Best software for writing a Doctoral Thesis

Scrivener was developed for novelists, but has come to be adopted by many scholars. I’ve been using it to draft my dissertation, and found my productivity shoot up immediately after switching to it. I attribute that to the following features:

  • Each project is a file system, instead of being a single document. This is the fundamental feature that everything else I point to relies on. Text files within the project can be named, organized into folders, re-arranged by dragging and dropping, etc. Selecting multiple of these files together will display them as a single document, but otherwise, you’re often just looking at a specific section.


  • Split screen editing. Hate switching back and forth between multiple documents, or scrolling up and down within the same one to different sections? The split screen feature of Scrivener allows you to view multiple documents, or different parts of the same section, simultaneously. I use this constantly in my dissertation writing.


  • Importing of word docs, PDFs, images, etc. into a “research” section of the project file system. The file system on a project has a “research” section that allows you to bring in all sorts of things that aren’t actually the thing you’re writing itself, but stuff you’re referencing or building off of. My dissertation is based on over 100 interviews, thousands of pages of documentation, and hundreds of hours of field notes – bringing those documents into an organized research section of the project streamlines my workflow in a big way, and combined with the split screen feature allows me to be reviewing and excerpting empirical data right into different sections I’m working on.


  • Stability, stability, stability. No matter how fast and new the computer I’m using is, Word will consistently fail me in terms of stability when dealing with huge documents like the ones I’d require for my dissertation. It lags, it crashes, it corrupts files. This is terrible, it’s unacceptable, and people just suffer through it. In Scrivener, I’ve never had a hiccup. And I’m talking about a project file that is currently over 83,000 words in my dissertation itself and over 407,000 words in my “research” section, and I’ve never had a crash, the project opens up and can be edited within seconds, there’s never any lag. Think about that – this is a “document” that’s almost a half a million words long. And it doesn’t crash, corrupt, or lag. The efficiency savings here are massive, not to mention lack of tearing my hair out. Dissertations are hard enough, we don’t need our software to torture us too!

This is the interface, with split-screen enabled and the “binder” (file system for the project) visible:

One of the biggest things I found is that the lack of a blinking cursor at the top of an empty Word document makes it way easier for me to get words down on page. When I was using Word, I’d create a new document for each chapter, and then process-wise I’d feel like I needed to start at the beginning of the chapter. With Scrivener, I can create a folder for a given chapter, create sub-docs for each of the sections of the chapter, then get started working on the findings immediately (which is what you should be doing process-wise in the first place, especially in social science where the argument/contribution often is “discovered” as you write).

There are of course some drawbacks. When I’m ready to share a chapter with my adviser/committee members I export into Word so they can do track changes, and then in integrating their comments I can’t just hit “accept” like I would in Word (though you can import a track-changed Word doc and it’ll show up with the comments etc.). It’s also not great for collaborative work – journal articles I’m working on in tight collaboration with others I still use google docs. And I’m sure that once I get to the end of the process of drafting the dissertation I’ll have to do loads of formatting work once I export into Word. But to me the benefits in terms of the analysis and writing process Scrivener affords, along with its stability, greatly outweigh what will likely be a day or two of work later on.

For qualitative and humanities I think Scrivener kills it.