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.



Going SSD: Breathing new life into a 2012 MacBook Pro

ssd-drive-iconI’m not the first to extol the virtues of upgrading one’s computer to a Solid-State Disk. But man does it improve your computing experience.

First, some context: I use my Mac a lot. I constantly push it to keep up with my digital projects that range from simple word processing (like writing this blog and some academic essays for university), to really complex tasks like desktop app development via a virtual machine using C# in Visual Studio, manipulating 3D geometry in ARCHICAD, SketchUp, Rhino and Grasshopper, drafting and graphic design with AutoCAD and Illustrator, and some heavy Photoshop work; even the occasional render with ARCHICAD’s CineRender. Then there’s the side stuff like some motion graphics work and video editing for SKKSA.

So the kind of tasks this mid-2012 MacBook Pro has handled have been quite diverse. But the machine was showing its age; boot times were extremely slow, ARCHICAD took forever and a day to load-up, and it was generally a very rough experience toward the end-days of the “old” MacBook Pro ride. There was also this annoying bug where stock Apple apps would crash after a few hours (and I think it had something to do with ARCHICAD or its BIM Server component…)

Without forking out the new Apple tax to get a completely new machine – and my Mac is indeed old enough to justify a full computer upgrade, being in service sine the beginning of 2013 – I’ve managed to extend the longevity of an already solid machine with the upgrade of my RAM earlier this year (to 16GB), and now adding an SSD as the boot drive.

Here’s the run-down. I found a good deal on an SSD from a local Apple service center in Durban. So earlier this year, on the recommendation of my good friend Bryan, I upgraded the RAM from the stock 8GB to 16GB while I was in Cape Town. According to Bryan, macOS (or OS X, whatever you prefer) loves to be fed more RAM. This OS is RAM hungry, and my first upgrade definitely showed it: I used Activity Monitor to check up on my system, and it was evident that the system wanted to push past the 8GB limit; I was frequently hitting 11GB at times after the upgrade.

Adding RAM allowed me to do more with my Mac. But adding the SSD… that just made this thing feel like a new beast altogether. SSDs, as you know, read data via flash storage; there’s no spinning platter hard drive that needs to spool-up before you can access data. To give a simple example: it used to take over 2 minutes for my MacBook to fully boot-up and be ready to use; sometimes longer, as the Finder and other media took a long time to initialize. With the new SSD installed, my boot time is 20 seconds – that’s 20 seconds from the time I press the Power key to having a fully ready system waiting for me to give it commands. This kind of speed means a heck of a lot to me, as I spend most of my life on this machine.

The Setup

I opted to remove my Superdrive (CD/DVD drive). I reasoned that I hardly use optical media these days. So I moved my existing 750GB hard drive over to that bay, and installed the new 280GB SSD in the original hard disk slot.

macOS Sierra now boots from the SSD; I’ve got all my apps installed on this drive as well. My documents, iTunes library, pictures and other media are sitting on the old hard drive, which is permanently attached to the system (think of it like an always-connected external hard drive). I used a few Terminal commands to create symlinks (System Links) from the folders on the SSD to their corresponding folders on the HD. This ensures that Time Machine backs up all my data correctly. Having my larger media files on the HD allows me to take advantage of all that space, whilst still having the lean speed of the SSD for booting the system and other apps.

Going forward I might use the SSD to store ongoing project files for quick access, and then move them over to the HD once those projects are done.

Going SSD on my Mac was indeed like night and day. I’m still amazed how snappy ARCHICAD is now; AutoCAD is operating like a dream, as are my other creative apps like Photoshop and Illustrator.

I’m still finalizing a few minor apps, and I need to re-do my Bootcamp partition for Windows 10. But overall the system is functional, and I can’t wait to really put it through its paces as my Mac accompanies me on my Masters of Architecture journey starting next month.

Platform Wars are a Waste of Time

Mac vs PC. iOS vs Android. Automatic Transmission vs. Manual Transmission.

Since the dawn of technology, the platform wars have raged. The decision to use one system over another has somehow become suggestive of the character of a person. If you’re a Mac user, you’re suddenly labelled an “Apple sheep”. If you’re a diehard Windows person, then you’re associated with someone who does “real computing”, is “uncreative”, and a “numbers person.”

These labels serve no purpose other than to perpetuate a divide within technological circles, oft exploited by marketing teams to propagate one platform over another. They’ve been used to attack not just the flaws of a platform, but the people using these tools. Most frustratingly, they obscure the fact that no matter the characteristics of a particular platform, technology today has become so advanced that it is sometimes indeed indistinguishable from magic.

Here’s the thing: technological progress has been so dramatic over the past few years that it really doesn’t matter what platform you use. Especially in creative fields like design, cinema and photography: most applications are cross-platform, and the platforms themselves proffer enticing options no matter whether you’re macOS or Windows.

I grew up on Windows, and have programmed some significant (well, significant for me) projects. My prefered platform for the past 8 years has been macOS. I have very personal reasons – as many people do regarding their tools of choice to get the job done or to unwind with. These range from certain intricacies with macOS: the way applications are managed, the overall user interface, window management, the robust industrial design of Mac hardware, a trackpad that has yet to let me down and means I don’t have to always rely on an external mouse to get most design-related tasks done (and that even augments my mouse when designing on macOS). There’s also the comfort factor: I’ve grown very used to the Mac way of doing things. The list goes on, but it is indeed very specific to my own use case. The beauty is that I’ve been able to install the “best of both worlds” on my MacBook: I can experience the things I love about macOS like the Finder and the Alfred search extension, whilst simultaneously using Visual Studio on a Windows installation through VMWare to develop Windows desktop apps critical to the operation of SKKSA.

Look, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. And technology is as opinionated a field as you can get. Our lives are intricately entwined with the devices and platforms we use daily to live, to exist. So it makes sense that one becomes vehemently passionate about their platform of choice. But when that passion extends to bashing others for their choice of platform, especially without having a reasonable experience of said platform to base opinions upon, then it becomes a serious problem. In fact, it may say more about that person than their attacks and scorn of their target’s platform and by extension, the character attack associated with the choice of platform. If anything, it represents a juvenile, immature mindset; a rather closed, small-minded viewpoint of the vastness that is modern technology.

We should be excited and grateful that we have choice. More than one platform means that the developers of these tools are constantly competing to make their product better. This only benefits us, the end users.

Platform wars are a waste of time because they detract us from the beauty that is our modern, advanced systems. They detract us from actually focussing on collaborating, on creating and on using our incredible tools to help make the world a little bit better.