Tips and Tricks for Scrivener

Scrivener is, in my opinion, the best tool for organizing research and writing drafts.  Scrivener is a word processor and also a database of sorts.  I wish that someone had told me about Scrivener before I started my PhD;  I would have organized everything in it right from the beginning.  Scrivener is amazing because it keeps all of my research organized and because everything is searchable in one place.  I keep all of my notes for every book and article I have read in Scrivener so that when I have a hard time remembering where I read something, all it takes is one quick search to track it down (much faster than individually searching loads of various different Word documents).

Scrivener has two basic sections: Draft and Research.  Let’s start with a screenshot:

Scrivener Research Dissertation Thesis Article Project

I should also say that this is not meant to be a blog post on how to become a Scrivener expert.  There are already tons of articles on that topic (just as there were for Evernote) and I will provide a list of what I think are the most helpful links at the bottom of the post.  What I will talk about is why I think Scrivener is the absolute best program for organizing any major research project.  Back to the screenshot.

Scrivener has three panes.  The one on the far left is where all of the organization happens.  Here is a closer look:

Scrivener Research Dissertation Thesis Article Project

I happened to start this project with a Non-Fiction Format but there are several options and you can experiment with which one you think is right for you (there is even a completely plain one if you want to start from scratch).  Take a look at the collapsed sections in the main frame: Manuscript, Notes, and (maybe the most important section) Research.  In the Research section I have a list of all of the secondary source items that I think I might use in my project.  I sort mine alphabetically, but you can sort them however you want.  Most importantly, if you think back to my previous post on how I organize my research, there are two folders in Research: INBOX and Bibliography.  Within each folder are my Bibliography items.  INBOX is where I store everything new.  It is step one in my workflow.  Most of my items are in the Bibliography section.  In that section there are different colored labels applied to different materials, letting me know which section of the project I think they will be most useful.  At the top are saved searches.  I have a saved search for things labeled ‘unsorted’ so that I know what I have not looked at in depth.  I have more saved searches that are just out of the range of the screenshot.  You can have as many saved searches as you want.

Scrivener Research Dissertation Thesis Article Project

The middle section is where all the action happens.  The screenshot above shows my Bibliography folder in corkboard view.  This is my favorite feature of Scrivener.  Each of my entries (whether it’s a folder or a file) has a card.  Now, in the real world, folders contain things and files go in the folders, but in the Scrivener world, a file and a folder can do exactly the same things.  You can type on a file or a folder, and you can store things in both files and folders.  Inside of the Bibliography item for Atkins 2013, there is a PDF of a book review from BMCR.  In the main section of the index card I have typed where the item can be found.  “Bibliography” is a folder on my computer where I keeps PDFs; if I don’t have a scan, I type the call number for the book in one or both of the libraries I have access to.  What shows up in the main pane here depends on which item is selected from the list on the side.  In the screenshot above, I have selected Bibliography.  If I select one of my Bibliography items, it would look like this:

Scrivener Research Dissertation Thesis Article Project

You can see now that the center pane displays a page dedicated to this particular Bibliography item.  All that is currently in the file is a basic bibliographical entry generated by Zotero.  By looking at the pane on the right, I can see that I have read it already and that somewhere I have notes:

Scrivener Research Dissertation Thesis Article Project

The top of the side pane is just a view of what’s on the index card (the same thing you see for that item in corkboard view).  In the metadata below I can see that the label is “Find Notes” and in the Document Notes I’ve typed where those notes are located (in this case on a copy of the article that I have printed out).  The labels and the status fields are completely customizable so you can use them to denote whatever you find most useful in organizing your projects.  In my different projects I use them for completely different things.  At the top of the right pane are some symbols: one for bookmarks, one for keywords, one for adding a picture.  You can get more details on those features by taking a look at some of the links below.  I will say briefly, however, that keywords are a very effective way to label your secondary sources so that you can find literature that you already have for a given topic very quickly.

Another wonderful part of the editor pane (the large middle section) is that you can split it in half with the small rectangular button in the upper right hand corner:

Scrivener Research Dissertation Thesis Article Project


This particular feature allows you to look at two different items at the same time (in this case two different Bibliography items, but it could also be a section of your manuscript and a Bibliography item or two different sections of your draft, etc.).  I love working on drafts using this feature because it allows me to split the screen between my notes and my draft.  Scrivener also lets you use all of these features in a distraction free composition mode (which means no jumping between programs and getting distracted by kitten videos on the internet).

To sum up, here are what I consider the magical virtues of Scrivener:

  • Useful place to organize all of my secondary sources
  • Word processing function for writing drafts
  • Completely searchable

If you’re interested in learning more about Scrivener, your first stop should be the video tutorials on the Scrivener website.  They will help you learn the basics of the program.  There is also a great post on Scrivener Fundamentals that will give you the quick and dirty version for how to set up a new project.  One of my favorite tutorials for setting up a new project is from Hacking the Thesis (in addition to this particular tutorial there is a lot of other useful information about managing a major research project).   If you already use Zotero (no worries if you have not heard of Zotero — there will be more on that later!), here is a great tutorial for how it integrates with Scrivener.  And finally here is another article with tips for using Scrivener to write a thesis that I found recently.  I think I will start using some of these tips for what has been for my own projects an underutilized Document Notes section.



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Tips and Trick for Scrivener by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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