Is your computer domesticating you?

This week I started using ‘Scrivener’ for writing my research papers. It’s a word processing program which has been on the Mac for some years, but only now is being developed for the PC.

It took less than 5 minutes to start loving this program. In a single morning I had a decent draft of a paper, which can sometimes take me weeks. I wasn’t at all surprised to read in the bio of the developer that writing this software was part of his “struggle to put together a PhD thesis” because I think it fits reseach writing like a glove.

This got me thinking (again) about the connections between research thinking, the actions required in research writing and how the computer shapes both – mostly invisibly. The Philosopher Michel Foucault claimed (and please forgive the drastic simplification those of you who are steeped in the subtleties of Foucault) the way we think and act is always shaped by the action of other people and things. These other actors have the most influence on us when we think they are not acting. The bird who sits in the cage even when the door is open has failed to notice the cage anymore; the bird accepts its imprisonment not as an action of a cage, or an owner, but as a simple fact of existence.

So it is with Microsoft Word I am sorry to say. Using Scivener has made me realise why I find writing research papers so damn frustrating. Put simply, over the years Microsoft Word has ‘domesticated’ me. I think and do things the way it wants me to and it is cramping my style. Since it’s top five thursday here’s five ways in which this is happening:

1) I don’t think like a typewriter

I haven’t studied this, but I’m pretty sure when the first word processors were developed they modeled the action of typewriters – a series of ‘blank’ pages waiting to have words stamped on them. But a typewriter is not like a human – it doesn’t think as it writes.

If Microsoft Word conceptualises a document as sequential paper sheets which you ‘stamp’ words on; Scivener sees your writing as a loose collection of fragments which can be modified and reassembled as you go. When you are done you can ‘compile’ the fragments to produce a linear document.

This is an elegant idea which recognises that it is extremely difficult to write complex document like a thesis ‘straight’. It’s helpful to start by working smaller pieces in parallel and then work out how they go together.

2) It’s hard to be messy in a clean way

As I write I have ideas – some of them don’t relate to the bit I am writing at that specific moment, so I often ‘jot notes’ on my documents as I go. At the moment I use the comments function in Word to do this, which makes my documents look messy. In fact, so messy that I often turn the comments off just so I can see what I am doing.

But – out of sight is out of mind and the ideas can easily get lost when they are invisible. In addition, the format of the comments is uncomfortable to read. By contrast each of the Scrivener fragments I write has metadata attached to it where I can jot to my heart’s content.

3) It’s hard to change my mind

I am a ‘make a mess and then clean it up’ writer. I write, rewrite over it, insert bits, inadvertently repeat myself and change my mind. The simple length of pages in Microsoft Word makes it exhausting for me to write this way because I am always scrolling up and down chasing errant bits of text. Sometimes whole sections have to be moved around – in moments of tiredness accidentally deleting things can be a problem.

Scrivener solves this problem by showing you the fragments as a ‘tree’ diagram with folders and subfolders. You can easily drag a fragment up and down in the ‘tree’ to change where it appears in the running order. If you accidentally delete a piece of text (and here is a stroke of pure brilliance) you can fish it out of the trash folder.

4) Research is not just about words

Research writing involves analysing information, synthesising it and crafting it into new forms. Information appears in the form of words, diagrams, tables and images. Often I want to see these as I write so I can do the analysing and synthesising as I go.

Mr Thesis Whisperer recognised my problem awhile back and kindly bought me a second widescreen monitor, which he cleverly rotated to resemble a piece of paper. I write on this screen and have my flotsam on the other.

But in Scrivener the miscellaneous ‘stuff’ I have can be ported directly into the ‘research’ section of my document, so it is always attached to the project I am working on. Scrivener does the work of remembering which articles or images are pertinent to the piece I am working on and I can use a split screen view to see any of this ‘stuff’ side by side with my writing. I imagine this will cut down on the amount of PDFs I print out.

5) Death by Feature

Microsoft Word is old and has been suffering feature creep for some time. There’s just so many bells and whistles now; I don’t know how to operate half of them – or even what they are for. The designers of Microsoft Word get credit for the fact that I can still turn out documents without understanding most of the program.

My point is that it may well be that everything I am moaning about can be done in Word, but it’s hard for me to find out how. There’s far fewer buttons in Scrivener – therefore much less to learn. It’s a much more restful writing environment, which helps me find the creative head space I need.

So that’s my rave review. Scrivener for PC is still in Beta release so some of the functions have yet to be turned on and it’s a little buggy, but so far I’ve been careful with my backups and haven’t lost any work.

I like the way the developer is modest about his work and recognises that no one writing program suits everyone… what’s your favourite writing software? Are there tweaks which you can recommend which might mimic what programs like Scrivener have to offer?

81 thoughts on “Is your computer domesticating you?

  1. John Handley says:

    That looks very nice for novels, and general writing, thinking things out on paper.

    But does it handle Endnote citations? That would seem to be a problem for a thesis writer.

    I note in the FAQs that it does not relate to Word styles, so one would have to go through afterwords and format headings etc…

    • ingermewburn says:

      I’m reliably told the mac version does handle endnote – not sure if PC beta has this feature yet. Not sure about styles – someone else might know. Frankly I use styles mostly to generate TOC so I can jump around the document. No need to do this jumping in Scrivener. I would be prepared to spend time tarting my final text up in word after the thing is compiled.

        • ingermewburn says:

          Table of contents. I often recommend people set up subheadings with styles so that they can use ctrl-click on the TOC in word to ‘jump’ to different sections of the document. It avoids the ‘one step forward, two steps back syndrome’ where you open the document and always start at the first para – and get stuck polishing it…

      • John Handley says:

        Ah right. Good idea.

        I hadn’t thought of using TOC as a navigational tool in a document that is still in the process of being developed!

        Thank you…

  2. Ian Barbour says:

    Based on your tweet the other day I downloaded Scrivener and was immediately hooked.

    I really find that MS Word cramps my style by forcing me to be linear and structured when I don’t want to be. I like the way Scrivener allows me to change the structure of the document when I want – which allows me to focus on writing without worrying about where it fits into the overall document structure.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. ailsa says:

    on a good day i use the toc function when i have planned where im going…or when i am reassembling the bricks of my writing so there is a logic in there somewhere. Thanks for the reminder, will turn it on right now 🙂 In word, click on view, opens up navigation pane so it sits alongside y word doc and i can the see the headings of where ive been and where im going.

    • John Handley says:

      That’s a great tip Ailsa! In my version of Word that is called “document map” I had never even thought of exploring those tabs before.

      Whilst exploring that, I found another set of useful tabs in: “New window”, “Arrange All”, and “Split”; which give you various options of viewing the same document in different panes.

      Thanks again Inger, this blog has lots of good info and discussions!

  4. TokenLefty says:

    I write with LaTeX and Emacs. In Emacs, I can have multiple windows into the same document, so I can be working on multiple sections of the paper at once. I also use “reftex-mode”, which gives me the table of contents in a window that allows me to jump around easily, showing me a document structure that is meaningful to me, not to the machine.

    Perhaps Word can do all of this, but it’s just too hard to learn to drive another space shuttle.

    • ingermewburn says:

      But doesn’t Emacs have tags and code visible in the text? That would drive me nutty! LaTeX makes beautiful documents, but the interface is opaque to us non geeky types…

      • TokenLefty says:

        It does, but other editors these days allow you to write WYSIWYG LaTeX documents. However, I refuse to switch to them for one reason. When I started using LaTeX 16 years ago, I realised that in most cases, large slabs of text can be written without any mark-up. Suddenly I discovered that I had stopped caring about the document’s appearance and I became much more focused on the content.

  5. steffen schmidt says:

    Great discussions. How is the compatibility with Word? When I write I always have to send columns or book manuscripts to my editors < a href="; and they use Word and go NUTS unless they can open and work with Word! If any of you are interested in writing 500-700 op eds or short essays/stories contact my Editor Stan Brewwer at

    Steffen Schmidt

    • ingermewburn says:

      I get what you are saying about dealing with people in the program they are accustomed to. So far I have moved documents between the two using .rtf with no problems.

      I am beginning to see scrivener like the chopping board on which I do my cooking prep and word as the ‘plating up’ of the final dish. For the productivity gains I can live with not using scrivener as an end to end solution. Maybe the problem with Word is that it does try to do too much?

      Did you have a link to your journal / newsletter to share?

  6. Sarah jameson says:

    Thankyou Inger!
    I am that bird in the cage! The fact that my documents actually stay put together (even though some mysterious jumping of content does happen and I did not command it!) is a miracle. I am on tender hooks waiting for the whole thesis to disappear. I save on 3 hard drives and back up disks. I am exhausted scrolling up and down. I would like to time how much time I spend on this! However I am so busy and my brain space so loaded I have not even dared to think there could be an easier way. My nephew says use Linex but what is that! I have been struggling to send my thesis of 16mg to my supervisors. I have asked and asked and tried. All to no avail. Then a wonderful friend said try Dropbox. I can now share my thesis. Voila! But! did I have the time or energy after my frustrating failed attempts to push further. Was I a PhD student doing research or a mouse going round and round on a wheel just trying to solve how to send big files?
    Many thanks

    • ingermewburn says:

      I can hear the frustration Sarah 🙂 I have felt it myself many times. There’s a risk changing from one program when you are mid project… I am lucky to only be writing relatively short research papers at the moment, so doing somethings (like referencing) manually is not a problem.

      I was so excited about Scrivener because it made me realise I wasn’t that I was a slow or inefficient writer and thinker – it was the software that was making it appear that way. I’m glad to hear that you find this knowledge liberating, even if you are stuck in MS Word for all kinds of pragmatic reasons.

    • John Handley says:

      It is very wise to back up in 3 places. If concern for losing the whole thing is really worrying you, then a hard copy backup is another option (use your Uni’s printing allowance for this!!!).

      Also, I wonder if you have your thesis as one whole document, or as separate chapters? The latter is a better way to work, and you can easily put them together at the end of writing.

      • Rowan says:

        If it helps, I know someone who just switched to Scrivener (Windows beta) 70,000 words into her thesis. She’s not computer savvy and it took less than an afternoon to be ready to roll. She originally had a big Word doc for every chapter, uploaded them one by one as base ‘branches’ on the tree, then split them into sections manually. Really not a big task, and it helped her refamiliarise herself with her structure at the same time.

        She now ‘exports’ her entire manuscript every couple of days for backup (to Google Docs and USB in rich text format). She raves about how much easier she finds her work since. And exported, it looks so pretty and real!

      • Eien says:

        Thanks for these notes. Im a Windows user moving to Mac. Are there kebyoard shortcuts for these commands on a Mac? For instance, you can add a cross-reference with ALT-I-n-r and a caption with ALT-I-n-c and never take your hands off the kebyoard. I have not been able to figure out how to do this on Mac. Any suggestions?

  7. M-H says:

    I’ll have a look at Scrivener – thanks Inger. I use Word, with the frustrations you discuss, and also INVIVO, which is very powerful and I believe now does quite a lot of formatting (haven’t checked out the new version which I’ve just installed). It’s very expensive, but you can put all the your readings into it and tag them, along with your data, to match the parts of thesis you are writing. I also use keywords and the various notes fields in Endnote to comment on useful ideas, and dump those into a word doc from time to time to remind me of why and where I wanted to cite something.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Lucky you MH – as a Mac user you can get the full version with all the bells and whistles!

      INVIVO sounds great – I think this is what Scrivener is trying to do with the ‘reference’ folder’ function … I dump PDFs in there and take notes next it and tag it with meta data and progress stickies and so on. I realised yesterday that one of my other problems which scrivener solves is that I write all over printouts of PDFs and then either lose them – or don’t know what my notes mean later. In scrivener I can do all my reading and note taking at the same time as i am compiling bits of writing in the draft folder – cutting and pasting text from the notes section directly into my drafts. Referencing is not a pain because I ‘see’ all my material in the project file.

  8. Sarah says:

    Have already replied via Twitter, but thanks so much for this post – Scrivener is awesome. Non-linear structuring, iPad sync via Simplenote, PDF reference management and dropping refs in from Mendeley = fabulous. I’m a reluctant user of Word (normally an iWork fan) because journal/conference templates just don’t play nicely outside of Word, but the academic writing templates provided in Scrivener look as though they will mean that’s not an issue. Actually looking forward to writing my next paper now (and that’s saying something…!).

  9. djbtak says:

    Scrivener is a much better writing paradigm than Word, because it recognises that in the writing process the best way to organise the text is not the way it will be organised at the end for a reader. The split screen document views, the research folder and the binder just make planning and moving things around a lot easier. But as some of the questions here suggest, using software oriented toward writing (Scrivener) rather than presentation (Word) does require thinking about your workflow, as you need to present the stuff eventually. Frankly, I think some of the developer’s decisions make this a bit more difficult than it needs to be, but you do get quirks in a one-person software company’s product.

    Here’s the way I cope with the main challenges:

    1) I use Scrivener for writing up to the stage of a complete draft in a structure I’m generally happy with, then switch to a word processor. Once I’ve gone to a word processor I don’t go back.

    2) Endnote: copy and paste temporary citations {Whisperer, 2011 #4754 @ 345}, make them footnotes in Scrivener if they will be footnotes (those will export to Word); compile bibliography at the end.

    3) Styles – there is no Word-like paragraph styling, so keep everything pretty much plain text. I even use *bold* and _italic_ just to be safe, though it does handle styled text OK, I just get nervous about losing it in conversion. But if you keep things plain text there’s no risk, and also it’s easier to concentrate on writing. If you have a good set of default styles set up in Word with hotkeys, it takes about 10 minutes to format an average paper.

    4) Sharing – just use the export function and/or compile draft to export to Word. If you’re at the stage where you’re getting track changes, it’s probably time to move to the word processor. I stay in Scrivener for early drafts where I am seeking “general” feedback that might involve wholesale restructuring, then go to the word processor for back and forth tracked changes with editors etc.

    5) If you’re into LaTeX etc., there are a couple of extremely knowledgable users on the Scrivener forums who do all kinds of Scriv -> LaTeX magic.

    Anyway, having used it for a few years it’s hard for me to imagine not writing in Scrivener. It keeps the wood visible while you’re in the trees. Good to see you covering it, hope it continues to be useful!

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks for all these handy suggestions! One of the great things about running this blog is how much I learn 🙂

      Basically what you are saying is that MS Word can be used for ‘post production’. When I was an architect it was taken for granted that there were different software for different drawing/printing/sharing tasks. I got used to gaily importing and exporting data between about 5 key programs. When working this way you have to keep your wits about you and be aware of the possible hitches – which is why it’s great you have taken the time to point them out for us 🙂

      • djbtak says:

        That’s a good analogy. I think many writers in academia aren’t used to reflecting on the process in this way, being more likely to just see the words as the product. But I think by using the right tool for the job at different stages of the process we can work more effectively. You can build a lot with just a hammer and finding the wood you need, but you can build a lot better (and more enjoyably) with a hammer and a saw, but then you also need to make more complex decisions in tool use.

        One other thing I wanted to mention, I wouldn’t advise someone to take on Scrivener (or any other new workflow) when a deadline is approaching. I think you’ve talked about that before, any new workflow takes time to get used to and will have bumps along the way, usually at the worst possible moment 🙂

  10. Julia says:

    Tools for the job?
    A website I am finding quite useful and which will become more useful as it grows via the “wisdom of the crowd” is “”. It gives 14 alternatives to Scrivener, which vary in quality but more importantly, vary in process emphasis depending on the type of writing task. Some for instance are oriented to screen writing, some to novels etc. I wonder when someone will come up with an app which is oriented towards writing online presentations and learning tools for online teaching? A tip when using this site is to click on an alternative and then look at its alternatives.

    I love Zotero for citations and bibliographies because it allows me to keep so much else in the same bucket with the reference. This forum discussion if I have read it correctly suggests that both citations and accompanying Zotero notes can be “dragged and dropped” into Scrivener.

    • Maby says:

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  11. Rowan says:

    I’m a fundamentalist evangelist crazy person when it comes to Scrivener. After trying the Windows beta for a couple of months, I bought a Mac just so I could use this software in its purest form. And I really can’t afford to do this kind of thing. Just so you appreciate the gesture.

    Thanks, Inger, for bringing Scrivener to the attention of PhD students. I think it will bring joy to the masses. Really.

    There are a few awesome features of Scrivener that I want to add to your review .. or augment it with.

    You mentioned this is in point #4 but I think it bears underlining. There are two main sections to your basic Scrivener ‘project’: the manuscript itself (in which you work only in text), and the ‘research’ section. The research section can handle most file types, including – on the Mac version at least, possibly the Windows beta too – PDF, mp3, jpg and other image types. Probably a lot more.

    If you bear in mind that Scrivener really easily allows for a split screen, this latter feature is fricking AMAZING. Have the PDF of the article you’re working with in one panel as you work in the other. Or above/below.

    In switching between research and manuscript, there are also web-browser-style forward and back buttons, which are invaluable when you are flitting around between different areas. You don’t have to think about file names or paths, etc.

    Scrivener hyperlinks are also great (and easy) when you know you have to go into something in greater depth later and want to remind yourself where. I know Word does this, but I’m not sure how easy it is to do with non-Word documents. In Scrivener, once your material has been imported, it’s a mouse click. I love it!

    I don’t know what the Endnote compatibility situation is, but there are testimonials on the Literature and Latte website Inger linked to from academics who use Scriv for research, so there must be some way to do it that doesn’t involve too much runaround. Their customer service and help sections have been invaluable in my experience, so it shouldn’t be hard to find out.

    Finally, it’s worth mentioning Scrivener’s export function. You go into your preferences and specify the format you want your work to appear in, and it will spit it out in that any time you click ‘compile’. In the meantime, you can work in 16 point comic sans if you want and it won’t make any difference to your backups or your final manuscript. You can export in PDF, RTF, text or whatever, so it also supports a range of different backup approaches.

  12. Angie says:

    I really appreciate this discussion, a comment I often receive from my supervisors is that my writing is not organized. I wonder if this software would offer me a solution; though I’m afraid to change now that I am closer to finishing.
    I might give it a go later with smaller writing projects.

    • John Handley says:

      Angie, one tip for organising written work is to have lots of headings.

      These certainly do not have to remain in the finished piece, but can help you to keep something of an overview of your writing, and see that the structure is clear and the content is not repetitive.

      I hope this can help.

  13. Zbigniew Koziel says:


    I have really enjoyed reading this article and to be honest you have put one very important truth which I knew already for so long but could never put it in right words. Perhaps it is becacuse of my english as a second language. However, It is so true that sometimes it seems to be impossible to see things can be better for you or you cannot widen your horizons and spot new opportunitites unless someone will show you that or something happens in your life.

    By the way, I cannot imagine all those excellent writers who did have to write their books using just an old-fashioned typewriter. I am more than 100% sure most of them used to use a similar approach available in Scrivener and by this I mean a lot of loose papaers, clue cards perhaps a board with short info or comments about stories 🙂

    • John Handley says:

      Oh yes! You still have to “write”!

      I believe Helen Garner used a card system, could be wrong. Patrick White wrote it all out longhand in exercise books. Three drafts.

  14. michellelmckay says:

    I am about to commence writing a book of fiction. For the writing I’ve done in the past, I write in Word, but have scrapbooks where I jot ideas and compile mind maps etc. I’m wondering two things: would this ‘Scrivener’ software be beneficial for my writing process, or is it primarily targeted at people writing research papers Also, is it easy to learn how to use, or is it a complex programme? Thanks for your informative post! Michelle

    • ingermewburn says:

      It’s primarily used by novelists as far as I know – and it’s very very easy to learn. I’m sure I could do more with it than I do, but the basics are sufficient for most writerly purposes. Best thing to do is look at the multitude of video clips on You tube. Good luck!

    • Takaharu says:

      Cyril,I did some looking aruond and found this page that explains how to make a QT application use GTK themes. Thanks for the margins tip! I really love that you are building this on Linux and I want to extend an offer to help you out in any way I can. I’m going to be finishing my latest novel here soon, and when I start my second novel, I’ll be using your program. This will be the best way I know to really test it out. Keep up the great work! Ken

  15. Ioa Petra'ka says:

    This is Ioa, from Literature & Latte. Thanks for the nice writeup! To answer a question I’ve seen a few times here: yes, Endnote and Scrivener do play together just fine. Endnote has an alternate method of working that is compatible with nearly anything that can make an RTF file, via the use of placeholders. One copies the citation from the database as a placeholder, and then pastes it into Scrivener, resulting in a bit of text that prints the basic cite info and a special number in curly braces {like so}. After you compile the thesis to RTF, you would then use Endnote to scan the RTF and convert these placeholders to formatted citations and bibliography, in accordance with whatever style you require. So as with Word, the big advantage remains: you can easily publish to more than one style requirement without a massive project to do so.

    Basic integration is very simple. You can tell Scrivener to use Endnote as your bib manager, and that will set it up with a keyboard shortcut. So whenever you need it, you hit Cmd-Y to pull Endnote to the front, browse and select the citation, copy and then paste it back into Scrivener. That’s about all there is to it! I think another option is to leave the placeholders intact and take it into Word for final processing and styling; I’m less familiar with that usage though, so I’d recommend doing a little research if that is something you need. I’m not positive on Endnote, but I do know with Bookends the shortcut to copy is Cmd-Y as well, so it has a kind of symmetry to it. 🙂

  16. S. M. Worth says:

    I downloaded the trial version of Scrivener and began toying with it in the fall of 2011. I initially used it for outlining, I loved the corkboard feature. I then decided to give it a try for NaNoWriMo 2011. It was the first year I finished. Attribute it to the intuitive interface, great tools or just having all your writing, characters and research in one program. I love writing in scenes and being able to drag and drop these as I need to rearrange my story is priceless. There is a free trial so why not give it a shot!

    If anyone decides to buy Scrivener I was given a limited use coupon here You’ll get 20% off – until it expires. Enjoy!

  17. Ian says:

    Good Grief
    In defence of word, you folks need some ‘advanced’ training in it! One of my fave methods of using a word processor for creative work is to use styles (heading and others) to create an outline (TOC) and then start my recursive descent into the thing… I can easily use keystrokes to more or less instantaneously jump around and shuffle around my document. And yes, I can easily go bottoms up too, and have multiple versions, and source control and… These capabilities have been around since the mid 90’s. And any style or flavour of referencing can be handled via macros. So whilst I have used and had some input to scrivener, and that I like it, I can also state that with a small amount of training word can be made to sing – it can do anything scrivener can. And here lies the crux of the problem, and its a trap I find myself falling into even now. Arrogance. This is where I fail to properly learn how to use the tools of the trade. I fail to take the time to slow down and actually learn how to operate correctly, and know fully, the tools I use. Its a little bit of the stoop to conquer syndrome – the jeez I am smart so I know how to use this thing already, and so on.

    I was going to waffle on at length about the execrable smugness of the affirmed smartass, aka the nascent PhD, but I suddenly grow weary…

    suffice it to say – get some training from a skilled practitioner of the tool, and you may cross another threshold…


    ps: autoformat is very quick if properly setup, glossaries, autocorrect, macros, fields etc can have you typing and creating at 10000 words a minute. If you bother to learn how.

  18. Dalia says:

    I always get lost in hundreds of pages I write, so I start repeating myself, cause I’m a true “drafter”. but learning scrivener seemed complicated for me. some adwises where to start?

  19. Sarina says:

    Hi, I would like to get in contact with a scrivener “super-user” who has used it for writing a thesis. I’m using scrivener daily and have lots of thoughts about how to use the extra functions (meta-data, labels, collections) but I’d like to talk through with another scrivener user who might have played with these features.
    Please contact me via the Institute for Sustainable Futures
    Sarina Kilham

  20. Anne says:

    I used Scrivener for my Honours thesis and I wanted to use it for my PhD. There are pros and cons:

    Pros: it was amazing for my literature review and works well with EndNote when you sync.

    Being able to read two documents at once

    Being able to read a document AND take notes on the right hand side of the Scrivener screen.

    See a framework develop in ‘Scrivenings mode”

    Cons: if you are using multiple tables and figures for technical writing Scrivener could not handle these as well as Word because there are limited formatting options in Scrivener. This was a very big CON for me because of my results section.

    I ended up only writing the literature and methods part of my Honours thesis in Scrivener, which was a shame. I am not sure it is worth using it for my PhD in that case not unless anyone has any suggestions based upon their experiences. I checked out the new version of Scrivener and don’t think there is a better option to format tables and figures.

  21. Daniela Cappelletti says:

    Purchased today, thank you for suggesting Scrivener. I have the mac version. It works with mendeley and endnote. Just open the theme’s preferences, set the citation software of your choice. Safe on the theme. As you cite it opens authomatically.

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