I admit, I can be a little old-fashioned when it comes to research and writing. While you’d still need to pry my paper planner out of my hands, the pandemic has changed the way I write and compile research. As a result of this, I’ve been embracing new software that might make my pandemic PhD a little easier.

As a tried-and-true Microsoft Word loyalist, the idea of learning a new word-processing technology seemed overwhelming. However, when I started to hear people talk about the many capabilities of the word-processing software Scrivener for academic writing, I was intrigued. I was first drawn in by the promise of word count goals. In these dark winter-plus-a-pandemic days, the only thing keeping me motivated is small, attainable goals, so this function is what prompted me to download the free trial. For just over a month, I’ve used Scrivener as the primary word-processing software for my thesis writing and I have some initial thoughts that might help other PhD students considering switching to this software.

The Positives

The software is very customisable:

Even though I’ve been using the software for about a month, I still feel like I’m learning about Scrivener’s seemingly infinite possibilities. The software seems really adaptable for a variety of long-form writing, including fiction, non-fiction, and academic writing. It can also be used to organise your research documents, which I don’t use because I’m wedded to Tropy for those purposes, but it’s still a great option. You can customise its appearance and its functionality to your liking.

There are great outlining capabilities:

Scrivener has a great variety of options for outlining chapters and sections of your work. They have a flashcard function, which allows you to write a brief description of the section and then move it around with ease. I really found it helpful to have a clear 1-2 sentence summary of my main goal for each section as I work on writing my chapter to keep me focused on the task at hand. Going on tangents and getting lost in the enormity of the project have been major obstacles for me in the PhD-writing process, so this definitely helps.

Word count targets:

Of course, the function that initially drew me to the software has continued to be one of my favourites. I set a rough word goal for each sub-section of my chapter and it displays in a convenient little progress bar. Something I’m currently experimenting with is the daily word goal functions, which automatically calculates how many words you need to write per day to finish by a deadline. I’m enjoying this function, especially since it allows you to set your “writing days” each week.

The Negatives

It can be a bit overwhelming:

It didn’t take me very long to figure out the basics of the software, but some of the more complex features took me a long time to get the hang of. Fortunately, there is a really extensive handbook for the software, as well as a forum to ask questions and many blog posts/YouTube videos/etc. to consult. I did feel like the learning curve was a bit distracting and did take away a bit of time I could have otherwise spent researching and writing, so I wouldn’t recommend trialing Scrivener when you’re on a tight deadline.

The citation system is a bit unintuitive:

I find the footnoting options pretty unintuitive for citation purposes. If you tend to use a lot of explanatory footnotes, you might like Scrivener’s capability to see your footnotes side-by-side with the text (using a function they call the Inspector) but for doing citations, the system felt clunky. There aren’t any numbers associated with the footnotes either, so they can be pretty hard to keep track of. If you usually use Mendeley or Zotero for automatically inserting footnotes into Microsoft Word, I believe you’d lose this capability in Scrivener.

Exportation to pdf or doc formats can be problematic:

As an extension of the previous point, I’m not entirely sure what the document will look like when I export it to doc or pdf formats. As I’m still in the earlier stages of writing, I’m not overly concerned about this. I plan on exporting back to Word well in advance of any deadlines, to avoid any technical difficulties. However, if you’re someone in the final stages of writing or if you plan on exclusively using Scrivener for your writing, I would test these functions a bit more to save yourself time re-formatting, if there are any issues.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, for me and for now, Scrivener works. I enjoyed the 30-day free trial and I plan on purchasing the software afterwards as a small pandemic PhD luxury. I actually think that a good part of my enjoyment from it stems from the fact that it feels like a “change of scenery” in this lockdown PhD life. Instead of looking at a Word document all day, I can look at a Scrivener document all day or switch back and forth between the two. I hope that this review was helpful to anyone else who might be considering using Scrivener or any PhD students looking to embrace the digital in new ways!

Vesna Curlic is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Edinburgh, though she is originally from Toronto, Canada. Her current research examines immigration, medicine and ethnicity in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. She can be found on Twitter at @vesnacurlic.