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 kellyroyds.wordpress.com or unsw.academia.edu/KellyRoyds. 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?