By Drew Thomas |


Writing my PhD thesis was one of the longest and most challenging tasks I’ve ever accomplished. I never would have completed it without using Scrivener. Scrivener is a word-processor and outlining programme that originally was popular among book authors and screenwriters. However, it quickly expanded and became a great writing tool for researchers as well. It helped me keep my writing on track, focused, and structured. It is a programme that wants you to forget about the formatting and how the text looks and just focus on the writing. No distractions! It took some time to get used to at first, but now I highly recommend it. Keep reading to find out how Scrivener can help you conquer the seemingly unmanageable project that is your thesis.


1. Structure

Scrivener is a writing programme that breaks up your writing into sections. Instead of one long Word document, you have a separate writing space for each section. If you’re an Evernote user, it’s kind of like having a separate note for each section. This has two big advantages. On the left of the programme is an outline of your project, based on all the sections and subsections you have created (these do not have to mirror the titled sections in your thesis). So you always see where this particular section fits into the larger project. The other benefit is that you can reorder these sections however you wish. This gets rid of all the copying and pasting that would be required in a normal Word document. I took advantage of this many times.

Scrivener also provides a great feature, which allows you to view your project as a “corkboard”. This is like a film’s production board, where you see each scene as a separate card. This gives you a different view of your project and helps ensure everything is properly organized.


Scrivener corkboard view

Scrivener’s corkboard view

2. Focus

Because each part of your thesis is separated in Scrivener, when you are writing, you are only focused on that section or those few paragraphs. As a writing programme, the focus is solely on writing. There is no page view to see how the text and footnotes would appear on the printed page, which distracts from the task at hand. You don’t even have to worry about saving your work, as Scrivener automatically saves every word as you type (and you can save previous versions of each section). And for those who love minimalism, there is a full-screen mode, which is just a blank slate and the text you type, nothing else.

If you do need to look at information from another section while you are writing, Scrivener has a split screen view, allowing you to view multiple sections at the same time. You can also add tags to different sections, which aids in finding your other material.

It helped me keep my writing on track, focused, and structured.

3. Pacing

One of the features I love most about Scrivener is the ability to pace my writing. As everyone knows, real writing is re-writing. Getting that first draft complete is a huge hurdle to get over. Because you break up your thesis into different sections, you can assign different word counts for each section. So if I outline my chapter and then put each bullet point into Scrivener as a separate section, I can assign word counts to ensure I reach my goals and to determine if my chapter outline is realistic. By breaking down each chapter, section, and subsection into small goals, it is a great feeling of accomplishment as you write. Moreover, this pacing not only helps you achieve your word count, it helps prevent you from overwriting, which is one of the worst things you can do. Cutting words from a chapter is excruciating. How can you chop off part of your masterpiece? It’s better to avoid the problem altogether.

You can also set daily writing goals to estimate how long it will take you to write each section and to keep you on track; you can even view your writing statistics. You can add a status bar to each section so you can visually see how close you are to achieving your target. Each section also has a status label, which you can update from first draft, revised draft, final draft, or whatever status you might want.

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Once you have finished writing, you can export it as a Microsoft Word file. You can export whatever sections you want, such as a single chapter. I would write a chapter, export it to Word for formatting, then send it to my supervisor. I would then incorporate comments and track changes in Word.

Now the one downside about Scrivener is that it’s not free. You can buy a license for either Mac or Windows for around £25. There is also an iOS version if you want to work on an iPad. If you’re unsure, you can try a free trial for 30 days (that’s 30 days of use, not 30 days from beginning the trial). I tried the free trial, then ultimately ended up purchasing it.

Overall, I really benefited from the way Scrivener allowed me to break everything down into manageable tasks. And by setting word counts for each section, it helped me stay on track and reach my writing goals. It turned my thesis, which at times seemed unmanageable, into a project with a pathway to success.


Drew Thomas is the Technical Editor for Pubs and Publications. He recently completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews on ‘The Industry of Evangelism: Printing for the Reformation in Martin Luther’s Wittenberg.’ He is now a postdoctoral researcher with the Universal Short Title Catalogue working on their Preserving the World’s Rarest Books project. He is also the Project Manager of the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on or Twitter at @DrewBThomas.


Images from Literature and Latte.