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.



I didn’t choose the archi life…

… the archi life chose me.

One year is already down. Amazing how quickly time flies. One year of architecture has made me realise how challenging, exciting and angst-ridden this course is.

For those interested in architecture, and in beginning or considering their studies in this course, know this: architecture is a course like no other. You will learn to think in a totally different way, and you’ll suddenly become exceptionally consumed by it. You’ll begin to see things around you, wherever you go: architecture exists wherever humans are on this planet.

You will stay up for days upon end, agonizing over the smallest of details, drafting master plans for structures that will never see a life beyond the presentation paper. You will get frustrated, angsty, philosophical. Sometimes, you might even become totally intolerable to anyone outside of the studio (studio culture means that “we’re all in this together,” – everyone in there will understand your pain).

So why, then, do we do this? Why do us prospective architects put ourselves through six arduous years of all-nighters, AutoCAD anxiety and concept-driven frustration?

Because we need it. We need  architecture to keep ourselves sane. It’s the one weapon that we know we can wield in the face of 21st-century challenges: urbanization, climate change, economic fluctuation. We know that we can’t deal with a 9-5 job pushing paper; we have the urge to create skyscrapers, cities, homes. We have the deep-set need to transform people’s lives through the most tangible manner possible: creating something out of nothing. It’s definitely a love/hate relationship, but then again, isn’t anything creative like that?