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

Scrivener and Endnote: a simple guide

Using Endnote & Scrivener couldn’t be simpler. Here’s  a quick guide to help you out. 

As regular readers will recall, I really love Scrivener. It’s an amazing writing tool which has totally changed the way I write, and how I feel about sitting down to write. I also love EndNote, the citation software my institution allows me to use for free (yay!).

Now, I know how to use EndNote in Word. And I know how to use Scrivener as my alternative to Word. But, can I use EndNote and Scrivener at the same time?

Happily, the answer to that question is YES! I’ve finally got my head around how to do it. With the help of those who commented on my How I Use Scrivener for Academic Writing post, I’ve worked out a strategy that works for me (thank you again for your great comments!).

Here’s my disclaimer: I suspect there’s probably a million other ways of doing it, and they’re probably better than what I’m about to say. But this is my simple guide to getting the two to work together. And doing fun things like getting page numbers to appear on the final Word doc! Sometimes you just want a back to basics, really simple guide – this is what this is.

By the way, I use Windows so my photos reflect that. If you’re using a Mac I suggest you go straight to Jon Hickman’s really useful blog post. In fact, go there whatever you’re doing – it’s a fantastic blog!

1. Have you told Scrivener that you love EndNote too? 

If not, head to Tools > Options

Find Bibliography/Citations Manager. Then click on Choose to find the .exe for EndNote.

2. How do you make EndNote citations appear in Scrivener?

Open up EndNote. Right click on the reference you want, copy it, and paste it into your Scrivener.

Here’s an example. This is one of my favourite descriptions of the research methodology I use, called autoethnography, written in Scrivener.


The description comes from an article by Elizabeth Mackinlay, published in 2015.  You can see that I’ve been to EndNote, right clicked and copied that reference from the reference list and then pasted it into Scrivener. It appears in Scrivener in brackets. The # is the number it has been given in my EndNote reference list.

3. OK, how do I add page numbers? 

To add page numbers, you simply put the @ sign straight after the #number. So, if your quotation comes from p.199 (as mine did) you add @199 after the #number.

Like this:


When you’re ready to covert your Scrivener to Word, click on the Compile icon. You can then save your lovely piece of writing as .doc, .docx, or .rtf.

Open up that document, and you’ll get something that looks like this:


The EndNote link is still there, as it was in Scrivener.

Now all we need to do is hit the EndNote tab at the top, and select Update Citations and Bibliography


And then, the magic happens, and it turns into this:


I’d selected APA 6th as my referencing style, so Word has now created that here. You can always select a different style, click update, and then it will change to that style.

There are other tips & tricks which I’m experimenting with, but I’ll save those for another day. Hopefully this very simple guide will help you to start using Scrivener & EndNote together. 

How to write 8 articles (and a book chapter) in a year – and not lose the plot

Whatever your writing goals, there are some things that make writing easier and more enjoyable. 

If you had told me in January 2015 that 12 months later I would have written 8 journal articles (and snuck in a book chapter along the way), this would have been my face:


Ha ha ha ha!

In between snorts, I would have said, “ha ha, very funny. You’re having a laugh, right?!”.

But last year, I really did write 8 academic articles and a book chapter.

At no point in time did I set out to write that much. My plan for the year had been 2, maybe 3, potential articles that I might write, and even then that looked like a tall order.

So, what happened? Well, that’s the subject of today’s blog post. And it’s a question that I’ve been asked a lot of late.

Most people presume that I spent a large amount of time in a cave scribbling away and not doing much else. Nothing can be further from the truth. I’ve supervised numerous real life company, commercial and intellectual property law cases. I’ve spent a lot of time with my students discussing job applications, and giving careers advice. I’ve helped other people set up their own business law clinics. I’ve been to conferences in Newcastle, Aberdeen, Cardiff, Turkey and Glasgow. And I’ve spent a good deal of time at social events, and enjoyed many a Friday night in our staff local putting the world to rights. Outside of work, I’ve visited New York, London, Edinburgh and Hull. I moved house. I bought my first car.

Writing is hard work. There’s no getting away from that. And there have been some very hairy moments when I really questioned what the point was. But I managed to do it alongside lots of other activities – work & non-work related. I did not turn into Wonder Woman – let’s throw that idea out of the window right now – but I did manage to discover techniques that helped me keep plugging away with the writing, and that made the writing something I wanted to do.

Before we get on to those techniques, I want to make one thing absolutely crystal clear. At no point am I saying that you should write 8 articles in a year. Or that 8 articles in a year is a realistic goal. It isn’t. It wasn’t my goal, and it won’t ever be my goal. I firmly believe that you should do what is right for you. If it’s to write a 300 word paragraph in 2 weeks, then that’s fantastic. If it’s to complete your thesis in 3 months, then that’s brilliant too. If it’s to get yourself writing for 30 minutes each week, then I salute you. I can’t emphasise that enough.

Right, now we’ve got that out of the way, onwards!



I like to treat each article like a friend.

Article A is Bob. Bob likes skiing, meeting new people, and has a secret obsession with Murder She Wrote. Article B is Julia. Julia has a prawn allergy, runs 10 miles 3 times a week, and wishes she could give up caffeine. Article C is Louis. Louis likes to spend his weekends upscaling his furniture, owns 2 cocker spaniels, and manages a call centre.

In life, we don’t want to spend all of our time with one friend. We want to mix and match. Sometimes Louis will be in bad mood and he just needs some time by himself. Other days, all you want to do is sit and have a natter with Julia. You might see Bob every couple of months on a Thursday evening.

That’s how I worked last year. I didn’t spend all of my time working on one article. I always had something else rolling on in the background that I could move to if I (a) got bored (b) lost inspiration (c) became frustrated, or (d) couldn’t be bother to look at the same thing over and over again. That meant that some of the pieces that I never thought I would get round to just got done. Because I was chipping away at them, bit by bit.

I’m still doing this now. I’ve got three articles on the go at the minute. Last week I had a moment when all I wanted to do was write about business law clinics. So, rather than thinking ‘hmmm, but that’s not the article I should be working on’, I went straight to the draft and wrote for half an hour. I spent a bit of time with Bob, and it felt good.


If you look at my list of published articles from last year, you’ll see that collaboration was a key theme. Three out of the eight articles I wrote (one will be published this year, so it doesn’t appear on the list yet) were co-authored.

Hand on heart I can say that those articles would have remained ideas and nothing more were it not for the patience and drive of my co-authors. They pushed the work on when I let it drift. They had fantastic opinions, styles and suggestions that I could bounce off.  I didn’t want to let them down, and that really provided motivation where there sometimes was none! I recently wrote about the power of collaboration on the Piirus Blog. That post specifically references the co-authorships I was part of last year if you’re interested in reading more on that subject.


I used to be the person that scoffed whenever someone suggested blocking off time for writing. I always had an excuse. You know the type of thing I mean….  Here’s a few gems from my past: “what if someone needs me?”, “I just can’t find a quiet time”, and “There’s no point, I just get interrupted by emails”.

Last year I made a concerted effort to make time for writing and factor it into my week.

I started by using the amazing virtual writing workshop Shut Up & Write Tuesdays. I found that it was indeed possible to spend an hour every other Tuesday just writing. I even – are you ready for this?switched my emails off for that hour. And you know what? Nothing bad happened. Shocking.

Then I looked at my diary and searched for times when things were slightly quieter. For me, this happens towards the end of the week. Most things related to clinic and supervision tend to need dealing with at the start and middle of the week. That’s when I need to give that work all of my attention. But towards the end it does lift a little. So I started to use our University Library Research Zone. It’s a place away from my desk where there are other researchers getting on with the same thing. It’s a lovely big room and, when you’re having a short pause, you can gaze out on to the courtyard and watch the world go by. I’ve recommended it to many colleagues.

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s okay to leave your desk and find a spot that works for you. It could be the downstairs cafe. It could be the library. It really doesn’t matter so long as you’re comfortable. And it doesn’t mean that you have to be completely cut off, if that’s not for you. Last Friday I went to the Research Zone but had a weather eye on my emails because I knew I might have to deal with something urgently. You can be flexible and you can make it work for you.


Stop constantly editing. Honestly, it will change your life.


We talk about Imposter Syndrome a lot in academia. Last year, I threw Imposter Syndrome into the Tyne and waved as it bobbed off into the distance.

I can honestly say that at no point in time last year did I ever think that my writing was ‘not good enough’. I did not, for one moment, contemplate that someone would turn to me and say that it couldn’t be published in their journal. I prepared myself for revisions – all of my articles have had revisions. But when I was writing, I told myself that it was the greatest thing the world would ever read.

In 2014, I went Back to the Future. I put on on my best 1950s dress, did my best 1950s hair and walked into Hill Valley. One thing from that film remained with me throughout 2015. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s father George is full of doubt and lacks self confidence. Marty tells George how good his stories are and that he should send them to publishers. But George responds with: “Well, what if they didn’t like them? What if they say I’m no good?“. Marty replies:  “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything“. In a newly realised future, when George is looking at his first novel, he turns to his son and repeats the same line:

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything

And you can.