Writing my PhD thesis using Scrivener

I started using Scrivener in April 2014. Out went Microsoft Word, in came the Greatest Writing Tool Ever. Just thinking about all the time I previously spent engaged in NEVER ENDING SCROLLING in Word makes me feel queasy.

The most popular post on this blog is undoubtedly “How I use Scrivener for Academic Writing“. I wrote it in 2015, and so far its been viewed over 20,000 times. In that post, I wax lyrical about my love for Scrivener. I explain how I’ve used Scrivener to write journal articles. And then, tucked away at the bottom, I make a throw-away line about resolving issues with citations (which I later did). I say I that I need to get to the bottom of the citation problem because I’m determined to write my PhD thesis in Scrivener. Fast forward two years and I am staring at my part-written thesis. In Scrivener.

This post looks at how I’m using Scrivener to write my thesis. It jumps straight in, so if you need to know more about Scrivener basics please read this post first. And if you want to know more about my PhD research, take a look at this.

And woe betide you miss this major health warning: As I’ve said with all my Scrivener blogs, this is not the definitive guide to how to work with Scrivener. It is merely how I use Scrivener. I’m still very much a beginner. Heck, I only found out the other day that when Van Morrison is singing Brown Eyed Girl, he’s saying  “la la la la la la la la la la dee dah’ and not ‘ la la la la la la la lucky duck’…. I’ve got a long way to go in life, generally.

My thesis at a glance 

This is what my thesis looks like, at a glance.

Thesis Scriv 2

On the left hand side you can see the folders making up the thesis. I have named each folder in line with traditional thesis sections and chapters. So there’s a folder for my literature review, a folder for my methodology chapter etc.

On the right hand side, I’ve selected the ‘outline’ view (VIEW>Outline). The outline shows me each folder, my total word count for each folder, my target word count. There is also a column called ‘progress’ but this doesn’t come into play unless you expand the information in the title (I’ll show you this in a moment).

Straight away you can see that I’ve spent most of my time on my literature review. I’ve given that chapter an arbitrary target word count of 20,000 words. I’ve written nearly half of that so far. I often go to this overview of my thesis when I have an “I Haven’t Done Anything!!! I’m So Far Behind!!” sort of day.

A closer look at Chapter 2

If I click on the folder marked ‘Chapter 2: Literature Review’, this is the view I get.

Chapter 2

Instantly you can see that I have a number of sections and even a sub-folder within my literature review chapter.  I have written about my objectives for the chapter and how I searched the literature. I have then started to produce my literature review.

As you might have noticed, this part is still very messy.  At the moment, it is more like a collection of notes. I create new sections, and I move existing sections around constantly. For me, this is the beauty of Scrivener. I can create a new section (Right Click>ADD>NEW TEXT), type a whole load of text, and then grab that section and move it anywhere I want. For example, if I wanted to move the section called ‘1970’ all I need to do is click on it and pull it down to where I want it to sit. No more cutting and pasting swathes of text, changing your mind and then having to re-paste it back in. With Scrivener, I’ve moved entire chapters around (and moved them back again) in seconds.

Delving into a section 

If I click on the section called ‘1970’, this is what I will see. I can go straight into that section and start editing on the right hand side.


If I want to be reminded of something I’ve written further down, I can use the split screen option. More about that here.

Citations? I’ve written about that here.


My mind likes to jump about. Barely a day goes by when I’m not re-writing, re-assessing, and re-factoring ideas and information in my head. This happens mostly when I’m walking about. Or running. I’ve ‘written’ entire articles when on a run.

So I move things about in Scrivener a lot. I ‘dump’ ideas in there. I write and re-write. Sections that now reside in my methodology chapter, started out in my literature review.

How do I keep on top of this change? Using the snapshot tool.

Have a look at the picture below. On the left hand side you’ll see I’ve selected ‘1980’. So the column in the middle of the screen shows the text for that section.  On 9 August 2016, I spent a lot of time writing about the 1980s. I know the precise date because – as you can see on the right hand side – I took a snapshot of the section that day. I must have made quite a few changes on 9 August 2016 because I took a snapshot at 10:50am and then another one an hour later.


Can you see the ‘roll back’ button on the right hand side, under the + and – signs? Some people use snapshots as a back up – just in case you want to roll back to a previous edit. I haven’t needed to do that yet. I just like to see what that section looked like a year ago! It tells me that I’ve moved forward. And, if I go into crazy editor mode and decide to cull entire paragraphs, I’m not ‘losing’ any ideas.

Pushing on 

I’m a major fan of hyperbole (see what I did there?). But it’s not an overstatement to say that if I hadn’t started my thesis in Scrivener, I may have given up.  I had a period of leave last year, during which I was convinced I would never go back to the PhD. How could I? All that work was ‘lost’. Time passed, accompanied by an ever increasing erosion of confidence. Above all, I was overwhelmed by the thought of starting again.

sadPhoto by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

When I returned to work, I gingerly opened up my thesis on Scrivener. I think I had one eye open and a screwed up face.  But… (and hang on in there, this is going to sound a little off the wall) there it was:  my doctoral mind. Visually represented in Scrivener. All my ideas in little pockets. Some fully formed with lovely flowing sentences – with citations!. Others represented by folders or just a section saying something like ‘this is where you’ll write the bit about the ethics – for heaven’s sake don’t forget ethics’.  I could see the entire thing in front of me. I knew I had done it before, and I could do it again. And I could do it in chunks. Bit by bit.

Today, I’m approaching the halfway point of my PhD candidacy. If you are just about to start, or right in the middle of the process like me, I wish you all the best. And I hope this post has been useful.

Featured image: Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Why finding a buddy is one of the most important things you can do during your PhD

This blog post was inspired by the Research Student Blog Challenge #HDRblog15. The Challenge is an initiative created by the édu flâneuse that encourages research students to share their experiences.  Huge thanks to the édu flâneuse for inspiring us to write this post. 

We are Elaine and Rachel and we are PhDBuds. Pals, comrades, mates – call it what you will. But we quite like PhDBuds. Quite frankly, we are the Thelma & Louise of the PhD world. In this post, we share our story and set out the benefits of having a buddy during your PhD.

Image result for thelma and louise


Someone once asked me to describe my ideal working space. I carefully outlined the shape and size of the room, the beautiful wooden bookcase along one wall, the scatter cushions and other soft furnishings, and the small table with a pot of herbal tea gently steaming in the corner. My questioner smiled. “Is this room going to have a door?”, they asked. “Do I have to have one?”, came my reply.

I suppose the point of sharing this anecdote is to illustrate that I am not someone who needs to be surrounded by people.  Given the option, I’m perfectly happy getting along with things by myself. So last year when I applied to be on a Professional Doctorate programme I wasn’t troubled when family and friends talked of long hours ‘doing the PhD’ by myself.  After all, wasn’t that what doctoral study was all about? Wasn’t I supposed to be the lone researcher on a journey of discovery, dedicated to making my original contribution?

Well, then I met Rachel. And I found myself talking to her about the PhD. And she talked back. And then I talked some more. And so did she. And from that point on we’ve been each other’s ‘go to’ person for all things PhD. I find it fascinating that we are at completely different points in our careers, and we have completely different life goals. In fact we are on completely different PhD programmes. And Rachel is well into her PhD, whilst I’m just at the proposal stage. But we both face the same challenges and frustrations. And we both want someone to yell ‘yay!’ really loudly in our face when we’re excited about something. Quite a lot of what we talk about isn’t related to the content of our PhDs at all. We swap writing and time management techniques. We share war stories about publishing.

And then there’s the little things that really count. Like the other day when I couldn’t find a reference and as if by magic Rachel swooshed into my office, pen drive in hand with a massive list of references a mere 10 minutes after my slightly pathetic email. She works ludicrously hard and is the first person to put her hand up when people need help.  I felt completely privileged that she took the time out of her day, at the drop of a hat, to walk over to my office to help me. Family and friends are awesome and kind and politely listen when you’re harking on about a journal’s impact factor. But they can’t do things like that.


I love my PhD. I tell myself this every day. Some days this is very true and I say it with a grin, because I do love what I do. Some days I say to remind myself that it is true. These are the hard days which everyone faces during their doctorate, regardless of what course you are on. When I found out I had been chosen for my PhD my first thoughts were of graduation, changing my passport to say ‘Dr Rachel Dunn’ and flying all over the world to attend conferences. These things will happen eventually, but I don’t think I really thought about the journey it would take me on to get there.

The first year into my PhD has been successful and a learning curve. I have had papers accepted, presented at many conferences and had some invaluable teaching experience. I have also had people really hate my papers, grant rejections and disagreements with my chosen methodology. And this is hard. When you love something so much and it occupies your every free thought, you want to protect it and yourself.

This was when I realised that I can’t go through this alone and Elaine became a big part of my support group. Even though I am further on in my PhD, Elaine has been publishing for years, is an amazing teacher and, quite frankly, works her ass off! I don’t think I have ever been so inspired and influenced by someone who is always willing to listen to my woes. Elaine gives me so much guidance on every aspect of my life. It isn’t just about which journals I should publish in, how to approach certain situations and what else I can be doing to raise my research profile. She listens to me when I feel like I’m drowning with work, helping me to prioritise what is important. She helps me with my personal life, which can often feel like a disaster during the PhD journey! Elaine is just there for me and I feel very lucky. I aim to have a career as rich as hers and I know Elaine wants that for me also.

So, on the days when I have to remind myself that I love my PhD, I no longer feel alone. I have Elaine to help remind me and I help to remind her. If you are doing a PhD and you don’t have an Elaine, get one!

How I use Scrivener for academic writing

It’s been 6 months since I made the switch to Scrivener. Since then I’ve used it to write two journal articles and a book chapter.  It has made an amazing difference to the way that I write. But more significantly, it has caused a tangible sea-change in the way that I feel when I sit down to write. Because when I open the programme, whether at home or at work, Scrivener takes me straight to the place that I was when I last closed it down. Like an old friend, there is my (usually really badly formed) last sentence waiting there for me. “Come back in!”, it yells. “You’re going to say something really clever today!”. “Now you’ve had a little time away, just think what you can write today!”. This, along with the other features I’ve listed below, makes me emotionally tied to Scrivener. I actively look forward to writing. I get a buzz when I open up the programme. I cannot say I ever felt this way about Word. Just thinking about the never ending scrolling gives me a headache.

Chunk up your life

My favourite thing about Scrivener is its core feature: chopping everything into chunks and letting you see the whole of your article at a glance.

Scrivner Oct1

This is an article I’m writing at the moment. It’s about the ethical issues associated with autoethnography.

On the left you can see all of the sections which make up that article. I’ve got a section for my abstract. Then a section for my introduction. I then made another section for part of the article which focusses on the power of autoethnography. I started to write that section but found that it was getting messy and I was covering a number of issues. So I created a folder called ‘the power of autoethnography’. You can see that I then made three sub-sections underneath. So I can now go straight to the section on interpretivism if I like; I don’t need to scroll through a long ‘power of autoethnography’ section to get to it.

At this stage, I like to give my sections titles that mean something to me rather than use fancy academic language. I find it helps when you glance at that left hand side bar to have something snappy. With this article, I’ve got a section called “Great, but uhhhh” which is my way of saying ‘in principal this is a good idea, but I have a few issues with it’. I change them to something more appropriate later on when I’m near the final draft.

Sick of ‘draft 1’, ‘draft 2’, ‘final draft v3’? Me too 

I have loads of Word documents marked up as ‘draft x, version x’. Sometimes I put the date on, for a bit of variety. Sometime, I have a bad day and I give it an impossible-to-find-ever-again title. I hate to think of the hours that I’ve wasted trying to find an old version that contains a particular quotation or turn of phrase that I’ve deleted 10 drafts later.

When I first got Scrivener, I kept up this way of saving drafts. I went to File>Save As and saved things as ‘x article draft x [date]’.  This was wrong. I soon discovered the Snapshot feature, which you can find by going to Documents>Snapshots.

Scrivner Oct4

If you click Take Snapshot, Scrivener does exactly that. It takes a photograph of where you are up to at that moment. You can name your Snapshots if you like, but you continue working in the same document.  If you want to go back to an earlier ‘draft’ you can ask Scrivener to show you your Snapshots and you can pick the one you want. I love this feature. I also love the old-school camera sound effect when you click on Take Snapshot!

Integrated writing tools

Instead of leaving the programme to find a synonym or search for something on Google (which will inevitably lead to looking at something not writing related), you can ask Scrivener to look things up for you. I use ‘Look Up in Thesaurus.com’ a lot.  It’s a small time saving device, but a useful one.

Scrivner Oct3

Right on Target!

If you like to work to targets and also like to see your progress, then Scrivener’s Project Statistics tool is perfect for you. As you can see below, I decided that my target word count for the article should be 6000 words. Scrivener tells me how many words I have written, but there’s also a satisfying progress bar.  You can also set a session target e.g a target number of words for that particular writing session. This is helpful if you’ve committed to writing a certain number of words per day or have a similar writing goal.

Scrivner Oct5

My only criticism is that the session target takes into account any deletions you make. So I might write 500 new words but also edit a different part of the article and subsequently delete 500 other words. Scrivener will tell me I’ve written 0 words. It would be useful if there was an ‘ignore edits’ option.

Citing and Referencing

You can link Scrivener with a number of different referencing managers. There are guides (on the Scrivener website and on YouTube) to help you to do this. I am still struggling with this feature. I haven’t given myself time to sit down and learn how to do it properly. However, I will do this because I’m determined to write my PhD thesis in Scrivener.

At the moment, I’m putting notes in the text to remind me where I’ve got something from (e.g Ellis, 2004: 65). I use Excel spreadsheets for all my literature reviews. I have a good system which means that I can find articles, quotations and page numbers pretty quickly. So when I convert my Scrivener file to Word, I then open up the referencing manager I use (EndNote) and start adding in the references properly in Word. That is working for 5000 word articles. But it won’t for the thesis. [Update – please see Jon Hickman’s amazing comment on referencing below!]

What are your experiences of using Scrivener? Are there any other features you’d like to know about?