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).

Workflow

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.

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The Nature of Design

Perhaps it is because design encompasses such a wide range of economic tiers — from the high-end ultra luxury to low-cost housing and solutions for disaster relief efforts —that we tend to become confused about its purpose. Thus we tend to fixate on its nature as an entity aligned with exclusivity, where it has an aura that is seemingly detached from the plight of the everyday. This is its aesthetic conception – its surface value – something that is far easier and neater to understand than the complex beast that it really is.

It is unfortunate that our society sometimes perceives the vocation as such, because design is such an intrinsic part of what makes us human. It’s an inherent part of our evolutionary story; it’s a validation of our ability to have adapted as a species that has emerged triumphant from every challenge nature has thrown at us. In essence, design has played a significant role in getting us to where we are today: a highly evolved, intelligent, dominant species capable of astonishing feats. We were able to overcome these challenges through innovation: through using our intellect to design solutions, to streamline mundane tasks and thus free our minds to begin contemplating the deeper issues that began presenting themselves, and thus continuing this cycle of development. Design has brought us mobile phones, bridges, cities that claw at the skies, and eyes that see into the dawn of time.

For me, design isn’t about what something looks like. Aesthetics form such a tiny part of the entire story. Design is about how something works. It’s about how a multitude of pieces have been intricately woven together to form a coherent whole. It’s about the collation and understanding of seemingly disparate ideas, of making unconventional connections and sifting through a multitude of thoughts to retrieve those tiny fragments that are the true gems, the ones that will assemble to provide a meaningful solution. It’s a messy, daunting, multifaceted pursuit. It’s much, much more than just the skin of an object.

Creatamin: the blog for creatives

A good friend of mine, Wazir Rohiman, recently started a blog for creatives, by creatives. I met Wazir whilst studying architecture at UCT, and we’ve become excellent friends over the past three years. We share an appreciation for all the possibilities that exist at the intersection of science and design, and it is here that Wazir’s new blog excels.

Creatamin (love that name) posts inspiration, tips, interviews and thought pieces all related to living the creative life. It can be daunting for young designers embarking on their journey out in the big world. Creatamin’s posts aim to provide a platform for us young thinkers to share our opinions and get inspired by our peers.

I’m really excited to be following this blog, and I highly recommend it to all creatives, whether you’re in architecture, product design, web development, writing or fine art.

A few of my favourite posts recently published on Creatamin:

I invite you to check out Creatamin at www.creatamin.com.

Originality v Hollywood: Dawn of Mediocrity?

A curious phenomenon is occurring in the centre of society’s entertainment universe. Perhaps it’s a sense of potential failure casting a net of fear around what was once a creative powerhouse. Perhaps it’s a descent into mediocrity as our collective society has embraced a sense of complaisance, where banality passes for acceptable quality. Whatever it is, there can be no denying it: Hollywood appears to be running out of fresh ideas.

Instead, we’re being treated to the wonders of rehashed entertainment. I’m reminded of a sentence Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy, says in 21 Jump Street (ironically, a reboot of a popular television series)

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

I feel like this is exactly what an executive-led creative industry is doing. I can almost picture the suits in their corner offices somewhere in Los Angeles, cigar in hand, smug grin on their faces, signing-off another reboot, knowing that our pop-obsessive society will eat this all up and fatten the studio’s bottom line. How stupid do they really think we are?

There will come a point, hopefully soon, when cinema audiences will tire with this. When we will finally open our eyes to the fact that it’s the same movie, with the actors-du-jour fitted snugly in to a predictable plot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as excited about the new Star Wars as the next fan. Likewise, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m an (obsessive?) follower of their Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and an ardent watcher of both Arrow and The Flash, two of DC’s darling television spin-offs. These are all properties based off existing source material, whether it’s comic books or one of the most famous cinematic franchises of all time.

However, I feel that there are talented writers out there with exciting, fresh stories yearning to be unleashed from their paper bounds and brought forth onto the reflective-silver screens of our cineplexes. These stories are being marginalized when studio execs opt to “play it safe” with rehashes of recently-completed rehashes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), with bloated adaptations of beloved source material (The Hobbit) or the hope of capitalizing on unexpected, explosive success. In the case of this last example, I’m of course referring to the recent news that Lionsgate, boon of the young adult dystopian fiction adaptation fad, is considering continuing the Hunger Games stories beyond the book. As a fan of the series and its cast and wonderful director, I sincerely hope this will not materialize. Whilst it would be great to see more of the world that Katniss inhabits, and the fact that the last book left much to be desired in terms of an ending, the stories should just be left alone. Hollywood needs to learn about a story’s limits. They need to learn how to let go.

At the end of the day, we as cinemagoers make the final decision. We have a choice about what we want to watch. That’s the great thing about cinema: we live in an era when there are so many possibilities; were spoiled for choice, essentially. We can choose whether we feel like watching an inventive story like Birdman, or rekindle some nostalgic feels with a viewing of a Godzilla (or Ghostbusters or Robocop or Terminator) reboot. The thing I truly wish for, through, is for original stories to receive the same level of care and treatment that these existing, beloved properties are currently getting.

Equipment Doesn’t Define Creativity

There’s this wonderful saying that perfectly captures my thoughts on this topic. Essentially, what I believe, after going through three years of intensive design instruction in my undergraduate architecture degree, and throughout my various design-oriented ventures for personal work and for SKKSA, is that equipment does not dictate creativity. Indeed, it’s not what you use, but how you use it. This is where the magic happens; this is the act of art, where the depth of the creative act becomes apparent at the hand of the craftsman.

So before I delve deeper into this topic, here’s the gist of this idea: you wouldn’t compliment a chef’s kitchen utensils if you enjoyed his meal; you would commend his skills at bringing forth a delightful gastronomic experience. Similarly, one shouldn’t say “wow, that’s a great photo. You must have an amazing camera.” Because, like the chef and his delicious meal, a beautiful photograph is the creative proof of the photographer’s skillset: of understanding light, composition, technical dexterity and that unique aspect of the creative process that transcends mere product and renders a piece “art” – judgement and intuition.

One could have the most expensive creative equipment at their disposal, but without the knowledge of how to drive these tools, without intuition and passion and a deeper, rooted understanding of the art form – whether it’s a literary work, a piece of art, a photograph or the design of a building – the resultant work would be mundane, lacking a sense of meaning and connectedness to humanity, to society, and thus considered a positive contribution to the world.

All too often, in our consumeristic mindset, driven by the fast-paced nature of technology, society and an ever-increasing pressure to constantly produce for insatiable, all-consuming minds, we forget the magic that can arise when we transcend focus on equipment and rather consider the actual act of creativity. The act of creation, of making something out of nothing, is a rather sacred thing. To render something from the mind into reality is a cornerstone of mankind’s evolution, of our ascent from mere hunter-gatherers purely concerned with survival, into creators and thinkers with the potential to build entire cities and venture forth into the stars.

So these platform debates and mock-wars over which brand or product, or tool is better, are rather meaningless in the grander scheme. Whether you’re Windows or Mac, analogue or digital, it’s the way you use what you have to create that determines your prowess. In the end, not many will care how you created it; it’s the end product that matters to the large portion of society. But it’s up to us, as the creators, to imbue in our work meaning, and a rootedness to culture, society, history – to the precedents that provide richness and add dimension – because these are the elements that will ensure longevity in the final product. These, and not what was used to create them, will immortalise our names and ensure our creations add value to our fellow humans.

#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).

The State of the Blog

The art of blogging has come to define the paradigmatic shift in the web from a content-consumption medium to a dynamic, conversational sphere where ideas can be easily shared and everyone can own their slice of the Internet. Blogs have allowed us to write, share and discuss anything and everything, and their “coolness” factor in the early days of Web 2.0 caused many corporations to adopt them as a quick, informal communication method – a way of bridging the gap between brand and consumer, much like what’s happening in the Twitter world with a multitude of “verified” accounts from brands tweeting as a means of keeping their user bases engaged.

Newspapers realised in the early days of blogs that print media and their online offerings were struggling to keep pace with emerging blogs, and if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? Which is what they did. However, the actual art form has come under scrutiny for whether it’s a dying medium today. Certainly, with larger print houses there is a sense that readership of content-specific blogs are dwindling, along with technological shifts, that are dictating a move away from blogging and back to more quality-focused content production (rather than the rapid-fire, continuous stream that blogging enables). In other words, content-specific blogging on news sites is not performing as well as other content, perhaps because people are choosing to consume such content from titles that are blog-first (I’m one of those people; I subscribe to numerous blogs and keep up with the world primarily through blogs rather than traditional news outlets).

I feel that blogging is an inherently personal medium. Whilst its power as a means of communicating in near-real-time with an engaged readership (and thus the ability to strengthen brands) is certainly appealing to companies, blogging has been described as “the unedited voice of a person” (by one of the form’s pioneers, Dave Winer).

This post is an example of that. I had an idea, after reading Mathew Ingram’s post on GigaOm (one of my personal favourite tech blogs) about this very topic, to discuss, with my personal opinion, the current state of the blog. Thus, this piece is a sort of stream-of-consciousness, my thoughts arranged in bits and transferred to you through the magic of the Internet and WordPress.

As an “unedited voice”, blogs offer anyone the ability to share their view of the world with the wider audience of the entire Internet. In this manner, I think that blogging will move back to basics, back to its roots as a personal medium. The growth of blogging software like WordPress, and the ease of use of such software in setting up a personal website, coupled with the rise of social media and the App Ecosystem will enable more individuals to express themselves through their own personal homes on the web. Whilst the major publishing houses like the New York Times choose to return to editorial-focused journalism citing content quality as a primary reason, blogging will continue to be the casual, conversational beast that is always has been. And this is the perfect thing that a platform of a personal nature needs.

So no, the rumours of blogging’s imminent death have been greatly exaggerated. Blogging – at least in a personal capacity – will continue to remain an approachable medium for anyone wanting to share their ideas. It will continue to prove that words and ideas have the power to change the world, allowing thousands of people each day to write, clip, share and re-post thoughts and opinions, making the collective voice of the world that much richer with each press of “Publish.”