About to start thesis ...

I used Scrivener recently to create my masters by research proposal. I created folders to correspond with the sections of my University’s proposal template, within which I had several text documents used to create the individual drafts which were eventually compiled to match the required format for submission. Because the proposal used a formal template, I did not spend much time with features such as the cork board or notes (though by the end I wish I had). Invariably, most of my thinking became text documents spread around the place in folders such as “Dumping Ground” and “Supervisor Review Notes”.

I’m about to embark on the skeleton of the next two years of research and writing. In my mind I see the thesis divided up into chapters based on the details of my solution - an engineering project - where the individual components need to be described in great detail. The design and functioning of these individual components (there are a dozen or so) that make up the “thing” I am building will grow, as the project evolves, and I can already see how Scrivener is going to make sense. For example, I see the chapter for “Component A” starting quite simply, and growing as I add more detail on its design, functioning and implementation.

Nevertheless, I’d appreciate some tips or alternatives on what I might like to consider, in particular:

a) the structure of folders
b) the use of notes, outlines and cork board features.

Curiously, during the proposal phase I found using Scrivener to store research items unwieldy. Instead, I used a combination of EndNote, Papers, and manual folders to store my lit readings and snippets of research. I preferred to keep Scrivener clean and focussed on the writing task. But, I recognise that this might have to change.

I probably haven’t provided enough information to get too carried away, so this is more of a “have you considered” - kind of request.



Hello Paul

No one’s addressed your questions yet, and in a way I’m not that surprised. It’s not that they’re bad questions, but that most people who use Scrivener tend to come to individual conclusions about the best ways to do so.

One impression of Scrivener usage that’s striking reading these forums is the very wide diversity that emerges. Writers of apparently similar projects use or do not use widely different parts of its functionality, and proclaim themselves happy.

Decisions you make about usage are likely to depend on your answers to questions about your researching and writing styles (I’m assuming you’ve been through the Help documentation, the FAQs and the videos). These are questions that really only you can answer, such as:

  • are you an outliner or (flying-by-the-seat-of-your)-pantser;
  • a linear writer or odd-bits-here-and-there-er;
  • a hoarder of research or browser as needed;
  • a fiddler with words and paragraphs, or more-or-less right-first-time-er etc etc?

If you expect to have to do a lot of research of written sources, there’s an interesting current thread here.. Also, if you do a search of the forums there are quite a few past threads about different citation managers and the best ways to use them, if yours is that kind of thesis.

But generally as I say, in my view it’s probably best to continue to try Scrivener and work out the best way of working for you.


To follow up on Hugh’s wise proviso, think about what kinds of materials you gather. If you are collecting URLs, PDFs, plus DOC and RTF files, DevonThink Pro will handle them all, and its WebKit basis lets it display URLs rapidly. Many other data management tools force you to load the web pages with a separate browser. However, Papers handles PDF files nicely, and Leap or Yep will locate any files on your hard drive.

The advantage to DTP is that the files are in a database, on which you may perform complex searches and analyses of the data: like find a document that has the string “slavery” and is dated before 1865. It takes a while to learn how to use DTP, but a dissertation is a great place to start. You will add to it constantly in your career, and then it becomes a very powerful research aid.

I’d second DevonThink Pro for storing reference material and sources, particularly if they are going to be things that you will come back to once the thesis is wrapped up. I have ended up with several Scrivener projects which are all around a similar subject, with documents and information snippets scattered between them. Three quarters of the way through the last project I bought DevonThink: very soon I wished I’d bought it a couple of years ago. I’m still straightening things out, but I now know there is ONE place to look for information.

At the researching/writing stage I tend to have Scrivener open on one screen and DevonThink on the other. Later, when it’s time to distil my rough outlines and notes into human readable text I tend to have the main Scrivener window on one screen and one document in full-screen on the other.

Coming back to your structuring question, though, it seems like you’ve half-way answered it yourself. You already have a component structure, where your thinking is going to accrete. The great joy of Scrivener for that work style is that you can let the project grow, quite naturally, then rapidly pull it into shape, albeit a very different one from that you started with: it is so easy to restructure a chapter when you’ve finally realised what’s wrong with it.

Mind you, whatever you do is going to be easier than writing it out neatly and handing it to a typist.</old codger>

As a postscript to the posts about recommending DevonThink from Druid and MrGruff, I endorse the idea of keeping your mother-lode of research in DT and just copying a sub-set of key documents by drag-and-drop to the Research folder of Scrivener.

In addition, I recommend duplicating the outline chapter and section headings in your Draft folder as empty folders in your Research folder. That way, as you copy your key documents across into your Research folder, you can sort them into the best order. You may of course need to duplicate some for multiple references, and on re-consideration, you may also need to re-order your Draft headings to get the best flow. Then, when you get down to writing, you’ve got your skeleton and some of the flesh of your body of work ready waiting for you.

Assuming of course that you’re an Outliner, not a Pantser… :wink: