The Right Tools for the Job: What I Used to Write My Dissertation

Aug 1 2013

With several books under my belt, I didn't think writing a dissertation would require different writing tools. I fully expected to be able to make do with the word processor-centered workflow that I had grown accostomed to.

But when it comes to a serious writing project, a word processor just didn't cut it for me. <!--break-->

How Things Derailed

I began the dissertation with my trusty word processor: Unfortunately, about this time Open Office struggled with some serious stability issues. To avoid crashes and data loss, I switched to Apple's Pages.

Pages is pleasant, but I had integration issues. Exporting to Word was bad. More advanced layouts were hard. And I never really felt like I could stay organized.

So I switched to the old battle ax: Word.

For a year or so I worked in Word, dutifully using everything from change tracking to comments. I had each chapter in a separate Word document, which I suspect is the standard way of writing book-length works in Word. Yet this was difficult to manage. To be able to reference different parts of the argument, I had to have every chapter open. And navigating around each chapter was a pain, mostly involving lots of scrolling and Find commands.

This led to a second problem: When writing a highly technical argument, it is not uncommon to need to re-organize frequently. Not (just) at the chapter level, but at the section and paragraph levels. This is a tremendously painful process in Word, in which copy/paste is your only weapon.


After downloading lots of different writing programs, I stumbled across Scrivener. Scrivener is a tool built to help writers of all ilk focus on the writing process. An entire book is represented as an outline, where each section is its own document-like node. The interface includes several ways of cross-referencing and navigating. And best of all, there are some advanced viewing tools for split-screen, "no-distration mode," and floating priview windows. In short, it made it possible for me to really see my work.

I imported my Word documents directly into Scrivener and hit the ground running. In an afternoon, my dissertation had gone from four huge word documents to a deep tree of sections and subsections, which I could edit at a click, and re-arrange at will.

The Dissertation Journal

I tried -- I really, really tried -- to work on my dissertation at least a little each day. But life is rarely so accomodating. So to provide myself with some context, I began keeping a dissertation journal.

I kept the journal in Scrivener, and each day I worked on the dissertation I made a (usually brief) note in the journal. They usually looked something like this:

July 25, 2012
Working on Chapter 3, starting with Ep/Moral rationality.
I had to backtrack and work a little on the Evidential Ambiguity Thesis, but I am now down to the Priv. Moral Rationality section. This is probably going to need another draft. Bishop’s account seems to be more problematic than I initially thought.

If I got an important email from a member of my dissertation committee, I often pasted it into the journal. (And I sometimes vented a little bit too. That's what journals are for!)

Each time I sat down to work, a glance at my last journal entry reminded me of my context.

And Then Came the Notes...

Prior to using Scrivener, I was keeping notes all over the place -- Word documents, my iPhone, Evernote… I even (gasp!) used paper sometimes.

Once acllimated to Scriverner's outline-based layout, I wanted my notes in Scrivener, too. While I didn't exactly trudge through all of my chicken scratches, I moved a fair number into Scrivener.

Given the number of articles I used for my dissertation, Scrivener also became a useful place to dump PDF documents. I could download papers from JSTOR and elsewhere, and then keep them right alongside my notes in the dissertation project.

Draft Upon Draft

To produce a 300 page dissertation I wrote over 700 pages of material. In a few cases, I tossed out entire chapters. More often, I just wrote, rewrote, and then rewrote again.

Along with Scrivener's change tracking and comments featues (both of which I relied upon like a junkie), I also created an "Removed" folder in my Scrivener project to move material that was good, but just didn't have a place. Later, if I needed to pull back in a fragment or two, that was easy.

For My Readers

As chapters were ready to go to the committee, I did a quick export of the chapter out of Scrivener into a PDF document. This provided a static version of the document that my committee and I could all use as a point of reference.

I kept a copy of that PDF file in the Scrivener project, too, so that when I received emails from committee members saying "On page 6 you state…" I could actually find page 6.

Ouch, This Part Really Hurts

The technical aspects of writing the dissertation were relatively smooth until… until… the formatting.

My university does not provide any sort of template for formatting dissertations. Instead, there is a lengthy textual explanation (more or less a style guide) dictating layout and formatting.

And the only writing tool that my graduate school explicitly supports is, you guessed it, MS Word.

Scrivener does not do formatting. That's just not one of its design goals.

So I exported my chapters into separate Word documents, and then tried to format. And then asked someone else for help formatting. Who then asked someone else for help formatting. Our collective brain power managed to fiddle and meet every single formatting requirement. This was horrible. But once it was done, I could print exactly conformant physical copies (yes, that's still a requirement) to be turned into the graduate school.

The Big Lesson

Of course this post comes across as an infomercial for Scrivener. But that's because for me it was a great example of how a tool worked for me. It did what I wanted and what I needed, and my expectations aligned well with its capabilities.

That point is generalizable beyond Scrivener, though. Find a tool that works for you, don't end up having to work around the tool. Word may be an ideal tool for you (or Pages, or even OOo). But I guarantee the writing process will be more fluid, more productive, and more enjoyable if you've got a tool that lets you think and write the way you normally think and write.

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