Scrivener for my Dissertation

I thought I’d share how I use Scrivener to organize my research for my (literature) dissertation. It’s nothing fancy but I find it works for me, and it has been an enormous timesaver. My apologies if I mis-use some terminology. I’d love to hear any comments or suggestions, or if anybody does this in a similar or very different way.

I have several main top-level folders:

  1. Draft: I put actual writing in here. It is organized into sub-folders for each chapter I am planning to write. Within each folder are text files that have paragraphs / sections of actual writing.

  2. Research: Also divided into chapter-based subfolders, this is where I put PDFs of articles and other research material. Each chapter subfolder is in turn divided into two more subfolders: primary and secondary. The former contains Scrivener-friendly files that I am writing about, and the latter secondary research (obviously).

  3. Notebook: This is where I do the bulk of my work. Again, divided into sub-folders for each chapter, plus some others for peripheral topics, which contain a number of text-files. I take notes on the research material I read and store them all here, marked as “NB Author - Title.”

  4. Scratchpad: I just use this to store random bits and pieces that don’t fit well anywhere else. For example, if I am reading an article and I find a reference to yet another thing I should read, I dump it into a file called “Reading list.” I also put notes to self in here, and any other thing that I just want to keep a record of.

  5. Scrivenings: I often find freewriting to be a helpful exercise when I’m having trouble dealing with an idea. In the scrivenings folder, I have a series of dated text files that are basically just me writing random stuff in an attempt to wrap my head around something. Sometimes these are very useful: I’ll use them to keep sort of a running “commentary” on a text I happen to be reading, and then I can go back and try to fine-tune these initial ramblings into something more coherent that I can use in my actual dissertation. Other times, the writing is more along the lines of stream-of-consciousness text that will never be read by anyone else.

Thanks for sharing, synechdoche! I only wish I’d discovered Scrivener before completing my dissertation (2008, history of paleontology). Your outline perfectly describes all of the activities/sections of my thesis as well: actual writing, primary and secondary sources, notes on readings, to-read list, and general ramblings to self.

Sadly, since I hadn’t discovered anything fancier than Word while I was writing, I ended up with literally dozens of Word files, three file boxes full of printed articles (the poor trees!), and many scattered pages of random notes and reading lists. With my imperfect filing and note-taking system, I also managed to “rediscover” the same article on three separate occasions over 2.5 years of research and writing. (Sigh. At least it was really exciting every time.)

The one thing you didn’t mention is what you’re doing to organize your bibliography. Is that in Scrivener too, or are you using Scribe, RefWorks, or something similar?

Also, have you gotten to a stage yet where you’ve compiled your thesis and printed it out? Let us know how that works out… Good luck! :slight_smile:

I have Endnote, but I don’t really use it. I did for a while but in my field it doesn’t really save all that much time. I guess it might if I learned how to use it right, but in English, my references are usually (Author Pg#). It’s faster for me to type than to use Cite-While-You-Write. If I have to convert to another format I might regret this, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. What I do now is to use the bibliographical citation as the synopsis for each PDF I have in Scrivener.

Not quite close to compiling the whole thing, but we’ll see how it goes. I wasn’t using Scrivener for chapter one—I came to it part way through chapter two—but so far everything for chapter three is in there. The only thing I’m worried about is footnotes.

Hi, I am new here, just registered tonight. I am working on my phd dissertation, chapter 2 and trying out various out-liners, note-takers and so forth to see what works for me. My phd project is in the history of astronomy and astrophysics. Am hoping that Scrivener will be a good tool for this. Besides the writer I am replying to, someone on another discussion list also recommended it. The results will be submitted as Word documents. I am using both Endnote (supplied by my university) and Bookends (preferred).


I happen to think Zotero, a firefox plugin, is an extremely capable bibliography manager. And it works on Mac, Windows and Linux, so no OS lock-in. (And Scrivener is a fantastic writing tool for researchers!)