Mac OSX, Scrivener and Word for Academic writing

Well, about 18 months ago I bought a new Macbook Pro.  I had sworn that Mr Gates’ hegemony had to deliver on Windows 7, and, although it was OK, it was not quite to the standard I wanted.  So I thought that, as I am currently doing my phd full time, it would be a good idea to try out this Mac thing full time. On account of how my need for my computers to play well with others on a corporate network is less.

And, speaking as a Windows user of long standing,  generally it’s been a Good Thing.  Sure, the Macbook was expensive compared to the Windows equivalents, but then the software is generally cheaper and OSX just feels more bulletproof.  Of course, software development is a bit harder to get into (but then AppleScript is very good), but at least when Office 2011 came out they brought back VBA for Mac Office.  Thank goodness!

And there are two items of software on the Mac that I have coveted and used a lot since converting to the Mac side. Devonthink Pro is one that I have just not managed to find an equivalent for – which should be the subject of a future post – and Scrivener is the other.  In fact, I made a video on YouTube and a post here on my blog, and since it’s consistently my most popular blog post and video by a mile, there’s a lot of love for it.

So, I have adopted Scrivener for writing.  And it’s a great all-round writing package.  The structure, the mechanism behind it, and the ability to compile to many formats (including ebook) and slice-and-dice your writing is wonderful.  I of course also have Office 2011 for ‘other writing’ and for final formatting.

The default for most phd candidates is of course Word, and on the Mac that’s periodically been a beast competent at short writing but not so good at long writing.  However, I have recently been using it to write a large report for a client (55 pages, 20,000 words)  and in the space of 24 hours it lost me 6 hours’ (yes, even with auto recovery files being saved every 10 minutes).  I would be editing and moving text around in Microsoft Word and then I’d get the spinning wheel of death (see – I have turned into a Mac user). Word would just end up not responding.  And when you’re consulting for a client that is paying hourly, losing that many hours is not much fun for your hip pocket. Nothing like the market’s invisible hand to make you think about your software choice.

Turns out there is a bug with the ‘Smart Cut-and-Paste’ function – go to /Word /Preferences /Editing Options and turn off Smart Cut-and-Paste and that problem with Word in Office 2011 crashing should go away.  After I found that tip I proceed to write for a week without a single crash.  I had been blaming it for EndNote incompatibility but this document wasn’t using that and I’d disabled that functionality.

So.  Word on the Mac can be made to work.  Although you can still lose work, and it is dependent upon you regularly saving your document if you want to avoid wholesale problems (and saving is slow on Word).

And so to Scrivener.  I love Scrivener.  Mostly.  The structured approach is good and the ability to move your text around is fantastic.

However – there are several issues for academic writing.  Graphics were a problem for a while but I worked out you need to draw your diagram in another package (e.g. Powerpoint), save to PNG, import the image, and then scale the image to consistently be the width of the page (411 pixels, incidentally).

Firstly – and insurmountably – you do have to play with the world of others if you are a co-author with people.  If you are the primary author, then you can compile, send it to your co-authors, and have them mark it up with changes for you replicate in your document.  But it’s a bear if your supervisor says, ‘Just give me the electronic copy and I’ll finish the report for you’.  Particularly since styles and text tags (such as the <$n:table:demographics> table you have on page 6) don’t translate to tags in Word – when they are expecting these things.

Secondly – and I suspect uniquely to academic writing – Scrivener’s tables, well, there’s no better phrase to describe it:  Scrivener’s tables suck.  Mostly because if it’s anything other than a straight vanilla table with no merged cells and so on, aligning tables is pedantic.  And I know that that’s because it’s really OSX’s tables.  And I know that Microsoft Word’s tables are proprietary and thus evil.  But, the tables just cannot be made to work.  I had gotten to the stage where I would do the tables up specifically in Word, and then import the RTF document (putting all the tables in their own sub-directory, with the same name as the $n:table reference in Scrivener) into Scrivener.  And that sort of worked when it was compiled out.  But sort of not.

Thirdly, a lot of academic papers come with arbitrary word limits and requiring submission in Word.  I have just had a paper accepted at AMCIS that was ‘5000 words including tables and references’.  Great – so I have to compile with EndNote every time I want to know how many words this thing is (noting, I suppose, this is really a function of EndNote’s sulkiness and thus you have to do this with Word too).  But you end up compiling from Scrivener to RTF, formatting EndNote tokens, saving to DocX and then reviewing the final output and changing a word on page 4 – and now you have two copies of your paper.  Sigh.  So you track change that paper, and then re-input your changes back to Scrivener later… which is every bit as painful as it sounds.  And if you then edit the paper in Scrivener, you’ll have to re-do all that formatting again.

Finally – it is in the nature of the academic to procrastinate.  If a paper is due at 5pm, then at 4:55pm you will be madly checking the format.  One of the great things Scrivener does is separate the writing from the formatting.  But the formatting is integral – presentation is communication.  Formatting the paper can take Quite a While.  And as Styles in Scrivener don’t work as they do in Word, a decision to make your section headings 18 points instead of 16 points can really wreck your day.  This is a problem when you are up against a tight deadline.

So… I am conflicted with Scrivener.  I think that for writing the Great Australian Novel it is the perfect tool.  And being able to compile different versions of the same document is excellent as well.  However, there are a few issues that I am trying to get my head around to make it work for academic writing. I just may have to accept that I do not have the time to do that and thus may need to ‘stick with Word’ for my PhD.  As a bit of a ‘new tool’ buff, and being able to see the advantages of Scrivener, that hurts, but more procrastination just isn’t an option when you are past the journey to knowledge and wanting to graduate.

[Footnote:  Since writing this post, I have gone back to using Scrivener as Word crashes far too often on the Mac.  Word is fine for two page letters on the Mac but that’s as far as I’d trust it.  I have written an automatic style formatter in Word (very rough, very basic, and very ugly) that converts fonts of a certain size to a Heading 1, 2, 3 and 4 style in Word – see this post here:  Scrivener to Word Visual Basic Fromatter].

33 thoughts on “Mac OSX, Scrivener and Word for Academic writing”

  1. I so agree with you. At first I was like “wow”, but after writing a whole paper, I realized how much time I wasted exploring Scrivener features and trying to make it look like a proper academic work. Scrivener is thus excellent for procrastinating 🙂

  2. Well I learned a lot from using Scrivener, and it has shaped how I write. I do think that for fiction writing it is probably excellent – no, fantastic – at helping you track the entire project and such like. But Scrivener’s entire idea is to separate the writing from the formatting and unfortunately I found I needed to format in my workflow to make it work. And I feel I gave it a red-hot go. But there is a chance that the procrastination fairy was at work in some of this.

    Now though I am missing in Word the ability to have ‘non-published content’ as Scrivener allows. As well, Word was terribly unreliable until I removed ‘smart cut and paste’ – it kept crashing and losing all my work.

    To compensate, I use comments with Word as I did with Scrivener, and just have a separate ‘scraps’ document and save separate versions at milestones along the way.

    Thanks: Micheal Axelsen

  3. And of course Mac Word crashes on me twice today and loses me two hours of work. AutoRecover doesn’t auto and doesn’t recover. Grr.

  4. Grr. Have worked out what’s happening. My dissertation document has 87 comments and that causes a memory allocation error that Microsoft won’t fix because Microsoft can’t be bothered.

    Dammit, the whole point of buying MS Word is to do complex documents. If I wanted to write a non-complex document I’d use Wordpad. I have to say Scrivener handled that many comments without missing a beat. Why can’t Microsoft get it right? They’ve been in the business for over 30 years.

    Another reason to hate on the Big G. Sigh.

  5. I’m just starting my PhD. I bought Scrivener for my Macbook as my main writing package. I’ve done minimal writing with it so far though (just structuring and commencing the confirmation document). From your experiences it sounds like life with Scrivener may not be all smooth sailing…. Your thoughts on iWork as an alternative to MS Word?

  6. Hi Tanya.

    This is very much top of mind at the moment for me. I am about to sit down and rewrite the work that Word lost me, so take my comments in that context.

    It’s certainly not all smooth sailing with Scrivener. The main, the absolute main, problem is that Scrivener and tables just don’t get on all that well. Sure, if you want a 4 x 4 table it’s good for that. Merge cells, or muck around with it some, and it won’t be that great. By which I mean table borders move and shudder about a bit.

    The second problem is working with other co-authors who expect things like heading styles and such. I am pretty much a Word assassin with those things – I learnt how they work years ago and always use them. Scrivener generates to a Word file that, for instance, will require you to add in the styles etc – in a large document that is a non-trivial exercise.

    However, Word on the Mac does not thrill me either. There is a massive bug in Word 2011 (may not be present in 2008) that just crashes out with Track/Review Changes and Comments


    I use many comments (I put a comment on the EndNote citation so I know where it came from (e.g. “cognitive load theory is made up of three types of cognitive load – see Sweller (1988) p86 para2”). This seems to have caused Word to crash out. And AutoRecover doesn’t work properly. Your mileage may vary but I like having the comments there for discipline.

    As for iWork – I’m not sold on Pages to write with in all honesty. I haven’t tried it though, but I think you will still have the same compatibility issues with other users that you do with Scrivener, and I think you will have “some other troubles” (TM) with Pages trying to write a really long document. A friend of mine doing her thesis last night told me it has 270 pages, 80,000 words, 976 citations, 371 references, two table formats, 5 tables of contents (? wtf?). That to me is a long and fairly complex document – and Word on Windows can handle it, she tells me she has problems with Mac Word.

    For now, if I am primary author I am back using Scrivener again and will write tables in Word (or Libre Office or Pages), and “insert” those into my Scrivener document (either as RTF tables or as simple pictures, though I’m not rapt with that idea).

    In summary:

    Scrivener good and reliable and great as a writer’s tool, with some compatibility problems.

    Word good and generally reliable but for long documents on Mac not so much.

    Pages – a bit of an unknown to me but Pages has never presented itself as the writer’s tool so I’m a bit sceptical.

    Libre Office or perhaps MacTex/laTex?

    You know, all I want to do is write – how hard can this be 🙂 ?

    Thanks: Micheal “procrastinating for the nation” Axelsen

  7. Ah, but once you commit to Latex, you can never go back.

    Took me less than two minutes to output my dissertation, with biblio, contents, list of figures/list of tables, and so forth.

    I have become so Latex-ified that I find myself typing two grave accents (“) in order to open a quote and two apostrophes (”) to close quotes, even when working in Scrivener, Word, Mail, etc.

    Scary what the pursuit of perfect typography will make one do.

  8. After having had the pleasure (read: torture) of formatting a 400+ page thesis (not even mine), that stuff just should not be done in Word (or a 50+ page for that matter). From reading your post, not in Scrivener either. LaTeX seems the way to go, but I’ve only tested it a few minutes as of yet. It’s a markup language, no harder than HTML.

    If you prefer something a bit more visual, tried LyX? It is supposed to “combine the power and flexibility of TeX/LaTeX with the ease of use of a graphical interface.”

  9. A thesis is a pain of a document whatever software you use. Mine was also ca 400 pages, many graphs, figures, images, endnote the lot, and Word just couldn’t cope. At least with Scrivener you are not saddled with one massive blob of a file. From the perspective of someone who started with and Hons thesis on a Mac 128k and has used every version of Windows, MacOS and office (both platforms) since, Scrivener is far superior for ideas organisation, but not good for finishing. I wished afterwards that I could have used a proper layout program for that.
    You may just have to live with the fact that one piece of software is never likely to do everything that your thesis requires… or go and write it yourself :).

  10. Kristina, I suspect truer words were never said :).

    A key part of the phd program appears to be the pain involved, whether it be with the tools used to write it or the process of completing it…

  11. Just to be clear, since writing this post I am back to using Scrivener, as Word keeps crashing and is too damn unreliable to allow me to entrust my thesis to Word (it is bad enough my data is in Excel and I lost half an hour’s transcript-cleaning work yesterday – that I can work with, but not my thesis).

  12. Hi Michael, thanks for the great post and updates with your experience.
    Any thoughts/ experience of using DevonTHINK pro to write?

  13. Weng

    Hi there. I am sitting at Brisbane airport waiting to fly to Seattle for AMCIS, so thought I’d reply on the blog while I’m doing nothing much :).

    It’s interesting, the posts on using Scrivener, Mac OSX and EndNote (and DevonThink Pro) are definitely of the most interest. For some reason people don’t get attracted to the updates on what I had for lunch (that is after all what Facebook is for).

    Anyway, I can’t recommend Scrivener enough to people doing serious writing on the Mac OSX, despite what I said up above regarding Word. Word just isn’t stable enough, and I still feel Pages is too much of a toy for my 59,000 word, 300 page thesis.

    As for DevonThink Pro, you’ll see my other post on my blog about using DevonThink ( As a tool for actually writing, then I suppose you could make it work. But then you could make Notepad work.

    If you mean as a tool for research maintenance and storing material, then yeah, no comparison. I have 361 pdfs and 972 research notes tagged and maintained my research papers DevonThink database. Particularly the Artificial Intelligence aspect of DevonThink where you can bounce between the documents related to the current one – and the OCR is beyond comparison.

    Hope this helps.

    Thanks: Micheal Axelsen

  14. I just started my PhD and have been looking at how others are managing the writing etc. I came across your blog while searching for how people have been using Scrivener for academic writing. Your blog is the first to speak about the challenges of using Scrivener. I am currently using the 30 day trial Scrivener for Windows and enjoying the environment it gives to just write. Thank you for the heads up about editing. It will help me in deciding whether to buy the software or not at the end of my trial.

  15. Thanks for your blog post. I too have looked at Scrivener for academic writing – in my case a complex book w lots of illustrations and tables. (In my day… my wife typed most of my thesis on a Wang word processor. She had to run downstairs to change the print head for equations. [true] As well as walking through 2 feet of snow since Somerville had not yet discovered snow plows.. [Joke]) Despite all the rave reviews about Scrivener for novel writing, it does not seem to be designed for non-fiction.
    Some advice on MS Word. The crashing problem is common among academics AFAIcan see. The basic problem is “corrupted document” and once it is corrupted you have to hire a witch doctor. Corruption occurs due to using advanced features of word, especially Track Changes, but also Copy/Paste formatted, and I bet complex tables. The best discussion of all this that I know is here:

    Solutions: nobody has mentioned the other 2 “academic word processors”: Mellel, and Nisus. Unlike Scrivener, they are designed to produce final documents. I have not used either, but take a look at them.

    Finally, I use EagleFiler to manage my documents, instead of DevonThink. EagleFiler is great. In some ways the program is better for academics, but it only handles PDFs. DevonThink I have never had much luck with.

    • No need for snow-ploughs here in Queensland, at least. More fire-breaks (and dykes, after last year’s floods).

      The illustrations I can work with in Scrivener – they work fairly well so long as you remember to scale the images. And I have never used the in-built graphic drawing tools in Word (well, not for a long time).

      Tables though remain a massive issue with Scrivener – something the novel writer doesn’t have to worry about at all – and also working with other writers becomes tedious. I do agree that Scrivener does not produce the final document all that well either – you will likely need to ‘fontify’ your headings etc and search-and-replace the styles to get a table of contents in Word when you are ready to go down that route.

      Still Scrivener has never crashed and lost me three hours of work – something that Word, when I go to use ‘advanced features’ (which, by 2012, I do not consider advanced – comments, tables, and track changes have been in Word for 20 years) does regularly. I will concede however – this is only my experience on the Mac. In Windows world, Word does seem more reliable.

      I’ve not heard of Mellel or Nisus.

      As for EagleFiler – This… intrigues me. However I doubt I would swap to Eagle Filer now that I have DevonThink fairly well sorted out. Unless…

      No! Must stop procrastating!

      • I googled Eagle Filer – excellent review here:

        I have to say Eagle Filer’s lack of OCR and creating searchable pdfs is a big problem for me if I were to switch over to it. Eaglefiler looks to be simpler to understand but correspondingly less powerful. DevonThink Pro’s in-built OCR and ability to create searchable pdfs is a big plus for me. Also the ‘magic hat’ intelligent search in DevonThink is very good.

        And compared to Evernote DevonThink works much faster on the Mac (if I went back to Windows, I’d probably replace DevonThink with Evernote).

    • I’ve not heard of Nisus Writer Pro before, but then the list of software I’ve not heard of is rather long. Would this replace Word in the above example? I find it difficult to get by without having Word available, most software that is ‘compatible’ is fine to open simple documents with, but as soon as there’s a complex Word thing (e.g. a table) I find they all go to hell in a handbasket. Still, Nisus Writer Pro may be different…

      Thanks: Micheal

  16. I’m a new Scrivener user, using it to write a long academic paper. As a long-time Word user I am familiar with the miseries involved in attempting to use that on anything over a few pages. What I’m trying in Scrivener is using HTML-style tags on the headings– “”–so then in Word I can use the Replace function to change that en masse to my desired style. This works even for captions & such. Once the Word styles are applied, it’s possible for Word to automatically generate the table of contents, figures list, and tables list based on the styles.

    I don’t have any solution for the bad tables in Scrivener, and at the moment I am keeping them separate in Word.

    I have some trouble with images, too, because when I insert them into a document inline the app seems to get sluggish (at least on my system).

    But I find Scrivener’s ability to have a document segmented into small chunks invaluable. That’s the main thing for me–the ability to easily select & see different groupings of text together.

    • In my post above, part of my text was removed. Inside the quotes in the first paragraph I had an HTML tag, which this page won’t display. It was a header tag–bracket H 1 bracket.

  17. For writing your PhD Theis. Scrivener is really good. For writing academic papers use Word.

    Also Scrivener compile can be complicated, this can be simplified by working on a latex export – which will provide the most robust solution.

    • I used Scrivener to write my thesis. I used the beta version on word. I found it fantastic, but agree with all the comments about tables, pics, sharing with supervisors etc. My supervisor got annoyed with my last minute compiles that had extra spaces between words (word generally autocorrects this I think) and other ugly formatting. I eventually compiled the whole thing CHAPTER BY CHAPTER to word near the end, and formatted each chapter then to a style template I set up. I love formatting, so for me this adds to procrastination if I am working in Word.

      I then gave the drafts to my supervisors (chapter by chapter), one of whom uses track changes and comments in word. I made the final changes to the thesis in separate chapter files, and inserted pictures and tables with autocaptions. I tried to combine using word for long docs function (master docs) but it didn’t work well. I ended up doing the cut and paste combine, and formatting in Word. I had very few problems, but then I have formatted several large docs in word in previous jobs and am familiar with most of the issues. I also compiled my endnote ref list then and only then, as well as the contents page and tables of figures etc. So supervisors never got ref lists with drafts. They never complained.

      I now find it difficult finding a workable workflow with scrivener for academic articles. It’s great for first drafts. I compile and give people to read for feedback. Then I make changes in scrivener (or even write notes in the notes function while they give me verbal feedback). But after that I really need to put it in word (say draft 2 or 3) for formatting and references and edits, for the reasons mentioned arleady — need an exact wordcount, needs any figures and tables, and needs to be pretty enough to send out to people. I’ve come to accept this, mostly, although there are always a few days of procrastination until I realise its time to compile and work on it in word. I sometimes then save it as rtf and put it back in scrivener if I think i want to cannibalise it later for other work.

      • Yes, I agree on very many levels. For me, the tables functionality has been a complete killer. I can procrastinate for my country with formatting, but I loathe having to re-do it all the time. My thesis has 12 tables in the results chapter, and to reformat those all the time was just getting too much to me, so I am afraid I have finally hit the silk on Scrivener.

        Cross-referencing is more easily done in Word,and the tables are better done, and my advisors need it in Word format, so it’s just easier to work in Word – particularly as I already know Word well. I also find I like to have the tables visually in front of me when I am writing the discussion relating to them.

        So I used Scrivener to write through to Chapter 5 but the lack of a usable table function killed me. Maybe Latex could be made to work – but frankly I have enough going on in my head without adding Latex to the mix. The good news though has been that Word on the Mac has been much more stable, and I’ve put in several long days and ‘only’ lost about 15 minutes of work all up. No longer having lots of comments, or track changes, in my Word document seems to have helped.

        I miss a lot of the fantastic ‘proper’ writing project management capabilities of Scrivener and the ease of getting ‘back into your document’ straight away. If they were to fix the tables feature I would be back to Scrivener in a heartbeat, or if I had a project that did not require lots of tables. Most of the other graphics (I use Omnigraffle), formatting and cross-referencing capability I can make work pretty well with Scrivener.

        It’s just the tables that really let an otherwise fantastic product down for academic writing.

  18. I finally switched to Nisus Writer Pro, and it solves the problems with MS Word! It is robust as can be. I’m now working on a 110 page, 20+MB document using it, and it’s still very fast and Does Not Crash. It is 99% word compatible – even Track Changes is compatible. Of course it took me a day to get the hang of it, and there is still plenty I don’t use. For example it has a very powerful scripting language and also a searching language that I have not touched.
    Eaglefiler follow-up: I agree that if you already use Devon Think, it is best to stick with it. But I tried loading 1000 documents into it from Eaglefiler, and it bogged down. It seems more oriented toward a small number of Very Important Documents. I use Eaglefiler for Everything I Read – every document, every newspaper article I might want to use in teaching, every photo, etc. EF does not have any sort of AI features.

    By the way, the final straw on MS Word was that it trashed the formatting of my hard drive. It required a “reformat and reinstall” to fix. Apple even replaced my drive, and the problem re-occured. This is a known bug, and it’s really more Apple’s fault than Microsoft’s. But in any case, neither of them has fixed it. I’ll post the URL for a discussion of this bug when I find it. (It comes from using AutoSave, on large documents.)

  19. Thanks for posting the trials of table formatting in Scrivener. I thought I was the only one! I am working on a documentary script, and need tables to keep the video/audio/time/effects in separate columns in a table. Nothing is really great for this. Been using Treesheets for drafting, but getting things back out when I’m done splattering ideas has been challenging.

    • Hmmm. I just went in and tested the table function in my version of Scrivener. I ended up using MS Word to write my thesis because of this table formatting problem. If it’s a simple table, it looks like tables have improved a bit. That if I understand correctly is probably a function of an upgrade to Mavericks. Tables are still clunky but it doesn’t move around all over the place like it was doing.

      In the end I submitted my thesis using Word to write it. I can definitely see where someone who doesn’t use many tables would use Scrivener to draft their document and then use Word or Pages to format it up. Until there’s a decent way of getting a properly formatted paper fairly quickly out of it, it’s still not quite for me. Still, you could draft in Scrivener and then port it to MS Word once you are happy with it for the final rewrites, and ditch the original Scrivener project (or just treat it as an archived draft). Which is I guess how the developers view it, although it’s a far more linear view of writing than exists for academia.

      Partly, I am not tempted by Scrivener on Mac because my new employer (University of Queensland) has been evil and bribed me back to the world of Windows. I have a new laptop coming in the next two weeks – paid for by the university! – and then it’s good-bye to my faithful Mac :(. Unless I find the new laptop excruciating (entirely possible since I can’t find an easy way to port my DevonThink database), in which case I’ll buy myself a new Mac. This laptop is the first laptop that I have ever felt is completely fine to use even when all of four years old. Usually something has well and truly broken on it within a year, but the Mac just keeps going.

      I still love Scrivener and may look into the Windows version. I suspect it will do tables much better.

  20. Hi

    as a PhD student I purchased the academic version of indesign. This solves the table problem in Scrivener by pasting as images. You can use low resolution for Scrivener if you want. I also use Mellel for final writing as it is very stable. If I could get my supervisor to abandon msword life would be perfect. With Scrivener you can also keep tables and figures as separate document elements and use links for the compile process. I have 203 images in my thesis – 91 tables and 112 figures. The main problem with Scrivener is the lack of style support although this can be overcome with distinctive formatting for headings and then that format to assign style in word. One of the best is the use of tilde and asterisks such as heading 1 ~*~ heading 2 ~**~ etc in front of the heading title in Scrivener. step 1 is assign heading style step 2 replace ~*~ with nothing.

    • Thanks Tim. I guess that works, but I am too ingrained in the MS Word WYSIWYG world, and I’m constantly fiddling with the table. Though if you want Scrivener to work that’s probably the best way, and it’s exactly how I do my figures even in Word (Lord only knows I wouldn’t want to try to get Word to do a decent figure).

      Ironically I found the lack of style support to be not-too-problematic once I wrote a macro to S&R based on some of the Scrivener font settings for styles, but yes not having styles ‘applied’ across the document a la Word world is a little disconcerting at first (well, for a long time actually).


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