Using Scrivener to Revise Your Dissertation (or Other Project) in Fifteen Minutes a Day

This is the second post of two about using Scrivener to write your dissertation (or other writing project) while following Joan Bolker’s advice in her book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Check out the first post, on getting started writing here.

In my last post, I talked about Bolker’s idea of developing an addiction to writing, and her advice on setting daily writing goals. When I did these things, they really worked, and since I was using word processing application Scrivener (which I talk about in more detail in this post), it was that much easier to get a good word momentum built up.  Since starting, I’ve gotten two of four dissertation chapters drafted, and am well into the third.  Speaking of that third chapter, I’ve reached what is always a very difficult stage for me: revising that bulk of words I’ve already written.

Working with the Zero Draft

Oh dear, what a mess this is!

Oh dear, what a mess this is!

The spot I find myself in right now with my third chapter is a familiar one for me by now. I’ve thrown myself into generating a lot of words daily in weeks and months past, and now I’ve got a document with some 14,000-odd words in them.  Great, right?  Well, sort of.  The problem now is what to do with all those words.  I can’t turn them in, because it’s not finished (my advisor tells me to not send on anything without a conclusion — wise words) — and it’s not only missing a real conclusion right now, it’s a mess of paragraphs, notes jotted down, section headings, repetitive paragraphs that I’ve rewritten.

Luckily, Bolker writes extensively about this stage in writing.  She calls it the “zero draft.” Here’s why it matters, and why you would want to think of a document as a zero draft as opposed to, say, a first draft: people interested in writing a dissertation usually have to radically re-think their writing process.

While many students (myself included) are used to being able to just sit down and crank out a twenty-page paper, doing that with a dissertation just isn’t possible. Revising your writing is one of the only ways to add clarity and complexity to your ideas, and most people can’t just write everything perfectly in one draft. Writing such a project, Bolker says, requires considering a writing process that may be new to you. This is why you have a zero draft — so you can put your writing and ideas through a revising process that improves them enough to produce a first draft.

So, where I am right now in the chapter I’m working on is at this spot when you have to work on that zero draft. While I used to be able to write a term paper in one go, after jotting notes with a pen and paper, and marking pages of books to use, I can’t do that anymore. When faced with a dissertation chapter, I get stuck in the middle — my ideas are too complicated for me to be able to write them down in a satisfying way in one fell swoop, and so I tend to get very frustrated with what I have written. Why isn’t it perfect the first time? Why doesn’t my writing say things the way I had thought I was saying them? Where is my argument?  Why am I even doing this?

Asking Questions

The commenting feature on Scrivener helps me work through my "zero draft."

The commenting feature on Scrivener helps me work through my “zero draft.”

Asking questions is important, but not necessarily the above questions. Once you’ve gotten to the stage where you have a zero draft, Bolker suggests that you carefully read through everything you’ve written and ask questions of it.  Not questions like “why isn’t this perfect?” (which I think most every graduate student has probably asked at some point), but questions like “Have I left anything out that matters?” and “Is this saying what I meant to say?” and “Do I thoroughly believe what I’ve written?”

You don’t have to answer these questions right at this moment, but do jot them down, and your initial ideas for responding to them.  Bolker suggests doing so on your draft. To do this, I use Scrivener’s commenting feature — I read through what I have and add comments and questions that occur to me while I’m reading. Word also has a comment feature that would work perfectly well for this. Sometimes it also helps to print everything else that you have and write on it with a pen/pencil.  This is about having a conversation with your writing, with questioning it and opening yourself up to the idea that this work is a work in progress that benefits from being open-minded and receptive to any doubts, questions, ideas that you have about your own writing.

Another thing you can do while you’re reading your document, is mark phrases and sentences that you think captures your ideas particularly well.  You can easily highlight those in Scrivener or in Word, or use the commenting feature again to do so.  Bolker suggests identifying those spots to help you to refine your argument and figure out how to revise your zero draft.

Revising Future Chapter Drafts

Bolker has advice on revising your chapters also, and how to get out out of being stuck later on in the dissertation process and evaluating your progress. I’m not yet at the stage where I’m revising any of the first drafts of chapters that I have sent off on their merry way to my advisors’ inboxes. The section of Bolker’s book that deals with this stage of the dissertation-writing process is much shorter, and I hope that it’s because this part isn’t quite as difficult.

Revision mode lets you mark any new text you type as a different color, so you can keep track of revisions. Here I've typed in red text for my "first revision."

Revision mode lets you mark any new text you type as a different color, so you can keep track of revisions. Here I’ve typed in red text for my “first revision.”

Once I get to that stage, however, I still plan on using Scrivener to help me through it. I see that it has a “revision mode” feature where you can write with differently colored text in order to mark that text as a different numbered revision. This is something that I will test out, because I have a terrible habit of revising the same paragraphs over and over in order to procrastinate. Seeing that a paragraph has already been revised may be just what I need to stop doing that.

All in all, I highly recommend Bolker’s book for those of you struggling with getting writing done.  A lot of her advice would apply to other writing projects, even if you’ve already written a dissertation, or have yet to start on yours. And Scrivener, as always, comes highly recommended from me. It’s free for 30 days of actual use, then it costs $45 if you’re a regular users and, if you’re in education, it’s $38.25 (that’s in US dollars).

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.