The best writing app

I’ve been getting back into the writing groove over the past few weeks. Often though, I tend to keep searching for the ideal app that will help me be productive and write more often. Usually the criteria is an app that allows me to write across devices — iPhone, iPad or macOS. The thinking behind this is that I’ll be able to write wherever, whenever.

However I’ve discovered that the ultimate app for my writing is actually not an app at all.

Analog writing — writing with my Sonnet fountain pen into my Moleskine notebook, is the best way to keep me focussed and connect more with the actual content. At this point my focus is writing for myself, to explore a host of ideas that are clamouring in my head. Writing by hand is also a nice way to reconnect with my thoughts and ideas, to stay disconnected from the chatter of the digital world, and to actually be present in the act of writing.

This doesn’t mean I’m not discounting the digital writing world — I’ve expressed my undying love for Scrivener and I will continue to use that as my app of choice for long-format writing (I’m currently planning a long-term writing project for which Scrivener will be invaluable, as usual). But for now, for me, the ultimate writing app is my Parker Sonnet and a notebook.

Scrivener for Architecture Dissertation Writing

Scrivener: a writing studio like no other.

Most architects will be familiar with the concept of BIM. Basically, BIM software allows you to manage an entire building design mostly within a single app – so from a single 3D model you can get all the drawings, specs, details, everything co-ordinated and synced (I’m obviously grossly over-simplifing this; I’ll be posting more about BIM, one of my key areas of interest, soon). But the reason I begin this post with BIM is because I think I’ve found a writing tool that, in a way, mimics those organisational characteristics of BIM.

Scrivener is an app I’ve been using for years now to manage my writing projects. I still think it’s one of the best-in-class apps for managing monstrous writing tasks – of which the architectural design dissertation is such a beast. For architects (who are generally more visually-inclined), writing is indeed a step outside our comfort zones. Scrivener, then, is like a gentle friend that guides you through the treacherous waters of design research, writing, and data collation that are the three heads of the design dissertation Cerberus.

Why Scrivener?

Why bother with yet another piece of software when we’ve already got Microsoft Word to handle writing, I hear you ask? Well, where MS Word is a generally acceptable word-processor, Scrivener is a full-blown writing suite. With Word, you can get away with writing a short piece of text, like an essay. But navigating the long chapters of a dissertation – where there are thousands of words per section –  can become extremely painful. You end up losing your place, you can’t always see the full structure of the project, your research has to live in a mess of folders… it’s a nightmare, in my opinion.

Scrivener, by contrast, is like BIM software: you can choose to see either the project in its entirety, or you can break it down into its smaller chunks and work on the little details (scrivenings, in this case). One of the best things about it is that you don’t write everything in a single document; you have a Scrivener project, but this is actually made up of a series of smaller files, like text files (which become your manuscript), images, notes, even whole web pages that form part of your research folder.

You organise things into folders (and it comes with a plethora of great project templates to get started; I’ve customised one of them to suit my theory and technical papers assignment in a fashion that works well for me).

The outliner (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)
The virtual corkboard (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)

Then you can set up your structure, and this is what I really like about Scrivener: it gives you some great ways of organising your writing project into the various chapters and sections. You can either use a virtual “corkboard” (like tacking a series of index cards to a board, but in the digital way), or a great outliner (which I used to put the structure of my papers together).

Everything is organised on the left panel in what’s called the “binder” – think of this as a virtual ring binder that’s highly-organised and contains literally everything you need and are working on: your manuscript, that contains the chapters and sections of the dissertation, your research, images, web pages, ideas, quotes… it’s all there.

The writing environment itself is great; there’s no distractions, and you can even go into a full-screen mode that dims everything on your desktop so it’s just you and the words on an empty, uncluttered screen.

Project targets window  – I should probably be doing my dissertation writing to get that session target counter moving for today…

Scrivener also allows you to set project and session targets, so you can visually (hey, this one’s for you, designers!) track your progress. It’s a great feeling when you’ve reached your session target for the day, and often I find myself wanting to push further for that day, just to nudge closer to the final project target goal.


Scrivener + Architecture Writing = 🙂

I mentioned that architects are visual people; our written work reflects this as we’re expected to have images and drawings that are referenced in text to support our arguments. Scrivener deals beautifully with this: you can set an image as the reference for a card in the Corkboard view – which is great to get ideas flowing around a certain topic or case study.

The binder-style organisation of Scrivener also allows you to keep maps and other images well-organised in folders. You can have these opened as “Quick Reference” windows that float next to your writing, so you can see them while you write. This allows you to stay focussed on the writing, and worry less about formatting and images jumping all over the place (something Word is notorious for).


So how does Scrivener fit into an effective workflow for large-scale writing projects? I see Scrivener as a writing studio (much like a BIM authoring tool, where you use it to author the design, but then take that into other tools like Photoshop to further refine the presentation). With Scrivener, I can just focus on getting the draft done; it helps me to structure complex ideas and write in a non-linear fashion (so I can quickly jump between sections as ideas come to me, without worrying about intensive scrolling through thousands of words).

For referencing, I use EndNote. Like Scrivener, EndNote allows me to see all my references together, and I can easily switch referencing styles if needed. When I want to reference something, I simply drag (or copy) that reference from EndNote into Scrivener, placing it where it needs to be in the text. The reference will look a little weird – EndNote uses a strange code system to identify text as references. (This gets fixed later, as you’ll see…)

My preferred workflow is: Scrivener (draft writing) –> Word (text-style formatting) –> InDesign (presentation and layout

Going from Scrivener to Word

Scrivener can export to a host of formats, including Word. What I’ve found, however, is that the formatting styles don’t translate very well.. For this reason, I’ve found some easy to use methods to get your draft out of Scviener, into Word, ready for formatting and bringing in to InDesign for page layout and presentation.

The problem is that you need a Word file to bring into InDesign, and to ease the formatting hassle, your Word file should be correctly formatted with styles (headings, body text, quotes etc). This allows you to quickly apply the correct fonts and styles to different kinds of text. There’s a simple go-around for this: simply export form Scrivener using a custom compile setting (see below), open the resulting Word file, then run a macros (see below) that will automatically convert the Word file into the correct styles which you can use in InDesign later.

Félix Chénier has an awesome tutorial here that contains the macros you need to copy into Word. But here’s the process:

  1. Go to his website (link above), and download the compile setting for Scrivener; this is a .plist file that you can easily import into Scrivener at the Compile window. This will output your manuscript in a format that can be easily styled with MS Word styles (headings, body, quotes etc).
  2. Copy the macros code, following his instruction, and place it in the Word macros editor. (Macros is just automated actions, and in this case, the instructions you’re copying into Word will allow you to easily convert your Scrivener export to the correct Word styles).
  3. Run the Macros (Tools -> Macros -> Macros…, select “FormatScrivener”, click “Run”).
  4. Voilà! Now, all you need to do is go to the EndNote tab in Word, and turn “Instant Formatting” on. All your references will be correctly formatted baed on your selected referencing style; a bibliography is also auto-generated at the end of the document and you can even switch between referencing styles on-the-fly. How cool is that!?

Closing remarks…

I really think Scrivener is one of the best tools out there to help navigate dissertation writing. It keeps you organised, and allows you to be flexible in how you manage such a large-scale writing task. Yes, my workflow might appear a little convoluted. But there is a method to this madness: Scrivener allows me to write the way I want to write, without the messiness and annoyances that come from working in Word. EndNote allows me to keep the referencing streamlined and organised, and everything comes together in Word, which is simply a go-between from raw text to the formatted product in InDesign.

Scrivener is available for macOS, iOS and Windows; it’s well worth the $45, and there’s a free trial as well. It’s developed by the wonderful people at Literature & Latte – click here to find out more.

Disclaimer: this is in no way a product endorsement of Scrivener; I’m simply a long-time fan of the software and thought it might be useful to any architecture students out there curious about ways to navigate design dissertation writing.



#AmWriting: 10 Soundtracks to Write To

I’m currently working on a mammoth project – a (possible) 70 000+ word manuscript for an action/thriller novel that I’ve been planning for a few months now. It’s a scary thing to think about, and so writers often need something to help get them through the process. F. Scott Fitzgerald had his (ahem) indulgences, as did many other writers including Oscar Wilde, who even imbued his famous character Dorian Gray with some of his own habits. For me, well, there’s music.

Music is the perfect mood creator. It helps to set the imaginative landscape and gives the writer much-needed energy to put down words. And with a good pair of headphones and the right music, you can really create a cocoon for creativity.

I’ve written on the subject of film soundtracks before, and in this post I’ll highlight my favourite pieces to listen to while writing such monstrous things like a first draft manuscript.

Film and game music are designed to keep audiences engaged with visual content. And since, as writers, we’re creating visual scenes through the magic of words, these two mediums work beautifully with each other. Below are some of my favourite scores to listen to while writing.

I should mention that, while I present these pieces in the context of writing, they’re suited to most creative tasks where a little mood music can go a long way.

1. Man of Steel (Hans Zimmer)

The soaring orchestrations and endlessness of the guitars set a beautiful sonic landscape for your words to flow. The deluxe edition has a brilliant “sketches” session, where Zimmer explores in a continuous mix the various ideas and themes that permeate the Superman reboot.

2. Oblivion (M83)

M83 created an electronic-infused score to this Tom Cruise science fiction blockbuster. It’s very atmospheric with lots of rising strings and melodies that almost urge you onward to the next word, the next paragraph, scene or chapter. It’s an especially nice listen when you’re wanting for inspiration, at the beginning of a writing session, and gives your imagination a nice kick start.

3. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (Jesper Kyd)

This is a soundtrack designed to help you focus. Since it’s scored for the (insanely cool) Assassin’s Creed games, it works really well when writing scenes of intrigue, action, or contemplation. I sometimes listen to this to get into the writing mood.

4. The Dark Knight Rises (Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard)

In case you don’t know by now, I’m a huge fan of Hans Zimmer. He’s my go-to guy for a musical fix when I’m working on a creative project. The Dark Knight Rise score is powerful, with great highs and lows perfect for almost any kind of scene. And if you just want to feel inspired, the rousing chant from the movie certainly does the trick, as does Junkie XL’s remix “Bombers over Ibiza”.

5. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Howard Shore)

You can never go wrong with Lord of the Rings. The quintessential high-fantasy drama, its soundtrack is powerful, rousing, and the perfect mix for creating an immersive creative environment. The final tracks, with Enya’s ethereal voice singing in Elvish, is hauntingly beautiful.

6. Game of Thrones: Seasons 1-4 (Ramin Djawadi)

Since I’ve gotten into the Game of Thrones world, I’ve become enchanted by its music. Ramin Djawadi scores a diverse soundtrack that’s a mixture of exotic eastern strings, thunderous trumpets and some chilling lyrics like Sigur Ros’s “Rains of Castamere.”

7. Skyfall (Thomas Newman)

Skyfall is one of my favourite new Bond movies, and Newman’s score is a mix of electronic and classical, that’s perfect for action scenes and scenes that are particularly dialogue-heavy. It’s also great to listen to before sessions, to get into that mood (along with Assassin’s Creed and Oblivion).

8. Da Vinci’s Demons (Bear McCreary)

Bear McCreary is a genius. The theme for Da Vinici’s is written as a musical palindrome –it’s the same forwards and backwards. The rest of the score is good mood-setting music, in a similar vain to the Assassin’s Creed score mentioned above.

9. 300: Rise of an Empire (Junkie XL)

Junkie XL is a rising electonic-based musician, and his score for the latest 300 film is action-packed with definite eastern accents that articulate the sequel’s plot line. “History of Artemisia” is my favourite track on this score.

10. Inception (Hans Zimmer)

Where do I begin with Inception? Well, firstly: “Time” is perhaps the best Hans Zimmer piece written. Ever. In fact, watch it in the video below, performed live by Zimmer and his orchestra. It’s emotionally-charged, carefully crafted and powerfully executed. As is the rest of this score, one of my all-time favourite motion picture scores. Its subtle piano notes, contrasted by heavy brass and thunderous drums, create a highly immersive environment that helps one emotionally connect with their work, as with the music itself. It’s Hans Zimmer at his finest.

(I might write a future post on the status of the above-mentioned manuscript. It’s going as well as can be at this stage and I’m getting closer to the midpoint).