My Dissertation Writing Process Tools (or how I almost got it done)

By May 29, 2015

I have been absent from the blog for quite some time (yes over a year 🙁 ) But I am back to write about?my dissertation writing process. Future posts will be back to our fave topic of Mormon history. However, I know many of us are writers, researchers, and scholars and are regularly engaged in some form of writing.

Now, this is not a prescriptive post about how to write the dissertation. In fact, it is far from it. Instead, I am going to share some of the tools that were and are essential to my writing.

Scrivener. At first I was very hesitant to jump on a whole new word processing program, but soon I learned that Scrivener had many of the features that I wish MS Word had. With Scrivener, you can create:

  • an index card bulletin board of different sections of your draft:

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 10.01.39 PM

  • a split screen mode that allows you to edit several documents at once (I use this one the most!)
  • a full-screen mode
  • etc. Check out the video tutorials here. I will admit to buying the idiot’s guide to scrivner because I was overwhelmed at first.

Having the ability to have two documents open in the same window really corresponds with the way I have always tended to write. There is always a point when I ?compile? my whole scrivener document into a RTF and start working in Word toward the end of the drafting process, but this mostly involves copyediting. The more I have come to realize my writing process is messy and involves many different writing platforms, the easier it has been to get it done. It is messy but there is order to the madness. Scrivener runs about $45.00 and there is a free trial.

Coggle: If you need to actually map out your writing, this is perfect for brainstorming and organizing chapters, smaller sections of chapters, conference papers, and other writing projects. You use it in browser windows and can save files easily on Google drive. Plus, if you like a lot of color, this is for you.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 10.07.12 PM













PDF Connoisseur for the iPad, iPhone, and Mac. Since we now work at a time when the archival documents and scholarly articles & books are becoming more and more readily available in electronic form, I have attempted to embrace reading on a computer screen. I struggled with this a lot. I started using my husband?s ipad, tried a bunch of different apps, and finally discovered PDF connoisseur. There a whole of different ways to ?annotate? the pdf making it much easier for someone like me, who loves plain old writing on paper, to mark the PDF?underlining, highlighting, and taking notes on the margins.

Non-electronic tools

I actually draft a lot by hand before turning to the computer. I recently discovered these notepads (which are simply legal pads turned the other way). Something about it makes it easier for me to sketch out my ideas. They also remind me of giant notecards.

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 11.10.48 AM








Organization by post it. My last chapter has been very difficult for me to break down organizationally. After many false starts over the weeks, I finally spent a week going over old half Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 11.11.06 AMwritten drafts and then broke each paragraph down on a post it, marking each point I know I want to make.These are my favorite kind. I spent my weekends in the library putting post-its all over my study carrel. I probably seemed insane to the undergrads.







Or maybe that was the kitty notebook I kept it in?(I swear it was a joke present!:)

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 11.11.19 AM











Please share your writing, research, and project tools in the comments. I want to know about them!

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I tried scrivener but didn’t have enough patience to make it work. I keep all my notes in Evernote and reduce the size of my doc and evernotes so I can have one of each open on my laptop; when things get really dire I switch desks and use Loel’s awesome computer set-up (he has two screens, and if I add my own laptop and maybe iPad to the mix, I have all the screens I could want).

    I’m actually a big fan of drafting on paper. I brainstorm in a notebook, will move to a whiteboard to make a preliminary outline before I start a detailed outline in Word. Post-its are awesome, too.

    (This makes my process sound much more streamlined than it is. It really is barely controlled chaos at the best of times, and I’m always amazed when I manage to produce an actual chapter/paper/whatever at the end of it…)

    Comment by Saskia — May 29, 2015 @ 9:07 am

  2. Scrivener is the greatest. I had tried it before but didn’t take the time to learn it properly and therefore quickly gave up. But if you take the time, go through the provided tutorial, and really learn your stuff, it’s a fantastic program.

    But even Scrivener takes work; regardless of which system you use, I’ve found to be successful roughly 25-30% of my time ought to be dedicated to just staying organized. Take time to review your layout, notes, etc. Keep a research journal. If things are getting unwieldy, stop writing for a day and put things in order.

    Comment by John Hatch — May 29, 2015 @ 9:35 am

  3. Thanks, Natalie. I need to get Scrivener but I?m not sure where to start. Maybe I?ll get the Dummies guide as well!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 29, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

  4. I lost my computer to repairs for two weeks last summer, which meant I also couldn’t use Scrivener. To get by I found the Index Card app ( for Ipad very helpful. It mimics Scrivener’s bulletin board feature that Natalie mentioned.

    Comment by M Hibbard — May 29, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

  5. Great post Natalie!

    If you use a Mac, I highly recommend Spectacle (which is free) for arranging your desktop windows. It’s really easy and helpful.

    Also, I am going to get around to writing a post here about storing your research notes and data on Github which I’ve found very useful, especially if you want to collaborate with other scholars.

    Comment by Tod R. — May 30, 2015 @ 8:30 am

  6. I’m also a Scrivener user, learning its more complex functions as I write my book with it.
    +1 for Evernote as well.

    Comment by Ben S — May 30, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

  7. Thanks, Natalie. I find this sort of post very helpful.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 31, 2015 @ 6:22 am

  8. I use PDF X-Change Editor, a very affordable and capable alternative to Adobe. Its OCR capabilities have been very useful for making documents searchable. I sometimes do the iPad thing for PDFs too. Also, I have taken to buying and citing a lot of Kindle books, hoping I can convince people it’s the wave of the future rather than something I need to fix in postproduction.

    For writing I use Word, and I almost always have two documents open side by side. So I should probably look into the scrivener thing. I’ve hesitated to adopt any other software because Word has broad compatibility that other programs may not. I lost some stuff I did on an old version of EndNote because of changes in the software and file format.

    Comment by chris smith — May 31, 2015 @ 11:24 am

  9. Wow, this is very helpful. I always love the peek inside someone else’s writing process, especially if it means new toys — er, tools: I MEAN TOOLS — to play with. Thanks for this, Natalie!

    Comment by Tona H — May 31, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

  10. Funny enough, I got an email this morning saying Macupdate was offering Scrivener at 50% off. Not quite sure how that works.

    Comment by Ben S — June 2, 2015 @ 6:17 am


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