A few years ago as a pre-ABD graduate student, I wrote a post for the blog that has proved to have a longer shelf-life than most. That post, “Digital Workflow for Historians,” laid out how I used two programs, Papers and Scrivener, to manage my research and writing process. At the end of that post, I offered to share my project template and Chicago-style Compile (or export) preset. Over three years later, I still get emails on a monthly basis asking for those files. Following a discussion on Twitter last week about using Scrivener, it seemed the time was right to revisit the topic and to show how I ended up using Scrivener throughout the dissertation process, from organizing my research to producing drafts and revisions of chapters.
Much of the basics regarding Scrivener can be found in that previous post, so, if you are wholly unfamiliar with the application, I suggest reading that portion of the post. Scrivener has been around for a long time now and was originally designed for novelists and screenwriters. Immediately after first seeing the GUI, I could see the ways in which it could be easily adapted for historians. In that first post, I was describing how I used Scrivener for a journal article length piece of writing. But today I want to focus on how I have used it to produce a much longer piece of writing with a much larger amount of research.
As you can see from the screenshot above (click for full-size view), Scrivener organizes material in the left sidebar or “Binder.” At the top is the main document that you are writing, i.e., “Dissertation.” Using individual text documents, I created the structure of the dissertation in Parts and chapters. During the initial phases of the project, each chapter also had various subdocuments related to each of the chapter’s major themes. For example, I might have a subdocument under a chapter for the chapter’s introduction. Then subsequent subdocuments for each distinct part of the chapter. In this way, the Binder allows you to break down your work into manageable sections. Once I had drafted a chapter, I would combine them into a single chapter document. This would be especially helpful for people writing chapters that rely on subheadings for organization. Needless to say, the structure of my dissertation changed a lot over the course of writing it and early on, thanks to the nature of Scrivener’s Binder, I was able to shuffle pieces of writing around, both within a chapter and, if necessary, from one chapter to another. Ultimately, in addition to acting as a way of structuring your work, the main document in the Binder also serves as an outlining tool and a visual representation of the outline of your work.
Below the main document folder is a folder that I simply call “Research.” One of the main benefits of the Binder is that it lets you organize all of your research into a complex file structure that is much easier to manage than if you were to do it through Windows Explorer or the Mac’s Finder. Scrivener will import most any kind of file you would need in performing historical research. Because my project focuses heavily on print culture, my research folders are full of PDFs downloaded from primary source databases. But I also have tons of pictures of documents from my archival research. It also lets you import hyperlinks, which is especially handy if you want to import a Google Book or a book on archive.org, as it will allow you to view the book within Scrivener. You can even import audio files, video files, and YouTube links and watch and listen to them within Scrivener.
Within my main “Research” folder, I have created detailed layers of subfolders. So each chapter gets its own folder with subfolders labeled “Primary” and “Secondary.” Within both of those (which often correspond), I include subfolders for each of the chapter’s main themes and topics. Beyond that, you could decide to give each individual repository at which you did archival research its own subfolder. How you want to do it and how far you want to go is up to you but even the most complex number of layers of subfolders is easy to view and work with in the Binder. And, ultimately, that is the beauty of Scrivener and its Binder. Not only does it make managing a large amount of different materials easy, it also acts as a one-stop location for all of your research and writing together (my Scrivener project file contains over 4,000 individual files and totals 26.8GB).
Besides the top-level “Research” folder, I also have a number of other top-level folders. These are usually called “Working Documents,” where I kept things like my dissertation prospectus, bibliographies, and even emails with my advisor and others offering feedback. I also keep a top-level folder called “Notes,” where I keep my random thoughts and other miscellaneous things. For example, every few months as the project progressed, I would write a 30-second spiel about the dissertation and I kept them all (dated, of course) in a subfolder called “Synopses” within the Notes folder. That has allowed me to see how my own thinking about the project most broadly has changed over time. Finally, I have two folders called “Fellowships” and “Conferences” where I would keep information and application/submission proposals.
In addition to simply storing or managing your research materials, Scrivener has extensive tagging and metadata functionality. Honestly, I have not used the tagging and metadata functions as thoroughly as I hoped to in the beginning. Nevertheless, every item in your research folder gets a corresponding index card and notepad (the former of which can be viewed on a cork board). Every item can also be labeled, given a “status,” tagged with keywords, and tagged with metadata, all of which you define. For example, you can see some of my keywords in the screenshot on the right. They, too, can be structured however you like and can be added to a document, among other ways, by dragging the keyword onto the file in the Binder. Moreover, Scrivener’s Binder has a feature called “Collections” which lets you add specific documents to it and order them any way you want. For example, during a previous project, I used a collection to document a public debate by importing newspaper pieces, pamphlets, and scans of private correspondence and arranged them chronologically. Another critical aspect of Scrivener’s value in organizing your research is the degree to which it is almost completely customizable to whatever degree you are willing (or need) to take it.
Since we’ve talked about how I use Scrivener to manage my research materials, let me just say a few words about the writing process in Scrivener. Each of the documents you see in the main Dissertation folder is just a rich text file. When you import Word documents anywhere into Scrivener, they get immediately converted into rich text files. It is important to note that Scrivener is designed primarily to help you produce a first draft that can be exported (or, in Scrivenerian parlance, “Compiled”) into your chosen file format. Without the usual page layout controls one using Word might be accustomed to, Scrivener lets you just concentrate on the actual writing as opposed to formatting. There are caveats, however. Since it deals with rich text files, it handles footnotes by putting them in the right sidebar rather than in the text file (see above). This can be a bit strange at the beginning but you quickly get used to it. As noted above, though, the ability to break chapters down into bite-size pieces by giving each its own subdocument, helped greatly in not becoming overwhelmed when starting a new chapter from scratch. When you have a draft (of a chapter or the dissertation as a whole), you can choose to Compile it to a Word document. The Compile settings let you set all the standard page layout features including spacing and fonts as well as how to handle/format your footnotes.
Ultimately, I used Scrivener for my dissertation (and, likely, the manuscript to follow) because it provides a single space in which I do the vast majority of work. To have everything in one place is an enormous convenience that has become a necessity. And, because I keep my Scrivener project file in my Dropbox folder on my hard drive, it constantly updates with almost every change. That means I never have to worry about losing any of my work and I can pick up right from where I left off on my (or anyone’s) laptop or desktop. The other great thing about Scrivener is its customizability and flexibility. Scrivener can be setup for almost any kind of historical-related project one can imagine and tweaked according to each user’s own preferences. For example, I currently have a Scrivener project dedicated to the job market (where I work on and keep document drafts and information relevant to each job) and I usually create one for each class I teach. Now, despite the length of this post, I have only really touched on the very basics of using the application, so I am happy to answer any questions in the comments related to the application and how I’ve used it in writing my dissertation. And once again, I am offering a new dissertation/large project template file, my Preferences file, and my up-to-date Chicago-style preset file which can be downloaded here.