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?

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