Using Scrivener to Get Started Writing Your Dissertation (or Other Project) in Fifteen Minutes a Day

Since I’ve been writing my dissertation in American studies here at W&M, I’ve noticed a whole new genre of self-help books: the how to write your dissertation book. I’ve flipped through a number of these, but the one I’ve actually sat down and read (and that my peers have seemed to really like) is Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. A lot of what she says applies to any academic writing, especially when she gets down to talking about the writing process itself, and about how to get started writing. I also have realized that much of Bolker’s advice works really well with word processing application Scrivener, which I’ve written about in the past (you can see those posts here and here). So here are my tips for using Scrivener alongside Bolker’s advice. Not all of these are Scrivener-specific (you could certainly use Word, or even a pen and paper), but Scrivener certainly makes things easier!

This first post of two about using Scrivener with Bolker’s book is about getting started writing, and the next post will be about working with what you’ve written.

Becoming a Writing Addict

Scrivener's full screen mode makes it really hard for me NOT to write at least once sentence.

Scrivener’s full screen mode makes it really hard for me NOT to write at least one sentence.

One of the tenets of Bolker’s advice is the fifteen minutes a day rule, which the book is named for. She says to commit to writing at least fifteen minutes, every day, even when you’ve just started. It helps to always be writing throughout the process even while still researching.

Of course, a dissertation doesn’t get written on ONLY fifteen minutes a day, but it’s much more than zero minutes a day if you currently aren’t writing anything at all.  If you sit down to write at the same time every day and write for even a short time, you’ll start to develop it as a habit, and it’ll get easier when you do it. She calls this becoming “addicted” to writing.

I use a modified version of this rule for my dissertation writing. Every day, I have to at least open my current chapter’s Scrivener document, and write at least one sentence. I always do this early in the morning, and always as the first work-related thing that I do in the day. It sounds silly and not particularly productive, but it works really well for me in practice. I never write only one sentence, anyway, and usually the once sentence turns into a paragraph or more, and I’m that much closer to being done.  And, as it turns out, if I do this every morning, it does get easier each day that I do it.

I find Scrivener helpful for this piece of Bolker’s advice in particular because I find staring at a Scrivener document far less oppressive than staring at a Word document. Using it in full screen also makes it hard to become distracted by something, and it will get me to write that sentence. If I open Scrivener and turn it to full screen mode, it’s hard for me to resist writing at least one sentence.

Setting a Writing Goal

The project targets feature in Scrivener makes it easy to set and customize your word goals. As you can see, you can also link Scrivener to your Twitter account and tweet when you hit your goal, if you're into that sort of thing.

The project targets feature in Scrivener makes it easy to set and customize your word goals. As you can see, you can also link Scrivener to your Twitter account and tweet when you hit your goal, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Bolker also recommends using a daily goal to help get your writing going. She recommends choosing something like 1000 words per day, or a set number of pages, especially when you’re still at what she calls the “zero draft” stage. I used to do this, and it was really helpful for me to get a critical mass of words going of my dissertation in the beginning, and in the beginning of starting a chapter.  It helps so much to have a document with, say, five or six thousand words in it, even if they’re sloppy or most all of them eventually get rewritten, revised, or otherwise deleted.

Ten thousand words is chapter-length by my standards, so, hey, doing 1000 words per day for ten days gets me to that amount. Having a document with that many words in it for me is always a turning point for a chapter, even if the words don’t very closely resemble what I end up giving to my advisor weeks (or months) later.  Ten thousand words feels like a large chunk to work with, and with that, I can’t ever fool myself into thinking that I don’t have anything and am still at the beginning stages of writing a chapter.

When I still did the words-per-day goals I used Scrivener’s “project targets” feature.  This feature lets you set a word count goal that resets every day (or every time you open the document — there are lots of options). You can also set a goal for the project as a whole, but that wasn’t helpful for me because I have a large number of documents in each chapter’s project file that are notes or other writing that I don’t hand in to my advisor.

This no-nonsense message lets you know when you can stop writing and start watching YouTube videos again.

This no-nonsense message lets you know when you can stop writing and start watching YouTube videos again.

The project targets is great — there’s even a little window with a bar that turns from red to yellow to green as you approach your goal. And, you can set Scrivener to give you an announcement when you reach your goal for the day, which gives me a sense of satisfaction. You can also set it to count total words written during the session or net words (i.e. whether or not it counts deleted words). This was part of why I eventually stopped using this, though — once I had a lot of words, I was doing mostly revising and editing and didn’t need the word target anymore. Once I hit 10,000+ words on a chapter, I don’t need to worry about increasing the word count anymore. But for my next chapter, I will probably use this feature again because I don’t have much written for it at all yet.

Next Time

Next time, I’ll write about what you’re supposed to do with all those words once you have them down.  This is what Bolker calls the “zero draft” and it can be particularly challenging if you’ve never written such a large document before that needs several revisions. I know that I’ve gotten stuck at this stage on a chapter more than once myself.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.

Comments

  1. Hi Kim,

    thank you very much for this blog post. I’m starting my MA Thesis at this very moment and I’m already a big fan of scrivener, used it a lot for my academic assignments the last years.
    Struggling with the hardly “every-time-again” start writing…I’ll definitely use your tips regarding counting and targeting words.
    Looking forward for the next post!

    all the best from Germany,
    Timo

    • Kim Mann says:

      Hi Timo, glad that the post was helpful to you! Good luck with your MA thesis — I think writing is always hard, but it really is about taking this one day, hour, or sentence at a time — and if you can do that, you can do it! Thanks for your comment — Kim