Scrivener 3: An In-Depth Review for Academic Writing

What is Scrivener 3?

Scrivener (Mac | Windows) is word processing software published by Literature & Latte. It is unique in that the entire “project” is a file, and within the project, you can write drafts and store documents. You can think of your “project” as a folder that has all your writing in one place, and that you can organize and hierarchize. This makes it the best word processor for academic writing.

Scrivener 3 vs. Word (or other Word Processing Software)

Do you find that your academic writing projects extend across multiple documents? Do you regularly have multiple Word documents and PDFs open when you write your drafts?

The main difference between Scrivener and Word is that Scrivener has built-in attention to both structure and content, while Word (or other word processing software) just allows you to type documents. In Scrivener, each piece of writing is a “project.” You can keep everything–including academic articles– inside of the project itself. Scrivener’s overview video really sums this up nicely. (Video not displaying? Watch it on Vimeo).

This attention to structure and content makes Scrivener 3 the best word processor for academic writing.

What Makes Scrivener Awesome for Academic Writing?

  • Built-in attention to structure and content. For me, this makes Scrivener 3 the clear winner in Scrivener 3 vs. Word. I usually jump around a lot when writing academic articles and books. I tend to switch between drafting new material and organizing what I’ve already written. Scrivener 3 allows me to easily switch between drafting and organizing modes.
  • Corkboard View. When you select multiple pieces of writing, you can choose to see them as one continuous document (like you’d see in Word), or as notecards on a corkboard. Dragging and reordering the cards moves around your text. So you never have to copy and paste multiple paragraphs again to reorganize your draft! This feature makes Scrivener awesome for academic writing, because you can simply drag a notecard from one spot to another, and Scrivener will automatically reorganize your draft.
Corkboard view in Scrivener 3 In Depth Review
  • Splitscreen View. By far one of the best features of using Scrivener for academic writing is splitscreeen view, meaning that you have two “documents” open side-by-side in your editing window.  I find this extremely useful when quoting from primary or secondary sources, and when referencing my other writing.
Scrivener 3 In depth review Split Screen View
  • Composition Mode. Ever wished the world would disappear so that you could focus better? Try out Scrivener’s composition mode for academic writing! It takes away everything from your desktop (including the time and any pesky notifications), leaving only you and writing.
Scrivener 3 In depth review Composition Mode
  • Word Targets. Do you find setting and meeting word-based goals rewarding? Or, alternatively, do you struggle to stay under your maximum word count? Not only does Scrivener always display the word count of individual documents, but its “Word Target” feature gives helps you stay on track. In a Scrivener 3 vs. Word head-to-head comparison, this feature makes me do all my drafting in Scrivener!
Scrivener 3 in depth review word target feature
  • Keep all your documents in one place (“Research” Folder). All new Scrivener projects, by default, contain a “Research” folder where you can drag and drop documents and images. This means that you always have all of your relevant documents (articles, webpages, etc.) on hand. Never again will you have to search through your computer to find the article you want to cite!
  • The app version syncs across all my mobile devices (iPhone and iPad). Do you have frequent small chunks of time and wish you could work on your academic writing? Do you have ideas but not your laptop or computer? The Scrivener app syncs your writing across all your devices. So, you can add text on your phone, and have it there when you open the project on your computer!

Scrivener 2 vs. Scrivener 3 for Academic Writing

Is Scrivener 3 worth the $25 upgrade from Scrivener 2? Yes. Here’s why:

  • Lock Screen in Place. Do you sometimes accidentally switch the wrong document in splitscreen view? In Scrivener 3 you can lock one or both of your documents in place.
  • Linguistic Focus (Edit > Writing Tools) allows you to selectively grey out all but certain parts of speech. It’s like a built-in version of Helen Sword’s Writer’s Diet Test (a companion to her book, The Writer’s Diet) that shows you where your writing is too dense. Use Scrivener’s linguistic focus to follow her principles of strong and engaging writing, without having to leave Scrivener! See what it did when I highlighted adjectives, nouns, and prepositions in one of my projects. (It looks like I might have to tackle some nouns soon!).
    Scrivener 3 in depth Review Linguistic focus adjectives
  • Split already split editing windows. Now, you can have up to four documents open at once, instead of just two.
  • Easier to use Quick Reference Panes. Quick reference panes “pop” your research or other document into a floating window. With Scrivener 3, there is a quick reference pane button in the top bar, which you can either drag documents onto, or click if the document is highlighted.

A Few Limitations of Scrivener 3 for Academic Writing

  • After finishing an article or chapter, instead of using Scrivener’s built-in “compile” feature, I usually simply copy and paste my text into a Word document for final formatting. In my experience, Scrivener’s “compile” function adds goofy formatting.
  • I use Endnote as my reference manager, and Scrivener is not currently able to format Endnote citations. I simply insert the unformatted citations into my footnotes. Then, I format my notes and bibliography once I am at the point of finalizing my Word document.
  • The Scrivener app is still very limited compared to the full program. Splitscreen, for instance, is still possible, but difficult in the app.
  • Sometimes, I encounter syncing errors when opening the same document on multiple computers. Scrivener, though, always alerts me to the issue, and saves any documents that are different in a special “Conflicts” folder.

Where to Get Scrivener (including a Scrivener 3 Education License)

Literature & Latte also has an extremely generous trial offer: you can download the software and use it for free for 30 days.  See their downloads page for details.

Still have questions about Scrivener, or want to hear more about how I use it to do certain things? Leave a comment or email me!

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15 Replies to “Scrivener 3: An In-Depth Review for Academic Writing”

  1. Correction: the “Lock Screen in Place” feature is indeed present in Scrivener 2 (I’m using it as I type this). Other than that, it’s a bummer to find they haven’t done anything else to better enable academic writing with citation integration.

  2. Thank you for writing this review. I have used Scrivener for academic purposes for a long time and my workflow included Sente 6 as a reference manager and PDF organizer/reader. Sente is no longer supported and I need to look at another reference manager/PDF reader organizing alternative that works well with Scrivener. I see you used Endnote. I used it in the past and preferred by far Sente. My university gave me Endnote X8.2, but I am unconvinced. Do you have any thoughts on Bookends or other more mac-friendly reference managers that do also help organize PDFs? Or perhaps you know a good review about it? Thanks!

    1. Thanks for the great question! I started with Endnote my last year of college (believe it or not!), and kept using it because that’s where my entries were, and I had a lot of practice getting it to do the things that I need my reference manager to do. I never really explored changing (except for a quick trial of Zotero) because it seemed like it would be too much work to migrate all my references and learn a new tool. But if you have any recommendations that do have a cite while you write feature in Scrivener, please do let me know!

  3. Hi Prof Knox
    Thanks for your super post. I’m using Scrivener to write my PhD Thesis (in basic science/medicine) and have recently upgraded to Scrivener 3. I thought I had the perfect combination of writing tool (Scrivener) and reference manager (Papers) until a few months ago it all stopped working well. Papers 3 has been purchased by ReadCube and they seem to have stopped updating and supporting Papers – specifically, my “MagicCitations” (cite while you write) function no longer works.

    I wondered what your experience was of an ideal reference/citations program for Scrivener 3?

    Thanks
    Shamim

    1. Hi Shamim,

      Sorry for the belated reply! You ask an excellent question: this is actually my biggest issue with Scrivener, too. I personally use EndNote, and there is currently no ability to have EndNote format references (cite while you write) in Scrivener. So, when I’m done with the manuscript, I copy and paste the text into Word (or “compile”) for a “final formatting” pass. I haven’t been able to find a good workaround for this. I did recently see Zotero will work on Google Docs, so maybe they will offer some sort of Scrivener compatibility in the future?

      Best of luck,

      Katelyn

  4. Thanks for demonstrating “Linguistic Focus.” I never noticed it.

    Using endnote as your bibliography managers: EndNote is notoriously awkward and expensive, especially on Mac. It used to be very buggy; perhaps that has improved. But it is also the standard in many departments, which allows it to lag so far behind. My advice is to avoid it if you have a choice. Estella Maris, this means you! For example: EndNote integrates with MS Word, but not Scrivener.

    I use Bookends, which is well integrated with Scrivener. There are several alternatives, including some mentioned in other comments to this post.

    1. Thanks for the helpful recommendation on Bookends as a reference management software that works well with Endnote! I’ll have to check it out. Thanks again!

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