Writer. Dancer. Tea Drinker. Idea Wrangler. See more of Dana’s work and writing at www.danamray.com
The hardest part about learning to use Scrivener is the instructions in the longest tutorial ever created.
And I do mean long: 22+ mini-articles that take more than predicted three hours to read. As a busy person, I did not appreciate how difficult it was to fully learn this new tool. As I said before, I’m not a techy. Tutorials are absolutely necessary for me to survive in this world. But the instruction was indirect and chatty rather than efficient and to the point.
The upside is that the tutorial is written for the non-techy (me!). It imitates the friendly voice of the eternally patient friend. The tutorial writer will not shame you for any confusion. It gives suggestions and helpful guided practice. And it is very, very thorough. By the end, you have experienced every feature that Scrivener offers.
But long-winded paragraphs are not how I learn. On a good day, I struggle to read instructions accurately. I won’t tell you the number of times that I’ve destroyed the simplest banana bread because I misread the teaspoon of baking soda as a tablespoon of baking powder. If the instructions are not even in a list form, my mind wanders.
The tutorial became an enormous barrier to me employing Scrivener as a new tool in my writing projects. To do the job thoroughly, it took six hours. By the time I finished, I had forgotten many instructions from the beginning. Albeit, the friendly tutorial encouraged me to take several tea and biscuit breaks, and even a glass of wine. I completed those instructions perfectly.
So is Scrivener worth the tutorial?
As with all things, it depends on your project goals. For some, Scrivener is not going to have the pay off that they want after such a steep learning curve. For others, they won’t find it that difficult to learn and therefore can jump right in.
Others will find it difficult but well worth the effort. I suspect that I am in this final category because of my work style. I, for one, am a compiler, collecting notes and references and short paragraph sketches and section headers into a large, tangled pile before I can write a basic thesis. Scrivener, once I get used to it, has all the features that my old school sticky note piles but without the difficulty of reading my own hand writing or losing anything. Instead, I can employ my same project tactics but in a visually clean word processor. I no longer have to separate my initial thoughts from the drafting document itself. Every writer and academic is unique, and never more so than in their project habits Scrivener is designed to be useful to the most tangled work styles. The hope is that anyone using it can tailor it to specific and quirky structures.
If Scrivener were any simpler, it would not accomplish its goal of being flexible to the awkward, unaccountable tactics we each take to sort our ideas into comprehensive arguments and order.
But getting comfortable enough in Scrivener to “be you” takes time that none of us have. So here’s my advice: only use the shortened tutorial. Do not sink yourself into the full tutorial—unless you adore the rambling explication of tools in a 22 Step Process. Play with Scrivener as you develop your project from brainstorming to completion. And when odd buttons and difficult tasks frustrate you: use the YouTube videos. A visual demonstration was more helpful and faster than the chatty written guide.
Even with the initial barriers, it does not take long to see how Scrivener can particularly help academics. I am going to quickly highlight some of those features for the beginning users. I include the tutorial sections that tell you about these features.
Footnote, Annotations, and References: Step 5D “References” & 5H
It can be incredibly difficult to integrate footnotes and annotations into long research documents using Microsoft Word. Formatting becomes a tedious process and can clutter the pages. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it can be easy to miss footnote content. Scrivener allows footnotes to be stored away from the working text itself, a kind of digital sticky note that you can open as needed.
In addition, you can import actual reference texts into your project so everything is one place instead of strewn across document folders and various reference works.
Split Pane Feature: Step 8 “Splits”
Split pane feature is a beautiful tool to use with references. The screen splits in two and two documents can be viewed at the same time. I find that integrating references often requires flipping back and forth between browsers my tiny laptop screen; it’s annoying at the very best and confusing at worst. Split pane allows you to view the PDF you found in JSTOR or the screen shot of the webpage you are analyzing at the same time you are writing your analysis.
Composition Mode: Step 4 “Composition Mode”
As Scrivener acknowledges, this is not innovative in the world of word processors. However, it is great that it is there. Go into Composition Mode and it is just you and your text. Composition mode allows you to access many of the Scrivener formatting and writing tools without having to exit the focused view. With the significant word counts every day this month, focus is essential.
Next week, I’ll address how Scrivener affects interdisciplinary projects, particularly those that require multiple forms of media like in the digital humanities.