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.




WWDC 2013: It’s like the old times again

I’m really excited about the imminent keynote to kick-off this year’s Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference. It’s usually a time when the fruity company announces its latest and greatest – at one time, the next iPhone, but more importantly, its latest addition of OS X, and iOS. Whilst we Apple devout aren’t expecting a new iPad or iPhone announcement this year, Apple designer Jony Ive’s influence on the latest iOS – iOS 7 – is widely expected to make its debut.

However, with so many conflicting reports, and the tight secrecy that’s for once befalling a recent Apple event, today’s keynote is actually anybody’s guess. Which is exactly as it was a few years ago, exactly how I remembered it, and exactly what drew me to religiously following these Apple events.

It seems that in the past few Apple events, perhaps since the ones held around Steve Jobs’ death, Apple’s tightness on secrecy has loosened somewhat. In fact, before the iPhone 5 was announced in October last year, we knew most of its features. The official keynote event just became the formality for a product that was, for the most part, already announced through its copious part leaks.

I guess that’s the beauty of a software-centric event: software can be a lot more tightly controlled, since it’s mainly developed and built in a centralised location, and not much can really be leaked. Sure, we’ve got a very grainy photo of a pre-alpha (i.e. really early build) of what the new iOS will look like. Which doesn’t say much, as it would’ve changed significantly in subsequent builds and internal tests.

But there’s so much Apple can potentially talk about. They’ve been conspicuously silent in quarter 1 this year, whilst their competitors have been very busy: Samsung announced the Galaxy S4, a monster of a mobile device; Microsoft revealed the (lacklustre) Xbox One; even Google held its annual I/O conference and has been making waves with more details on its Project Glass. Whilst Apple mentioned moving to a yearly release cycle for OS X, it revealed nothing at the beginning of this year about 10.9, despite having announced 10.8 in the same timeframe last year, having it ready for the WWDC ’12 developer rush to test. Right now, however, 10.9 is still anyone’s guess, and time will only tell…

Then there’s Mac hardware, something that’s widely expected to debut despite a lack of major part leaks (is Tim Cook finally “doubling-down” on secrecy like he promised almost a year ago?). But pro-level hardware is best targeted at pros, who will be in abundance at the Moscone West centre in San Francisco for the week-long conference. A new Mac Pro is imminent, and might get launched – significant for us consumers and prosumers, since whatever specs the big Mac gets will inevitably set the tone for the next generation of Macintosh hardware.

I will be following the keynote with scrutiny as it unfolds, via the live blogs. You’ll be sure to get my verdict of whatever transpires soon after. This is one Apple event fans can be sure not to miss – there’s just too much drama surrounding it!

A quick roundup of what’s rumoured to be announced:

Most likely:

  • iOS 7: completely redesigned, with a “flatter” and “black and white-heavy” look, headed by design guru Jony Ive, the man who designed Apple’s iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBooks, and a multitude of their other successes.
  • OS X 10.9: major speculation on what it’ll be called, it its going to be named after a big cat at all.
  • iRadio: an Apple-led streaming music service that’s long been rumoured.
  • New MacBooks: MacBooks with Retina all-round, perhaps?
  • Mac Pro: could the beast of a machine they pass for a computer finally get the major update it deserves…?

Less likely:

  • New versions of iWork and iLife for Mac
  • Logic Pro X
  • Aperture X

Least likely:

  • New iPhone (5S or 6?)
  • Low-cost iPhone
  • iPad 5
  • iPad mini with Retina display

iOS hardware is a big enough market now for it to warrant its own, dedicated event. Historic precedent also indicates that, following iPhone release cycles up to 2012, these devices would be announced in the September-October timeframe along with the final build of iOS 7 perhaps.

Why I Choose WordPress for Blogging

I’ve been blogging for a long time now. One of the things I’m asked often by aspiring bloggers and website owners is “which platform should I choose?”

We’re certainly spoilt for choice today when it comes to starting a blog. There’s a multitude of platforms to choose from, and it can be quite daunting. So I’m going to attempt to tell you why I swear by WordPress for my blogging adventures.

1: Platform connectedness. WordPress takes care of optimising my blog for all devices – mobile and desktop. I can just focus on the content, and WordPress will handle the look of Pixelated Thinking  on iPad, iPhone, Android and the plethora of other web browsers out there. And it looks pretty good too.

2: Blog from anywhere. Whilst I do use Evernote to draft posts sometimes, there’s no denying that the native WordPress app for BlackBerry and iOS is excellent. It allows me to monitor site stats, reply to comments. Oh, and even write entire posts if the inspiration strikes me when I’m out and about. Like all other things WordPress, it looks beautiful too.

3: Themes. WordPress has some awesome themes. There’s a lot to choose from (which can lead to massive procrastination), and the themes look trés professional. They just convey the feel of a stable, content-rich blog. I find Blogger (Google’s answer to WordPress and the platform I started out with back in 2007) to be a bit less to my taste; they have, however, improved their design and functionality of blogs. But I’ll still stick to WordPress thanks.

Lastly, Akismet spam protection is one of the best features. It protects my blog from the bombardment of spam comments.

If you’re considering going out into the blogging world, I truly recommend giving WordPress a try. If it’s good enough for the professionals (GigaOM, TIME), then I’m sure it’ll be perfect for you.