Writing academic texts with Scrivener: Making your non linear writing projects pleasurable

I’ll declare my bias upfront: I really love Scrivener. If I have to point to the most important change I’ve done over the past year in terms of improving my writing processes, it’s shifting from Word to Scrivener. 
One main concept sums up why I love this app: Scrivener is built around the idea of non linear writing processes. While writing conventions will differ depending on which discipline you belong to, writing up research is frequently not a linear process, even if we might make it look that way when we describe to students how they should approach their next term paper. Scrivener has integrated this fact into its design.  

In this post, I’ll describe some of the useful features in Scrivener, outline how this app can be integrated with your iPad, and say a bit about how you can also use this app for purposes of literature review. 
User interface 
What we would normally call a ‘file’ is called a project in Scrivener. In each project, you will be working with two main areas: the draft area, and the research area.
The draft area is where you actually write your article or dissertation. Here, you can divide up your text in whatever way you find useful. For writing articles, I usually have the following sub sections in my draft area: introduction, review, theoretical section, empirical context and methodology, analysis and discussion (by the time I write the conclusion, I have exported my text to Word or Pages for final formatting and polish). 
The research area is where I import anything that I might refer to during the writing process. This can include literature notes, annotated journal articles, mind maps, web sites or outlines – whatever you might be referring to as you are typing away. You can also import opml outlines directly into the research folder, for example from OmniOutliner or iThoughtsHD.
Here’s a screen shot for illustration, with the draft section outline to the top left side, and the research section outline below. In the middle is the text in the active sub document, and to the right is the inspector (which includes a wide variety of features, in this shot you will see the synopsis and document notes):
Regular writing view

Dividing your main text into several documents is useful in different ways. First, it makes the whole document more manageable, especially if you are creating a long piece of writing such as a PhD dissertation. Even though I mostly write articles that do not consist of that many pages, I love dividing them up because I can put different sections of the text side by side to make sure that the terminology is consistent throughout the document as I type, and to help me keep an eye on how the main argument is being built up section by section. And that brings me to one of my favourite features of Scrivener, the split screen:
Split screen with mind map
In Scrivener, you can put different documents next to each other (vertically or horizontally, I prefer the layout in the screen shot). This makes it really easy to switch back and forth between different sections of your document, to view them side by side, and to put your writing next to the research articles, data analysis, or literature notes in the research area. I use this feature extensively, and it’s one of the things I find to be a huge improvement compared to Word. 
A final thing that I will highlight are snapshots. Prior to discovering Scrivener, I would always have stacks of previous draft versions of an article all tucked away in a folder. If I had to revert to a previous version to find a particular paragraph, I had to go through several documents to identify the one I needed. No more of this – enter Scrivener’s snapshots. With this feature, you can save a version of a document at any time through a simple keyboard short cut. You can either assign the snapshot a particular name, or just have it filed by date. If you need to revert to a previous version, it’s easy to quickly open the snapshot view using the inspector, and you can then place it side by side with your current version, and also ask Scrivener to highlight the differences between the two. It’s a massive improvement to wading through lists of Word documents in a folder. 
This app comes with a whole array of other useful features, which I can’t really do justice to within the format of a single blog post. But I’ll briefly mention some key aspects of the app:
  • Scrivener projects can be exported to Word or Pages, as well as variety of other formats (this is called ‘compile’). 
  • You can use EndNote, Sente or Papers for cite while you write functionality. 
  • You can insert comments and footnotes to a text.  
  • You can use Scrivener for outlining and rearranging chunks of text, using the cork board view or the outlining feature (although I personally think outlining is better done in OmniOutliner or another dedicated app).
  • There is a full screen view for distraction free writing. 
Syncing and iPad integration 
For those worried about working cross platform, there is good news: Scrivener comes both in a mac and a windows version. The mac version is a bit more advanced, but I’ve also worked a lot in the windows version and it beats Word any day. I use DropBox to transfer files between platforms.
While there is no iPad app yet (rumours say there might be one in 2013), Scrivener on mac can sync with Elements and Simplenote. I prefer Elements, because it renders my subdocuments in the same order as in my Scrivener project. Sync is simple to set up, and Scrivener will automatically sync to Elements when you close a project, and look for new changes when you open the project on your mac. In that way, I can keep writing on my articles from my iPad if I need to, and my drafts are always with me. I have, however, experienced some muddling with formatting in such sync processes, so if you have already formatted your document extensively, syncing with Elements or Simplenote (which are both plain text apps) might not work that well. 
You can also integrate work done in iThoughts into your research area, see a little clip for how to do this here. Scrivener can also be used with Index Cards on iPad, TinderboxMarked, and Story Skeleton for iPhone. 
Using Scrivener for literature reviews

As I’ve written about previously, I use Circus Ponies Notebooks as my main tool for reviewing literature, while Scrivener is my main app for academic writing. However, it’s also possible to use for literature review purposes. Here is the workflow described by Scylax at MacRumors
I use Scrivener for almost everything, really, both fiction and university essays and research. 

I generally do start out in Skim (the free PDF annotation software), where I highlight any key quotes I find. Then, I save the PDF and annotations as a single PDF, and also export the highlights I have made. I drag the PDF into Scrivener, usually just in an ‘articles’ folder, then make new documents for each quote or point, and make them sub-documents to the main PDF so that I can always go back and check the surrounding source. 

I also write a brief summary of the main points of the article on the index card.

I name the article as [Author (date)], and the quotes as [Author (date) ascending quote number]. I tag the quotes depending on the key point of them – as an example, in an essay on Martial’s portrayal of Roman baths, I used keywords to distinguish the areas each epigram focussed on, such as time, heat, gender, etc. I did the same for quotes from both primary sources and secondary articles. I create a collection for each keyword, and also for any I want to be able to look at together. This is also brilliant for dealing with quotes that deal with a number of themes, as they can show up in as many collections as you want them in without disturbing the ‘real’ order in the binder.

When I write, I then split the screen vertically. On the left, I have the document I am typing in, on the right, I have the ‘articles’ folder in index card view so that all my summaries are visible. If I want to analyse information, looking at what all my sources have said about a single topic, I can simply switch to looking at the related collection, in scrivenings view with titles visible, so that they are all together but I can always see who wrote them. 

It does take some work to set up, but it’s much quicker than it sounds and very easy to do, and it works wonders for me. If I try to miss out steps, I soon find I want and need them again, and am far more organised and in control with them!

The collaboration challenge

This is, so far, my main concern with Scrivener. If you are writing research articles or a dissertation as a sole author, Scrivener is great. However, if you are co-authoring text which is frequently going back and forth between multiple people, then using Scrivener becomes bothersome – each time you share your document, you need to compile it and convert it to Word of PDF, and then you have to integrate the changes and edits once the document is returned to you. For those kind of writing projects, I stick to Word, as this is the standard word processor used at my university. 

If you are doing significant writing as a sole author, however, I strongly recommend that you check out this app – it’s been a huge improvement to my work flow.
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One Response to Writing academic texts with Scrivener: Making your non linear writing projects pleasurable

  1. AP says:

    Thank you so much for this. I have too found Scrivener to be an amazing tool, and with your overview I now have another way of using it. Cheers, A:)ex

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