Writing, research, technology

Confessions of an erstwhile librarian

Now that I’ve (re)embarked on my historical and now non-fiction (?)  project, I’m beginning to panic worry about the general disorganisation of my ‘research materials’  by which I mean everything from dog-eared articles and handwritten notes, to things I’ve typed up in Word or grabbed from DNB or Wikipedia. Then there are endless other websites and online resources including blog posts, images, letters and maps. Having collected these in a sporadic fashion for four or five years, will I be able to find what I need when I need it?

When the project was a novel, I was less concerned (just write then check the facts later seemed a reasonable modus operandi) but in the context of non-fiction, I’m also going to need to quote from and cite these sources correctly. Having spent a fair number of years lecturing students on the importance of such matters, (sorry, couldn’t resist the retro clipart) I feel pretty stupid at not having been more systematic in my approach.

Of course rather than attempt a root and branch assessment of what I have, it’s much more fun to look at things which might help do it for me. And if playing with software (like Tweeting and sorting the washing) is a distraction, it could also bring long-term benefits, couldn’t it?

 I’ve been aware for a while that there are tools out there used by fiction writers to help with plotting and general organisation of materials. A dyslexic friend is a huge fan of StoryMill (only for Macs) and there’s also Writers’ Café produced by previous guest Harriet Smart. Having ignored all of these, I heard a friend and confirmed technophobe extolling the merits of Scrivener and it felt like time  to give it a whirl. Said friend has even bought a book on how to use it, but I’m afraid I just went for the free download, and after a quick look at the tutorial (don’t be fooled – the interactivity is limited) jumped straight in.

Let me say this is in no way a complete assessment of Scrivener, more the story so far of how I’ve got on. If you want more detail look elsewhere, or start with this useful comparison by Martha Williams, but to summarise what this package does (quite a lot!) I’d say there are three areas –

  • story  planning and structure,
  • producing  a formatted manuscript,
  • research and notes

Now I am a confirmed user of (and at one time even a trainer in) MS Word and so although Scrivener looks good for outlining and navigating I am happy with Word’s  Document map, or occasionally Outline View. Scrivener has some nice extra features like wordcounts for each section and a pinboard view which I haven’t had cause to use but could be a big plus for a project (like the first draft of a novel?) that’s in a ‘free-form’ state. I also like the flexibility of viewing a document in chunks or in a straight run, and the clever ‘scrivenings’ idea of looking at (and editing) different sections on the same screen. At this point, I can manage with the way I do things now, but might be persuaded to change if there are other advantages.

As regards formatting, Scrivener has its own customisable templates and I imagine the output process is reasonably straightforward, but for me the Word style menu is as good as a security blanket and I’m unwilling to give up the whole gamut of word-processing options presented by Word, or to embark on all of that after I export the text from Scrivener instead of doing it as I go along. I also had a minor panic when I had problems exporting my Scrivener files back into Word. The panic (thanks to a friendly Tweep) is now over, but do I want to spend time learning the Scrivener way what I can do already? So this far, although Scrivener might be dandy for someone who hasn’t got the hang of all the features of Word, I’m not persuaded to give up what I know and learn to do it all a new way.

Scrivener screenshotSo what about research materials? At first sight everything looks good. As well as document text, the Scrivener ‘binder’ lets me import research notes and websites into the interface and lets me work in ‘split screen’ with a research document or website on view as I type. So this is a plus. I have character notes, images and web pages absolutely to hand and can as far as I can see, create as many folders as I would like to store them in. I can also type in notes relating to any particular scene or the project as a whole. On the other hand I don’t seem to be able to drag research items into the notes pane, which would have been helpful e.g. to associate a document or website with a particular scene/chapter.

I think I was really hoping that there might be a facility in Scrivener to store references and produce citations from them, which was maybe optimistic. But I know that most citation software (Refworks, Endnote etc)  has a plug in that runs in Word, enabling citations to be imported as endnotes or footnotes in the desired format and ‘on the fly’. It looks like no one has a plug-in for Scrivener, and that the work-arounds would be fiddly. I’m not planning an academic treatise, but I woudl like to store a modest bibliography and be able to incorporate citations from it.  So, Scrivener scores on structure/planning and in organising research, but not (for me) in formatting or citation management.

Despite these shortcomings, the Scrivener interface is user-friendly and in my case having everything to hand does seem to concentrate the mind. It’s also fun to be embarking on a new project with a new tool. So will I take out a licence when my trial period ends? Right now, on balance, I think the answer is no, but I have a couple of weeks left. Possibly just enough time to change my mind.

If you want to see for yourself, Scrivener is available here as a free trial.

Next task? Yes, I’m playing with a free citation manager, but I think it’s time I did some writing – somewhere, anywhere.


Author: Ali Bacon


4 thoughts on “Writing, research, technology”

  1. Very interesting Ali, I had absolutely no idea that any of this existed. (Duh!) Am checking out Scrivener. Do you think they might modify it in future, so that I can just write a rough bit of prose and then press the ‘Atwood’ button to have it rendered into ‘Award-winning fiction’ ? Thanks for this.

  2. Brilliant idea – count me in if you find anyone who can do this. (Don’t tell anyone else, though!)

  3. Yes, all this IS interesting. I trialled Scrivener during NaNoWriMo but, because I was pantsing, sometimes achieving 3 to 5,000 words a day, I found it hard to pick up Scrivener at that time. I did export my first draft at the seven chapters stage from Word into Scrivener and saving it as an rtf in order to do so and, well, when I opened up my novel in Scrivener, all the speech marks had gone, replaced with question-marks! This might not seem much of a problem to fix with find and replace but then I would have the problem of question marks that were meant to be there being converted into speech marks. Exhausted? Yes, I was. And like you, I would prefer if you could have all the relevant research in the appropriate chapters and couldn’t see a way round that either.

    A friend has said to persevere, swears by it, etc., so I may have another go for my second draft, which is currently now back safely in Word. I did buy Scrivener and, as I got it for a reduced rate as a NaNo ‘winner’, I suppose I don’t have much financial loss to consider. But it would be good to see if it would be useful in the future. Like you, I have always loved all the features of Word and don’t see the point in changing. My files of Research, Useful Information, are all just as close to hand!

  4. Thanks for that! Always good to get other people’s experience. I’m ploughing on with my free trial and can see that if I’m not careful I’ll not want to give it up, but now wondering what will happen to those research and associated files when I try exporting. I assume they’ll still exist in some other folder. Might be an idea to try out before I go much further.
    That word ‘safely’ is the giveaway I think!

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