The University 811: Invest Time and Money in a Scrivener Programme (or Equivalent)

As promised in yesterday’s post regarding reading practices, today we’ll be talking about organizing your research through a programme like Scrivener. I’m calling this section University 811 to differentiate from University 411. My 411 blogs are applicable to all levels of students, whereas 811 (in Canada, a phone number for health services) will be targeted more towards researchers (masters, PhDs, postdocs, and beyond). If you’ve every done or about to engage in a literature review or have files and files of documents stored all so you can write one sentence in your article or chapter, this post is for you.

Note that I’m not a paid advertiser for Scrivener and there are tons of other similar apps or software out there (Dabble, Living Writer, Ulysses, to name a few). But I think these alternatives are geared more towards creative writing (novels, screenplays, etc) than non-fiction research. (And if you’ve used any of these platforms for creative writing, please drop me a line; I’m not completely sold yet on Scrivener for my fiction writing.) If you google “Scrivner alternatives” you will find plenty of other bloggers who discuss the pros and cons of these programmes. But as I’m familiar with Scrivener, that’s what we’ll be talking about today. It has a 30 day free trial based on usage. That means if you use it on 30 separate days spread out over years, you’re still covered by the free trial. At the moment it costs $67 CAD (or $57 if you have verified university affiliation as student or staff). They just released another update for Windows in 2021 – BUT, if you purchased version 1 after November 2017, then updating to the new version is completely FREE. If you purchased it before 2017, then you still get a 49% discount on the upgrade. (Mac upgrades are separate and I know absolutely nothing about it. Sorry!) While the price point might make you hesitate, I think they take good care of their new and existing customers. You can investigate cheaper options like Dabble but the cheaper price point means less features and I’m not entirely sure what gets cut. Admittingly, the other con with Scrivener is that it has a steep learning curve to figure out all of their features. But I highly recommend checking out their tutorial during one of your free trial days. And you can always go back to the tutorial as you need it.

Scrivener is another system that I wished I discovered during my PhD. It would’ve made things SO much easier. If you’re already well into your research, you can import your existing research files fairly easily, but I recommend you do small chunks at a time rather than crashing the system with 5000 documents. There are two main folder systems in Scrivener: drafts for writing and research for your notes. The research section lets you upload all different types of files such as powerpoints, pdfs, jpgs, etc but can also includes movie and audio files. So you should be able to organize ALL of your research in the same place and access it quickly.

View of Binder with fies in draft and research portions
View of Binder with files in draft and research portions

For each of my research files, I write a summary of each critical text in the “synopsis” or index card feature of my notes. I break down my notes for a book by chapters rather than having one document for the whole book. This way I can review the summary without having to flip through the book itself and the contents of my entire bookcase. You can colour code the cards with labels (I haven’t yet as I’m not entirely sure how to best use this feature but I’ve added both “label” and “status” in the example below so you can see how that works). As well, you can customize the presentation of the card itself. Actually, you can customize the look of the entire software at an insane level, so be careful not to get lost with fiddling with settings as a way to procrastinate from work. Once you twiddle with these options, you can view the cards in a handy corkboard view at multiple levels (folder or various subfolders) and you also have the option to drag and drop cards (when set to free style mode):

Corkboard View of My Notes from Cecire’s Re-Enchanted (2019)

While these features are helpful, the reason I personally love Scrivener is the tagging feature. I’ve tagged all of my notes with primary and secondary authors. This means I tag, not only the author of the text I’m reading, but also any fiction or non-fiction author that they cite.

A Selection of My Keywords
A Selection of My Keywords

This way if I want to search my research for all the critics that reference, let’s say, Ursula Le Guin, I just hit the keyword search button to find them. It’s also worth nothing that the search feature is fairly extensive and not limited to just a keyword search:

Screenshot of Search Window
Screenshot of Search Window

More importantly, I also tag my research notes with references to my planned article or chapter. Let’s say I’m sitting down to write my first draft for chapter 5. I do a search for that tag and it pulls up all the notes that I’ve made for the chapter. I can then save this search as a smart “collection” which updates automatically. This is the part of Scrivener which has become so essential for my research process: keyword tags means I don’t have to comb through all my files and pages of notes to see where I’ve made comments indicating I should include a specific piece of research in chapter 5.

I also use a combination of comments (much like comments in Microsoft Word), highlights, annotations, internal and external bookmarks, and project notes. We’ll be discussing these features more when I talk about first drafts (check back this time next week). But it’s a powerhouse tool and I highly recommend it for anyone who has gathered a lot of research and need a way to organize and access it efficiently.

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