener, there’s a 30-day trial as well. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but then you don’t want to miss it.

    All the best

    Daniel

  • Elisabeth

    Daniel,
    Thanks for clarifying about collaboration, and for re-iterating your strong and continuing endorsement. It sounds so great, I am trying to figure out something I could use it for! – Elisabeth

  • Thanks for the link. I do love Scrivener. I have recently discovered how to sync ,pdf files with Scrivener using Dropbox and iAnnotate on my iPad. Also, Textilus, is the best way to sync .rtf documents with iPad and Scrivener, again via Dropbox.

  • Elisabeth

    Thanks for the suggestions, Steve!

  • Michael Reid

    Hi – thanks for the article. I have been using Scrivener for literature review for a PhD. I am planning on using the research folder to store pdf files of journals and summary notes, however, worried that the binder will become overloaded. Any suggestions or comments?

    Cheers
    Mike.

    • Marta

      Michael:
      RE: “…worried that the binder will become overloaded.”

      One of my Scrivener projects is over a GIG in size. Music & video files, photos, PDF’s, text, you name it, it can be put in there without any problems. I don’t think you can overload it.
      Any issue would be with the RAM and HD space of your computer.

  • Elisabeth

    Hi Mike –
    Since I don’t use Scrivener myself, I can’t say. However, the forums on their site are pretty active, and I think you might first search to see what other people’s experience has been, and then perhaps post a question there. I looked that this a little in preparing the post, and I believe that one person who had run into overload problems had actually tried to include large datasets. From what I have heard, it should be able to handle enough pdfs and comments for a lit review for a dissertation, though. Let us know! Elisabeth

  • This kind of tip is really helpful for many students who wanted to learn and to create a better output in terms of academic writing which is really common especially in school.

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