Innovation in the doctoral thesis: Cutting edge or over the edge?



By Susan Carter

Cutting edge is a term for trail-blazing work that opens up intellectual frontiers. I’m generally enthusiastic about cutting-edge work that pushes the boundaries. I’m assuming that most of us savour innovation; I’m also assuming that supervisors have responsibilities for minimising student risk and that doctoral students want success.

For some years I facilitated doctoral fora and several times put together a panel of doctoral graduates who had won our Dean of Graduate Studies best thesis award. The intention was that they would give advice based on their own experiences to those still writing theses. Whenever the best thesis writers described their work, there would be something about it that diverged strikingly from conventional structure, methods or genre. It seemed as though it was often the well-controlled use of strategies from a different discipline that caused these theses to stand out as high quality.

Barbara Lovitts (2007: 36-38) has researched what comprises an outstanding, a very good, an acceptable and an unacceptable thesis, gathering characteristics from academics [n279] across ten disciplines. The qualities of an outstanding thesis include, amongst others, many pointers to innovation:

  • Original and significant, and also ambitious, brilliant, clear, clever, coherent, compelling, concise, creative, elegant, engaging, exciting, interesting, insightful, persuasive, sophisticated, surprising and thoughtful
  • Pushes the discipline’s boundaries

Our Dean isn’t alone, then, in evaluation of best theses: other academics agree that innovation marks an outstanding these. Not all of us are capable of achieving this level of excellence, but the good news is that we don’t have to: it’s reassuring to read what is passable—the characteristics of an acceptable thesis are not that high (Lovitts, 2007: 38).

Yet, I’ve also worked with doctoral scholars who aim for a non-standard thesis and the outcome is unfortunate, placing them at risk, causing supervisory angst, and resulting in fairly extensive revision once the examiners’ reports come in. Writing that aims to be ‘creative’ can be self-indulgent, satisfying for the author but frustrating for a reader. The thesis can present as tangled and jumbly, and reading it, like hacking through a dense jungle.

Lovitts (2007: 37-38) also has something to say there. Her characteristics of an unacceptable thesis include some that might be linked to those whose attempts at innovation fail:

  • Is poorly written
  • Presentation is sloppy
  • Does not understand basic concepts, processes, or conventions of the discipline
  • Theory is missing, wrong, or not handled well
  • Data are flawed, wrong, false, fudged, or misrepresented
  • Analysis is wrong, inappropriate, incoherent, or confused

Innovation is one of those polarising abstract nouns, potentially wonderful or troublesome. And discussion of it can be painful. It is hard to give feedback around the failure of prose to communicate when a thesis author is sure that they are producing something playfully artistic. Often, of course, and usually in some disciplines, evaluation is subjective. Nonetheless, safety fences need to be erected if there seems a serious risk that examiners interpret innovation as sloppiness or naivety about what a thesis should be and deem it not worthy of a doctorate.

Writers often struggle to see what it is that entangles their readers. Emotions then heighten—both the student’s and the supervisor’s. While it is hard to give feedback to a doctoral student who resents that you are not appreciative of their artistry, supervisors and doctoral students need to avoid angering an examiner with innovation that might be hard to recognise or understand.

So how do thesis writers and supervisors recognise what is strong because it is cutting edge, and what is at risk of falling off the edge into the abyss of failure? I also attended the best thesis award ceremonies, and know from the Dean’s eulogies that the award winners’ prose was fluent, clear and stylish, their work well-referenced and highly polished. There were almost no typos or surface level errors. At the same time as there was something novel in the construction of the thesis itself, there was unmistakable evidence of the authors’ scholarly authority and meticulous care. They demonstrated an unquestionable ‘insider persona’ (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995).

Here’s the take home message, then. My recommendation is that when students hanker strongly for innovation, they need to audit their own writing skills and patience with revision.

In my experience, there’s a simple formula: the more non-standard the thesis, the stronger the writer’s fluency and authorial control must be if examiners and other readers are to remain sure that the thesis is not simply a mess.

It is likely to take more hours of work to produce a best thesis that leverages from its innovation. Doctoral students should be reminded that once they graduate, they have the material in the thesis to publish how they wish—one option is to save ideas for innovative presentation until after graduation. Publication is probably where they will make their mark within international discourse–they may find journals there that welcome the more creative version of work that was conservative in the thesis.

As is frequently the case, choice about the degree to which convention can be broken depends in part on an author’s levels of risk-aversion versus thrill-desire. The doctorate is a three to four year endeavour—it seems a mistake to take the project too near the edge of failure without being aware of what is needed for safety.

I’m curious as to how others experience innovation, either successful or troublesome. Maybe you have views on this based on your own risk aversion or delight in creativity? Post a comment!


Berkenkotter, Carol, & Huckin, Thomas N. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication: Cognition, Culture, Power. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lovitts, B. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, Virginia, Stylus.







PhD study and computer technologies use: A common experience?


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By Kwong Nui

This blog returns to the technology and doctoral study series, and comes from Kwong Nui who is a lecturer in e-learning at Centre for Academic Development, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Kwong Nui’s PhD thesis investigates the ways PhD students use ICT to support their doctoral research process – and right now she’s just waiting for her examiner reports! Good luck Kwong Nui, and thanks for this contribution which is such a fitting conclusion to our series on technologies for doctoral study.

In terms of technology contributing to my PhD dissertation, I guess the main use is for searching articles and writing my dissertation … my supervisors suggested I use some new software; I said I would take a look, but really I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle and frustration involved in learning how to use it. … My PhD is more important than learning to use a new software application.

Under normal circumstances, PhD students have to use computer technologies throughout their doctoral research, including for preparation, fieldwork, analysis and writing. But very often, PhD students also have reservations – as is evident in this participant quote from my own research into doctoral student use of technology. What does this indicate?

As a PhD student myself, I have been a keen user of technological devices, tools and applications. With the encouragement of my supervisors, I decided to engage with computer technologies throughout my doctoral research, particularly with the notion of being efficient and effective towards the goal of producing my PhD thesis. I set up my Endnote (a referencing software), OneNote (a digital notebook for research journals and reflections), and the dissertation format on Microsoft Word, as well as the proposed milestones on Outlook Calendar from Day One of my PhD study.

At the same time, I started setting up Netvibes feed (see the screenshot below) from the relevant library databases to retrieve literature in this research domain. This setup enhanced my literature search and updates as new publications in my field came out.

Then, in the data collection phase, I used smart devices to record participants’ audios during their individual and group discussion sessions (Voice Memos app of an iPhone and an external audio recorder as a backup) as well as for photographing purposes (the Camera on an iPhone). Also, I downloaded a licenced software application, Manic Time, onto the participants’ computer devices in order to capture their daily computer activities. At the end of the data collection period, I uploaded all my raw data onto a secure university cloud platform, Syncplicity, for data storage. During the data analysis phase, I used NVivo for coding purposes and SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) version 22 as well as Microsoft Excel for statistical analysis.

OneNote, that I had set up at the beginning phase of my PhD, played a significant role in both the data collection and analysis phases, in terms of generating, mind mapping and discussing ideas between my supervisors and myself (see the screenshot below). Such shared platform established research transparency within the team and enriched our communication on my PhD research development.

Like many other students I regularly used popular applications such as Microsoft Visio for diagramming purpose; Microsoft Power Point to develop and present my slides; and Skype for communication with people.

In summary, I hardly used any paper in the process of carrying out my PhD study for those two and a half years. Looking back, the computer technologies I used while undertaking PhD might impress no one; the experiences I created with them are what matters, and the fact that I’m gaining useful knowledge beyond my discipline expertise. Now that I have started my first academic position at a university, I am pleased that the computer technologies experiences I have gained from my doctoral learning have smoothed my emerging academic and research process.

However, I’m aware that despite the access to computer technologies in higher education, many PhD students are, to a certain extent, resistant to changing their methods of working for the reason portrayed at the beginning of this blog. While it is acknowledged that adaptation takes time, it could be important for PhD students who are at an advanced academic level to continually review, revise and improve their research practices based upon current and anticipated future needs. In my experience, PhD students definitely benefit from proactively taking up opportunities to learn to use various ICT effectively and efficiently during their candidature – whilst not neglecting the main objective of doctoral research and the production of the thesis.

Managing writing tension in the supervision relationship


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By Susan Carter

We’ve had a useful series of posts on technology for doctoral writing, but this post turns from the technical to the social. Human beings have their own complexities. It isn’t uncommon for tension to arise between doctoral students and their supervisors over the writing processes.

Commonly this occurs when supervision crosses different cultural protocols for talking across hierarchies. Gender, age, experience—even things like whether both have children or not—can cause tensions. Laurie Finke puts it neatly: “Every utterance is always inhabited by the voice of the ‘other,’ or of many others, because the interests of race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, and any number of other related ‘accents’ intersect each utterance” (Finke, 1992: 13).

Here, though, I focus not on social distinctions, but on difference in approach to practice. I’m drawing on material I have developed for supervisors teams who want support with managing the relationship. The following sets of questions are intended to help students and supervisors identify causes of tension so that they can begin strategizing on how to work around them. Statements in them are similar to ones I have heard expressed by academics and doctoral students: I believe that occasionally quite polarised views are held within supervisor-student relationships, and that these can also cause discomfit. Those who are not so extreme can still their preference tendencies.

Reality check for differences

Writing preferences can be checked with the following:

Main criteria for thesis prose

Clarity is the most important feature of thesis prose. Clarity is less important than theoretical complexity or creativity or [something else].

Internal thesis consistency (e.g., with use of first person pronouns, register of language etc.)

Consistency right throughout the thesis is essential. Sometimes consistency rules need to be broken when there are more important issues at stake.

Doctoral thesis length is usually 70 – 100 thousand words

It’s best to take all the words needed to fully explore material and ideas. It’s best to produce something as direct and succinct as possible to achieve doctoral success.

The thesis must show knowledge of literature and critical analysis of it

It is most important that novice researchers spend as long as it takes to fully understand the literature. Novice researchers should be discouraged from endless reading because it can go on forever.

Standard of submitted thesis

Each doctoral thesis is its author’s only one: it has to be perfect. As soon as a thesis is good enough it should be submitted so the author can move on—future publication can be more sophisticated.

Closure on research project

As soon as a thesis is good enough it should be submitted so the author can move on—future publication can be more sophisticated. Students should submit as soon as possible—they can do more with data later.

Thrill from originality or from using the conventions of research

I most love the intellectual adventure of academia. I most love the time-honoured security of academia’s well established conventions.

Fast lane or slow lane

Students should progress beyond the doctorate as soon as possible. Students should experience the doctorate to full satisfaction before moving on.

Plans for after the thesis

Students should be prepared for work as academics after completion of the doctorate. Students should be encouraged to prepare for a wide range of career options.

Holistic or discrete writing practice

It’s best to work on individual sections of the thesis one at a time. It’s best to work steadily over the whole thesis, ranging between sections.

Risk taker or risk averse

The best students take risks in thesis writing for the satisfaction of a cutting-edge style. The best students make choices that ensure safety through the examination process.

With these prompts, student and supervisor can begin talking rationally about why they might both be frustrated. They can consider whether there any other dichotomies are causing tension. The premise is that the conversation deliberately steps back from blame and reaction to objectively diagnose the cause of pain and then come up with a route to alleviating it.

I’m sure there’s scope for further analytical approaches to tension between student and supervisor around doctoral writing. Communication preferences play a role too. Do you have suggestions? Or experiences that identify other tensions that are due to different approaches to doctoral writing?


Finke, Laurie A. (1992). Feminist theory, women’s writing. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.



How ‘RescueTime’ rescued me



This post comes from the wonderful Fritz Siregar, a PhD student from Indonesia who has been studying at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney. Besides being a regular at ‘Shut up and Write’ meet ups, Fritz can boast that he is nearly finished his PhD in Law on the Indonesian Constitutional Court. Of course we wish him a speedy completion – but we will miss him when he’s done and gone home! Read here how Fritz got to be so productive…

One of our challenges as Ph.D. students is to determine whether or not our days are productive. In my case there are many occasions when, at the end of the day, I wonder where all my time has gone. From participating in two “avoiding procrastination” workshops I know it’s not just me: many people have this problem! These workshops told me that we must chunk our daily list into reading, writing, editing, researching and I learned that productivity shall decline if we do one activity for more than 2 hours continuously.  I also attended a writing skills workshop where I learned that writing in “snacking style” is more productive. It is much better to allocate a specific 2 hours per day to writing rather than scheduling 5 hours per day.

Upon considering those two insights, I tried to quantify my day to maximize my productivity. I decided to make a target of “250 words” per day. So, if I successfully wrote 250 words, I would stop writing and do something else (read, edit, social media, reading news). However, if you are a research student, you might understand that writing 250 solid words into your Ph.D. dissertation is not easy to do: it requires combining referencing, checking your research and resisting the temptation to read other articles. Many days I failed to achieve this target so I changed my plan to write “whatever 500 words”. At the writing skills workshop, I learned that we must set a specific time to write, allowing the mind to flow and letting the brain write as much as possible. I can then use that “500 words” for a blog, dissertation, or another report that I need to prepare. The idea to quantify my writing output is the foundation for using the application RescueTime.

I installed the app RescueTime after reading a review on the net (I was probably procrastinating!). I used the free version for almost a year and kept using it until today. RescueTime is an app that you need to install to your computer. It has free PC and Mac versions. I used MacAir, so I did not have to bother with the university’s strict security regarding installation of new apps. If you use a PC-based or campus computer, you may need IT Security approval to install it.

RescueTime provides a report about how you use your computer. In the background, the app calculates how much time you are working with certain applications. Then it reports this through a dashboard in which you can see your Score and Reports.

RescueTime also allows you to set your Writing Goals for the day. In my case, I try to write 2 hours per day. I can assure you that it is not easy to do (the counting starts when you start to type; when you stop typing, the system also stops counting). In RescueTime you can set the level of information that you want RescueTime to collect, for example, whether the monitor will collect all data from all websites or only domains that you specify. I let RescueTime collect all data without restriction. This means that RescueTime will let me know how much time I spent in shopping websites (eBay, Amazon) or social media.

RescueTime also offers a paid version for approximately $72AUS per year. With the paid version you can access more features, such as blocking programs that you do not want to access, recording break time or receiving more detailed feedback on your activity. But I am already satisfied with the free version.

Here is a screen shot of the kind of report that I get. On one of my great days RescueTime will make high score compared to my daily writing target:

1Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.21.59 pm

RescueTime will let me know which apps that I  used often.

2Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.22.24 pm3Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.22.49 pm

However, in my not-so-productive days, when I spend much time procrastinating or on other distractions, RescueTime gives me a low score.

4Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.23.11 pm

It seems that I used more time on distracting activities!

5Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.23.36 pm

And I did not meet my writing goal, even though I spent more time on my computer!

6Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.24.00 pm

After using RescueTime for almost a year, I have made some modifications in my writing behaviour. First, RescueTime confirmed what I already knew; that is, from 12 PM – 3 PM is not my productive period. I waste most of that time on distractions such as social media or reading the news. I now schedule other activities for that time period. Second, the app let me know not only how much time I have wasted, but also what I’ve been doing while distracted – and this ‘soft punishment’ feedback helps me force myself to go back to work later in the day.

RescueTime stresses their information collecting activities, stating:

Rescuetime will record information about the currently active application or website on your computer. We record the following information: application name, web site URL, window title, start time of use, end time of use, OS username, and computer machine name. We do not (and never will) collect keystrokes, form input, screenshots, or anything nefarious.

However, if you feel insecure in this regard, perhaps you might be better not to install it on your computer. Luckily this isn’t an issue for me – I’ve found RescueTime enormously beneficial for writing my PhD

On a productive day with a higher score, I can go home with head high knowing that I have had a busy day writing. RescueTime will not tell me whether I’ve been working on my dissertation, but for sure it helps me make each day more productive than the last. If you want to consider using this application, you can download it from this link: (Disclaimer: if you do download from this link – I get to try RescueTime Pro for a week!)

Maximising gains with Grammarly



This post is written by Don Sheridan, an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Don works in the ISOM Department and as a member of ILT seeking innovative, practical systems and solutions to improve learning and teaching. Twenty years ago he and his colleague David White created Cecil, the world’s first learning management system and he continues to publish widely in the field.

Here Don tells us how Grammarly can be used as an aspect of supervisory practice with doctoral students.  We hope you enjoy it. Regards, Claire

Many supervisors and advisors who support doctoral writing may not know about one software product that is a useful addition to our armamentarium: Grammarly, At the University of Auckland, our first impression was it was immediately helpful to ESL students, particularly those from Asia as it appears to identify ‘subject-verb agreement’ issues that some of these students struggle to master. We now suggest that it is useful for all students because it reveals blind spots: errors and typos that authors can no longer see because they have read through their own manuscripts so often.

Grammarly is not perfect but it’s better than many similar solutions, such as the grammar checker in Word™. It is possible for students to embed Grammarly within the Google Chrome browser at no charge. Access to a licensed version provides an upload service and access within MS Office and MS Outlook. (Personally, I find the Chrome browser solution a nuisance but students may disagree.) The institutional licensing fees for Grammarly are thought reasonable. It’s also possible to hire the product on a month by month basis which makes it attractive to those writing dissertations or theses.

It’s certainly attractive to supervisors who can specify its use before committing time to a second rate effort! One quick ‘win’ is to ask doctoral students to use Grammarly to first vet their writing and then make changes to improve grammar, syntax, punctuation and avoid plagiarism. Setting this whole process somewhere in the first year of the doctorate will give supervisors an indication of their student’s commitment to deadlines, writing skills in general, and the scope of remediation required. This process also provides the student with an opportunity for self-awareness—it won’t just be the supervisor muttering about literacy levels. There will be objective evidence provided by a non-biased software review.

A more complicated deployment is as follows. It’s been my experience that students not only benefit from using Grammarly, but improve even more so when required to demonstrate how it was used to improve their writing. The Teaching Professor is always worth a squiz and in this case several articles related to feedback provide some insight on how to get more value from Grammarly. If doctoral students are in cohorts who regularly work together, they could discuss what they learn on Grammarly to anchor those points and establish that it is normal to have grammar errors somewhere in a lengthy document and usual to need to take time to fix them up.

Grammarly is helpful when preparing to submit dissertations and thesis. The Grammarly report is sufficient to cover the usual list of typos and other mistakes that some examiners object to. Keeping examiners happy with grammar, spelling, syntax and punctuation makes them more favourably disposed towards the work when they evaluate its deeper levels.

If you’ve got any other stories about the use of Grammarly, as a supervisor or a student, we’d love to hear from you.

Open Access Week

This week is Open Access Week – a worldwide event devoted to “promoting Open Access as the new default in scholarship and research”. This global event is now in its 8th year, and continues to grow exponentially. This year’s theme is “Open for Collaboration”.

There are videos, tweetchat, blogs and all kinds of events taking place online and in person. For a full list and to find out what you could get involved in, go to the International Open Access week site – there’s even a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon!

Another good place to start finding out more about Open Access is in “The battle for open access is far from over” by Virginia Barbour published in The Conversation, which explains why this is an important subject for all researchers.


Live a PhD life less disorganised with Trello



How often have we heard the advice that doctoral students should ‘manage their supervisors’ – well, this blog from Adam Blake may well help make that advice a reality. We loved reading about Trello – it almost sounds too good to be true! Let us know how you find it. And, good luck with those ducks… Claire.

Adam teaches and supports staff at the University of Auckland in making good use of technologies to enhance learning and teaching. Adam is also undertaking a part-time PhD on ICT for development (ICT4D), focusing on the effectiveness of communication and collaboration projects that employ technologies to empower people in low and middle income countries to enhance their quality of life.

I’m an academic always looking for ways to manage my work and writing more effectively. I’m also in the thick of my PhD. For both of these I can recommend a very intuitive (and free!) web-based project management tool called Trello.

Until recently, email has been the default tool my supervisors and I have used for written communication and feedback. But a senior colleague mentioned to me that he had been using Trello as the platform for communicating with a small class of post-grad students. He was also impressed at the way Trello enabled his students to post their work and to collaborate on it.

Within a couple of days of trying Trello, I realised its potential for enabling me to keep track of my PhD tasks, and as a vehicle for communicating with my supervisors and gaining feedback from them. I was at the point of needing supervisor input on my proposed research design, so I set up a Trello project ‘board’ to summarise the theory underpinning my design, and to set out the research tasks and timings. Using Trello’s ‘lists’ and ‘cards’ approach I was able to set up topic lists with cards for each of the main ideas and tasks. I was able to add links to my research proposal and ethics application documents, and to cross-link between cards if needed. The short description for each card served as its title, but if I wanted to provide more information or a link to a document, or add a checklist, tags, or a due date, I could click on the card to flip it over and enter the additional detail. If I toggled to a calendar view, those cards with due dates assigned to them displayed on the relevant dates. It was also easy to include graphics depicting conceptual frameworks.

Untitled(Attribution: Sheila MacNeill source

The image above provides a generic display of Trello lists and cards. Below is my own (de-identified) example of how I use Trello for my doctoral project.

Untitled2I then invited my supervisors (one of whom insists she is a technophobe) to access the Trello board, and waited to see what would happen next.

My supervisors took to the software like ducks to a pond. They used Trello’s comments feature to add their questions and feedback on the ideas and tasks in individual cards. I was notified of the comments by email, and was then able to respond, adding into my responses links to other cards if these provided relevant detail. Rather than going back through an email trail to trace the conceptual thread of feedback and responses, conversations with my supervisors relating to a particular point are now recorded directly where that point is set out in the Trello board. Each of us can go back and review the ideas and feedback at any time, and add more. Having had an enforced break from working on the PhD recently, the summary of ideas, tasks and communication encapsulated in the project board makes it easy for me (or my supervisors) to pick up where we left off.

I understand that Trello was first released in 2011 (here’s an early review) and it has since garnered a large following. For an excellent summary of its features by a fellow academic, see this overview by Sue Frantz.

Try Pandoc instead of Word for your research writing


This contribution comes from Thomas Hodgson, a philosopher with an interest in the nature of language and communication. Thomas believes that ‘Word is good for some things but it’s not the right tool for every job … not least, because it’s expensive.’ Thomas wrote his thesis with LaTeX but uses Pandoc for journal papers and teaching materials.

Warning: There is a bit of ‘tech talk’ here but we’ve been assured if you need to know; you will get it! Enjoy, Claire.

What is Pandoc?

Pandoc is a free, open source, GPL licensed program, written by John MacFarlane, that converts documents between formats, for example LaTeX to the DOCX format used by Microsoft Word. This simple conversion is done by typing pandoc –output document.docx document.tex on the command line. It is the best tool I know of for converting documents, and it is getting better all the time.

Suppose that you write a paper in LaTeX for submission to a journal that unfortunately rejects the paper. Your next choice requires submissions to be DOCX because they use Word. Pandoc will make the conversion between formats painless when you prepare your revised submission. The advantage of Pandoc is that you can move easily between different formats. You can write in whatever format you prefer, and Pandoc can convert it to whatever other format you need for the finished product.

Pandoc understands an extension of the Markdown structured text format sometimes called Pandoc flavoured Markdown which includes several functionalities useful to academics such as bibliographic references and footnotes. Pandoc will cope with mathematical formalism, and you can also make slides with it. There are other conventions for structuring plain text, but Markdown is the most widely used; using Pandoc’s version means that Pandoc will correctly interpret your source. Pandoc flavoured Markdown allows Pandoc to be more than a conversion tool: it’s also a tool for writing. In my own work, all my papers start out as plain text files written in Pandoc flavoured Markdown. Journals and conferences receive an appropriately styled PDF after the content has been written.

You can read about Markdown in John Gruber’s original description. You might also find the specification of CommonMark useful; it is co-authored by John MacFarlane and Pandoc follows it. There’s a useful tutorial for Markdown written by Esteban Herrera.

References with Pandoc are handled with a system that reads a range of bibliography formats, including Biblatex, and formats references using the Citation Style Language. To use it just type pandoc –bibliography=bibliography.bib –output document.docx on the command line.

Doing academic writing in plain text has several advantages. Plain text can be read and edited on any platform, and you can use any text editor you like. There is no cost to changing your mind about which editor to use. The chance of plain text becoming obsolete is practically nil. The same points apply to keeping references in a format like Biblatex; you can also use your favourite bibliographic program as long as it will export to one of the formats Pandoc understands.

Who should use Pandoc?

If you like the idea of writing in plain text then Pandoc is the best way to go. LaTeX has the same advantages but there is a steeper learning curve, and once a document is written in LaTeX it is harder to turn it into something else (although it is certainly not impossible). Pandoc means you can keep your options open about format until the last minute.

On the down side, using Pandoc’s command line can feel a bit awkward at first but it is no harder than learning to use any piece of software properly. Writing in plain text also takes some getting used to if you are immersed in the ‘what you see is what you get’ paradigm of Word, Pages, or LibreOffice.

If you never need to convert between formats, and the format you use works for you and/or has features essential to your work that Pandoc doesn’t support then Pandoc might not be for you.

Where can you get Pandoc?

There are instructions for installing Pandoc on for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. There is a helpful mailing list for Pandoc called pandoc-discuss.

I also recommend Kieran Healy’s description of his workflow which discusses some issues relevant to writing in the social sciences.

Mark Sprevak has written a useful tool for adding styles to Pandoc called Panzer which you might find useful. Finally, I have written a script called Convert bibliography that converts bibliography files found on the web to a tidy format that works with Pandoc.

Three ways I use Scrivener


By Kelly Royds

Kelly is a PhD candidate with the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Kelly’s work and research focuses on children, media and international development. She can be found at or When I first met Kelly at a Writing Boot Camp earlier this year I was intrigued by her use of Scrivener. She tells us how in this post…

A year ago, I started using Scrivener to write my PhD dissertation. I was doing an overhaul of my writing tools at the time when I came across a great Thesis Whisperer post on how Scrivener supports messy, nonlinear forms of writing. Scrivener is a word processing tool that is designed to help you ‘get to the end of that awkward first draft’.

I am messy writer and the prospect of writing an 80 000 word document on a word processor like Microsoft (MS) Word was daunting. I did try MS Word. I downloaded a MS Word thesis-template but it felt too final and too polished. I wasn’t ready for that… So I decided to give Scrivener’s free 30-day-trial a go and I’ve been using it ever since. But I’m not exclusive. I still use MS Word for the ‘final’ polished stuff and for referencing. You can ‘cite-while-you-write’ in Scrivener but there is no plugin for Mendeley and that is the referencing tool I prefer. So, at the moment I use Scrivener for drafts and Microsoft Word for the more-final-ish document I share with supervisors.

There are a lot of features I haven’t explored, but at the moment I use Scrivener to:

1) Start somewhere

There are days when I feel that I just can’t sit down and write the ‘real research’ stuff. I like that Scrivener allows you to start somewhere and anywhere within a rough structure. For example, I am not sure what my Chapter Seven is going to look like yet, but I do have some thoughts. I write these as chunks to come back and build on later.

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2) Connect the dots

Once I have some thoughts and some chunks of ‘real research’ writing I am ready to connect the dots. I love the vertical and horizontal screen split feature on Scrivener. This allows me to integrate different chunks of writing into a single narrative. It also helps you review what you have written in other chapters to ensure you’re making links and not repeating yourself. There are a few different visualization tools you can use, but I just tend to use the basic split screen and document map on the left.

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3) See the big picture

Perhaps the best feature of Scrivener is that you can get a sense for the ‘big picture’ of the thesis without having to open multiple documents or files. You can easily view the narrative of your thesis, where things are missing, or where they don’t quite fit. This helps you to move chunks of writing around and to reorganize the sequence.

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A friend asked me the other day: ‘How long does it take to learn how to use Scrivener?’ For a basic user (like myself) it doesn’t take long to get a handle on the main features. You can watch tutorials from the official Scrivener website and I would also recommend a PowerPoint created by the Thesis Whisperer that illustrates some of the most useful tools for thesis writing: project goals, split screen, manipulating chunks of writing. I have no idea how long it takes to get a handle on the more advanced features. I’m sticking to the basics!

There are two things I don’t like about Scrivener. First, I don’t like that there is not a compatible Mendeley cite-while-you-write plugin. This is more of an issue for Mendeley than Scrivener but it still slows down my writing process. Second, Scrivener is not a cloud-based software so it doesn’t synchronize across multiple devices. You can save your Scrivener project on Dropbox and then open it on other computers. I have done this but have had a few issues with conflicted copies. If you want to use Scrivener like this, make sure you never open it on more than one computer at a time. Hopefully it will become a cloud-based software in the future.

Overall, I am going to keep using Scrivener to get to the end of the awkward first draft but will still use MS Word to compile the final, polished dissertation.

Has anyone got any experiences they wish to share?


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