How To Get Those Thoughts Out — Writing with Scrivener and Scapple

Monk scribe has written ornate letter 'S' which turns into 'Sod this for a lark!!'The final stage of the research process is usu­al­ly syn­the­sis, where ideas and con­cepts come togeth­er in a new form. But those syn­the­ses rarely meet their goals if they are sim­ply stored in your head. While there are many block­ers in the writ­ing process, from cog­ni­tive blocks to research issues, the soft­ware in your toolk­it for writ­ing should nev­er be a block at all. I know many peo­ple who use sim­ple word proces­sors, like Word or Pages, for this process. But they can be bug­gy, and there is a bet­ter way. Here are the tools in my toolk­it for writ­ing: Scrivener and Scapple.

Scrivener and Scapple fill slight­ly dif­fer­ent roles in the syn­the­sis process. While Scrivener is a full fea­tured writ­ing tool, Scapple is a small light­weight mind map­ping tool that lets you set out your thoughts quick­ly and eas­i­ly. They are both cross-plat­form (Win/Mac/Linux [unpol­ished]), and have a gen­er­ous tri­al period.


Scapple is a quick mind map­ping tool, and has been one that I been want­i­ng for quite a few years now. In the ear­ly days of my research career, I cod­ed up a quick mindmap tool based on a Computer Science FSA assign­ment I had to do in my final year. That tool was ugly, clunky, and was real­ly a kludge. Scapple is the oppo­site of this. It is quick and easy to use, just dou­ble click­ing on the pan­el allows you to cre­ate a node. Dragging nodes on top of each oth­er allows for con­nec­tions. In the words of Queensland Rail: ‘Super Simple Stuff.’ Like Briss that I talked about a few posts ago, Scapple has one pur­pose in mind, and it does it admirably.

Once your mind map is com­plete, you can eas­i­ly export it to PDF, PNG or a host of oth­er for­mats for lat­er ref­er­ence on devices that don’t have Scapple installed. In addi­tion once you are at this stage you can also export it to an OPML file ready for import into Scrivener with your syn­the­sis out­line already com­plete. I find Scapple an invalu­able tool for mind map­ping, and one of the eas­i­est tools I have used for this task. Plus it has to eas­i­ly take the prize for the best price:performance ratio.


Onto Scrivener then. While Word and Pages, and oth­er sin­gle doc­u­ment edi­tors, may do their job for short­er pieces, they tend to be rather bug­gy once the file size increas­es. Word espe­cial­ly, as its method of stor­ing the mate­r­i­al, plus for­mat­ting, plus recent changes, plus tracked changed etc etc is prone to errors. As the doc­u­ment gets longer these get expo­nen­tial­ly worse, and so for a 3000 word term paper Word is gen­er­al­ly fine, but for a 20,000 word report, or a 90,000 word the­sis, it is unacceptable.

One solu­tion to this is to use a markup lan­guage, such as LaTeX, which I used for the major­i­ty of my Eng, Math and Psych papers. LaTeX is word proces­sor agnos­tic, just using sim­ple text files for its input, so you can edit it in any­thing. However, where LaTeX is excel­lent for ren­der­ing com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­lae, and mod­i­fy­ing markup for export, it is not the eas­i­est method to use. Occasionally I have had stu­dents and peers, espe­cial­ly in Psych, object that they aren’t com­put­er pro­gram­mers when being asked to write in TeX. The pletho­ra of { \$ and many oth­er codes makes it hard to learn for those who are main­ly inter­est­ed in text based writing.

This is where Scrivener comes in, and more. At one lev­el Scrivener is a full fea­tured writ­ing device, which allows you to write eas­i­ly and in a for­mat that you are used to. But at anoth­er lev­el it has a pow­er­ful refac­tor­ing export sys­tem, sim­i­lar to work­ing with markup lan­guages. At yet anoth­er lev­el Scrivener works as a con­sol­i­dat­ed research tool, allow­ing you to put thoughts togeth­er before writ­ing. Another lev­el again Scrivener allows for easy chap­ter and sec­tion man­age­ment, let­ting you stream­line your argu­ment in the syn­the­sis process. Finally, for our pur­pos­es, at a sys­tem lev­el, Scrivener sep­a­rates out its sec­tions to dif­fer­ent files, reduc­ing the chances of file cor­rup­tion as the doc­u­ment gets larger.

Personally I use Scrivener for almost all of my writ­ing, be that this blog that you can see in the screen­shot above, through to my con­fer­ence papers, and now this new PhD the­sis I am start­ing work on. I gen­er­al­ly only export to Word for shar­ing the doc­u­ments with proof­read­ers who don’t have Scrivener, or for final deliv­ery. While there are many fea­tures of Scrivener that make it much eas­i­er to use than Word or oth­er writ­ing tools, I will quick­ly go through some of my favourites.

  • Firstly, the nest­ed doc­u­ment sys­tem allows for a struc­tured approach to build­ing your argu­ment. You can cre­ate fold­ers for chap­ters, and sec­tions and then arrange your argu­ment beneath that. This can give you a birds eye view in the Binder of where your argu­ment is going at any time, and helps with coherence.
  •  Secondly, each doc­u­ment can be giv­en a word lim­it, to help to keep you to task, and make sure that you don’t blow out your word count. This sim­ply helps with man­age­ment lat­er on.
  • Thirdly, there are a mul­ti­tude of meth­ods for being able to mark mate­r­i­al as ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al. You can either put it in your cork board for ref­er­ence, or you can anno­tate it inline. This means you can have some of your ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al right in front of you as you write.
  • Fourthly, you can set over­all word lim­its for a project, and also dead­lines. This lets you write to task and make sure you aren’t get­ting too far behind on a writ­ing project. This also helps with keep­ing the writ­ing juices flow­ing. If you set a 500‑1000 word a day tar­get, then you can sim­ply write to that dead­line easily.
  • Fifthly, it keeps the for­mat­ting out of the way. In my Scrivener tem­plates I have a hand­ful of for­mat­ting options, usu­al­ly one for the abstract, one for head­ings, one for gen­er­al body text and one for block quotes. The robust way that Scrivener deals with for­mat­ting means I don’t have to muck around with what­ev­er for­mat­ting sys­tem the word proces­sor has decid­ed to do that day.
  • Sixthly, Scrivener has a great com­po­si­tion mode, that blacks out oth­er dis­trac­tions on the screen, let­ting you just focus on the text.
  • Seventhly, it allows for a reg­u­lar back­up rou­tine, so that you won’t lose any of your data. Plus it writes syn­chro­nous­ly to the file sys­tem and does­n’t require you to neu­rot­i­cal­ly Ctrl/Cmd‑S all the time.
  • Finally, the export sys­tem, like that of LaTeX allows you to refor­mat your doc­u­ment at export time for var­i­ous tar­gets. For exam­ple, if one jour­nal has a spe­cif­ic for­mat­ting sys­tem you can eas­i­ly export it to their spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Then if you are read­ing the same paper at a con­fer­ence you can export it for a lectern friend­ly for­mat as well. All with­out hav­ing to mod­i­fy the for­mat­ting of the orig­i­nal document.


Overall Scrivener is a robust and pow­er­ful writ­ing tool. It incor­po­rates many aspects of LaTeX and oth­er markup lan­guages, with­out hav­ing the steep learn­ing curve. But there are still a cou­ple of down­sides to Scrivener and Scapple. One is the cost, although at a total of US$60 for both apps it is one of the best invest­ments you can make, and it has cer­tain­ly saved me a lot more than $60 in crash and lost mate­r­i­al gen­er­at­ed heartache. In addi­tion they are com­mon­ly on sale through­out the year, so if you want them keep an eye out. They both have a very gen­er­ous tri­al pol­i­cy as well, so you can give them a go for free with­out lay­ing out the cash.

The sec­ond is the lack of a direct inte­gra­tion with Zotero or oth­er ref­er­ence man­agers. You can eas­i­ly use the RTF short­codes from Zotero, but I wish for some­thing that was more tight­ly integrated.

Finally, and most minor­ly, there isn’t an iOS/Android app yet for Scrivener, although there is one com­ing soon. Which a lot of the time is fine, as for research I tend to write at my desk. There are workarounds for this one though, which I will like­ly cov­er in the future.

There we go, the final tool in my gen­er­al research toolkit—although there are plen­ty of domain spe­cif­ic tools. I high­ly rec­om­mend Scrivener and Scapple, and I will like­ly do a cou­ple more posts on both over the next lit­tle while as I want to explore spe­cif­ic areas of the tools.

Tell me below in the com­ments what tools you use for the syn­the­sis task, and do give Scrivener and Scapple a go.

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