A case for Scrivener

A colleague recently asked me about my use of this software and I promised to put some things into writing. As the software is relatively complex and flexible, I want to limit my comments to my usage of this awesome software. Please note also, this was a relatively long journey, thus I will try to tell the condensed version. More about Scrivener from its authors here.

A visual overview of articles and related sections. A visual overview of articles and related sections.

I started using Scrivener when I became fed-up with “typical” word processing tools available for a dissertation. That lengthy process underscored more clearly than anything else, that I am not a linear thinker, and thus not a linear writer. Other tools did not permit much other than a plow-right-ahead mentality. And while I tried to supplement Word and others with more flexible ways of viewing things, I continued to be frustrated. Scrivener on the other hand, accommodated my off-the-cuff, mildly distracted, and fluctuating thought processes. 

Some of the drafts still remaining on my computer. I finally deleted a pile once I finished the proposal. 

Some of the drafts still remaining on my computer. I finally deleted a pile once I finished the proposal.

This sounds like a good place to provide some examples. Let’s just say that my drafts for the proposal process numbered in the hundreds and not from rejections from my committee. Quite the contrary, I submitted one to my advisor, he recommended a couple of changes. I made those and we were set. The drafts originated from the length of time I was writing the thing (a span of about 1 year) and my inability to decide on an organizational schema that made sense to me. So, I would write, then reorg, then write, then reorg and voilà 100 different copies of who knew what. After months and months of struggling with outlines, documents, and visualizations, I hit the web for some advice and out popped Scrivener as a option.

I jumped straight onto the bandwagon, full feet and hands. It immediately let me change and reorg my information with ease. Since it works using an outline form, I could now see the entire picture of my changes. I could break out pieces of text and remove them from the outline and add them back other places. I was in nirvana! I finished my proposal in no time flat using it. Revisions were a bit of a pain, but I will get to that down below. 

(At this point I will start calling Scrivener “S”, to save my poor fingers). S gives you the option to organize using whatever contrivance you are used to, sticky notes, outlines, images whatever. It then lets you move these bits and pieces around in an endless array. S is very visual so you can see pretty easily what is going on and you get to organize where things go and how big the chunks are. 

just a few papers inside the big S.

just a few papers inside the big S.

Back to the story, so after the proposal I was faced with the dissertation. I was starting from scratch with S, so to speak. I reorganized my outline to facilitate this new focus. Along the way I started to stalk the S forums, a great place to see what everyone else is doing with it. From there I realized I could shove my notes in it as well as the actual articles. I could also add and organize the many figures and tables I would need. Lastly, it has an unending array of outputs. It can control recurring sections, titles, headings and whatnot for publication/print. 

S's split view, showing documents on top of each other.  S’s split view, showing documents on top of each other.

For drafts and changes I read about a few ways to handle it. I imported updated drafts into S and adding them to a section heading called “drafts”. For example, I had comments from my committee as time progressed. I imported their comments (from whatever they used, PDF, Word, etc.) into S, each came in with a file heading. I edited it to have a date and the heading for what they made comments on. Then using the helpful split view of S, I made the changes. I made all of my updates in this manner. 

As I end this lengthy commentary, I provide one more example of how helpful this program was to this process. After my data was collected, I had one gnarly set of results. The results were gnarly mostly because of the way the study was set-up. I basically ran the same analysis 2 times using a different starting point. I had “perception” data and “practice” data collected using different methods, but analyzed the same. I wanted to ensure the headings, titles, figures, and tables were named the same except for the change from perception to practice, where required. I also wanted to be sure to include the same things and talk about the results in the same order, and of course, each section had a concluding section that needed similar handling. (The results section included about 40 pages; 90% of which were this analysis with 17 tables, and 7 figures). Using S, I was able to organize this section so it appeared parallel in the outline, using different colors show the corresponding areas. The split view permitted me to make changes and update the sections easily. It made this overwhelming process a breeze.

Under the hood of S; the gnarly section of my diss. The image right depicts the described parallelism. Under the hood of S; the gnarly section of my diss. The image right depicts the described parallelism.

Now is the time for a couple of caveats. S has a pretty steep learning curve. I might suggest you review some of the provided videos before you jump in. Also, I suggest that you start with something a bit less intense than a dissertation. The proposal helped me work through many little issues before I got into the Diss, which kept me from pulling my hair out. S’s output is weird (although better now); it still needs some massage to get it to “play” nice with Word, pdf, etc. Keep good notes on what you do, so you can repeat it if it becomes complicated (like trying to use S with Word’s styles). While S can keep your notes, the organization of those notes is in your lap. To avoid stress, pick a note format that works well with S and use that. It will really help you in the long run. S’s search capabilities are complex, but being able to search through and bring up your notes as you write is awesome!

Of course S can do, and be more. Most people seem to use it for writing books and other longer works. I myself, will continue to use it for both long and short projects. I’m thinking about developing a new course in it. Perhaps, I’ll provide an update if that works out ok. 

I’ll be happy to say more. 🙂 Just drop a comment or 3 and I will reply.