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

How I use Excel to manage my Literature Review

Abandon your Word tables! Using Excel to manage your literature review can make research quicker, easier – and yes –  fun.  

A short while ago, David posted this comment on How I use Scrivener for academic writing:

David comment on excel lit review

I promised I would write a post about it. So here it is. But before we get down to the mechanics of Excel….

A little note about my literature review 

The methodology for my Professional Doctorate is autoethnography. I’ll be posting a fuller explanation of autoethnography in due course, but for the purposes of this post all you need to know is that this type of research uses self-examination and story in order to promote new ways of thinking, and help others make sense of their own lives and culture.

Initially, a systematic review of the literature appealed to me. I’m a lawyer. I like structure. So I begin my systematic review, looking for autoethnographic articles on Web of Science, HeinOnline, LexisNexis etc. My days as working in a library mean that I’m pretty au fait with boolean operators and the like – however, my searches yielded very few results. Key texts (which I knew existed, as I had read them) didn’t appear.

At the same time as conducting my systematic review, I was reading a minimum of one article on autoethnography per day. I was following bibliographies. Each article I read led me to another, then another, then another. And I made my choices based on the knowledge that I wanted to accumulate. For example, I wanted to specifically look at autoethnographic articles which were located in the educational world. Articles about disability and discrimination were very powerful, but they were not within the scope of my review. This process of “systematized creativity” or intuitive research is a feature of an abductive approach to reasoning (Andreewsky & Bourcier, 2000; Taylor, Fisher, & Dufresne, 2002). Rather than follow a linear process, an abductive approach allows for the type of intuition I was using when finding the next article.

I suspect that I am drawn to an abductive approach because its focus is on interpretation and understanding new perspectives. These are phrases that are strongly associated with autoethnography. It makes sense to me that an autoethnographer would approach the literature in this way.

So that’s the way I’m reviewing the literature. One step at a time. One article or book at a time. And I’m following my nose.

So what’s this spreadsheet about? 

Aha! So here’s where the lawyer in me comes right back to the fore. I wanted to create a table that I could manage effectively. Where I could move the data with ease. And, because seeing how far I’ve come helps to keep me feeling positive, where I could easily find out how many articles I’d read!

My spreadsheet is basic. It is not all singing and dancing, and I’m sure there are lots of clever things I’m missing out on. But its simplicity works for me.

This is how it looks when I open it up:

Lit Review 1


You’ll see that across the top, in row 1, I’ve chosen a heading for each column. Originally, I used headings from lit reviews that I had seen elsewhere. But those headings, and the placement of the columns, didn’t work for me. There were some columns I never filled in. And I found it hard to remember what some headings were for. So, over time, I made my own, to suit the purpose of my review and the topic I am reviewing (in this case autoethnography). For example, I like to have the ‘conclusions’ column right at the front – I don’t want to hide it away in column ‘S’.

Happy thoughts

The photo above only shows the columns I can see when I open the spreadsheet. If you were to scroll to the right, you’d also see these headings:

Lit Review 2

I did say I made my own headings up…

But the “happy thoughts” and “unhappy thoughts” columns are where I can place all of my critical thinking, abstract comment, and queries (and what I sometimes think are really impressive points, but later on turn out to be a load of rubbish). In happy thoughts, I’ll often write about what I loved about the work or how I can use that work to frame my own. In unhappy thoughts, I might note if the text is fairly hard going and perhaps needs a few reads, or any contradictions I might have picked up. I also use this space to record where I don’t agree with the author.

The “ethical concern” sections are there because many of my papers and publications on autoethnography concern ethics. I wanted to capture if the author of the work raised any ethical issues, and if I had any. This is furthest away as it is not my primary concern at the moment. I regularly move my columns around.

Being able to move things around, easily

If I click the drop down box at the bottom right of the ‘Author’ column, Excel will order that column A-Z or Z-A within a second. This is incredibly useful if, like me, you add rows in all over the place. I know I can insert a new row anywhere I like and with the touch of a button Excel will put it in alphabetical order. Similar with year – I’m looking at the history of autoethnography at the moment and I was interested to see the spread of articles across the years. Click the drop down box at the bottom right of ‘Year’ and Excel orders the list. Same goes for any other column.

Lit Review 3

Seeing how far you’ve come

This is where I’m up to today. There’s something very satisfying in seeing you’ve nearly read 100 articles!

Lit Review 4

Do you use Excel to manage your literature review?

Do you have any ‘unusual’ headings too?

Any tips to share? 

UK Blog Awards 2016

I was thrilled to be a finalist at the UK Blog Awards this year, for best individual Education blog.   The awards ceremony was held on Friday 25 April, and those who follow me on twitter will no doubt have realised how excited we were to be there!

The event itself was held at the very swanky Park Plaza Westminster. We decided to go all out and get room there, and ended up on the 11th floor with an amazing view across Westminster Bridge.

I was joined by my OH and my PhD Buddy Rachel. Rachel had nominated me for the award so it was fantastic to share the evening with her. The event itself was probably the closest I will ever get to a film premiere (or, as I ended up saying – repeatedly – “it’s like the BAFTAS!!”). The décor, the immense rooms, the canapes, the champagne… the BFG(!). OH and Rachel even managed to get themselves in front of a camera crew whilst I nipped to the ladies. Timing – not one of my strong points.

Seeing the blog up on the big screen was fab (and thank you to Rachel for whooping when our host read it out). It was a pleasure to be listed alongside so many of my favourite education blogs – and to represent higher education. Huge congratulations to Grange Park ICT who won the individual category.

I’m currently working my way through the amazing goody bag, and working out how I can incorporate all the free glitter, mouldable glue and bubbles into my teaching next year…

The only reason I got through to the final was because people voted. We had an incredible day and learned so much about the world of blogging. Thank you so much if you voted.