Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

Lessons at the End of #AcWriMo



Being a good early millenial with a healthy lurker status in Livejournal and fanfic communities, I have known about NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – for a couple of years now. The basic idea is to write 50K words of a new novel in a month. This year, as I wallowed in my two-time failure to write the NSF for Cultural Anthropology in time for its submission due date, I decided to get myself writing by putting the grant aside and working on a fun project and signed up. And it pretty much worked! I mean, I didn’t come anywhere close to the 1,667 words a day I was supposed to write, and I eventually stopped, but I DID manage to get myself out of my mopey “I’m a terrible writer” funk, at which point I started working on writing my grants again.

It turns out, I’m not the only one jumping on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon for academic purposes – announced #AcWriMo to be more or less run via Twitter throughout November*. Instead of a predetermined word length, you post your goals and your progress with the hashtag on Twitter. They suggest plenty of adjustments to fit it to academic writing projects, but as I look back, I think there is really one big difference they don’t talk about. It might even be the underlying push behind the whole thing.

Keep writing. Its basically the mantra of NaNoWriMo and its probably the biggest piece of it picked up by #AcWriMo. I agree with The Thesis Whisperer’s analysis of the pros (time management!) and cons (exacerbating the academic culture of “just push harder”) of participating, but I think that still doesn’t quite touch on a bigger underlying issue: sometimes you don’t know enough to start writing.

As I mentioned above, I didn’t finish my NSF grant application on time for two deadlines running. It wasn’t because I’m terrible at time management and it wasn’t an issue of perfectionism. I just didn’t yet know enough about my fieldsite to write a decent draft. But instead of acknowledging I wasn’t ready and devoting my limited time to another project, I kept slamming my head against that poor shriveled piece of hope thinking if I just kept pushing it would resolve itself and constantly reminding myself to Just Keep Writing so I could make those deadlines.

So yes, it’s good to have structure, a community, clear goals and timelines (all elements that remain in #AcWriMo). But unlike a creative project (in which, to be sure, time away and research also have their place), to be a good academic and grant writer I also need to keep learning when something just isn’t ready to write.

* As it turns out, November is a terrible month to make Academic Writing Month if you’re an anthropologist, because this month is the AAAs, and for a significant chunk of us, that means at least a week of it is going to be devoted to schmoozing. This year, though, I’m down in Quito doing some preliminary fieldwork and didn’t make it to #AAA2014 this year, so I had plenty of time to dedicate to the cause this month.

Collection of Aphorisms for Grant Writing

Academic Coach Taylor: get your ass out of bed and write me a 350 word abstract

Academic Coach Taylor Has Some Advice for You

“Write drunk and revise sober” – Peter de Vries

“Easy reading is damn hard writing” – Maya Angelou

“It is a pity that doing one’s best does not always answer.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steve Furtick

“Basically, every piece of scholarly work is a hero’s journey. You are the hero. The topic is the field of battle. The dragon is ignorance/misinformation/poor scholarship. And your enemies? The scholars who have misled the populace with their false dogmas. You must save the day. You must uphold the standard of truth. It falls on your trembling shoulders to right the wrongs of the false scholars and rescue the populace from the dragon of ignorance.” – Karen Kelsy, The Professor is In

“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” – Cary Grant

Grad School Soundtrack

What gets us through the various solitary tasks of grad school? Music! And, if you’re like me, you have favorites for each. I would love to see what other people come up with, but here’s my own list:

  1. GradingAve Maria, by Schubert – sometimes my students need all the help they can get
  2. Office Hours: Pie Izquierdo, by Ana Tijoux – because she is awesome. That is all.
  3. Reading: Chaiyya Chaiyya, from Dil Se – unobtrusive, and not understanding the lyrics helps me keep from being distracted but the song makes me tap my feet so I don’t get dragged down into a reading stupor
  4. Grant writing: Eye of the Tiger, by Survivor – because I seriously need the encouragement
  5. Brainstorming: Calle Luna, Calle Sol, by Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon – salsa makes my brain work in exciting ways; alternatively, I take a break and dance by myself for a little bit*
  6. Paper writing: Beige Plastic, by Drosophilia – soothes my blank page anxieties and the walking beat keeps me producing steadily, so I listen to it on repeat …
  7. Paper editing: Take Off Your Shirt, by Bibio – like Beige Plastic, this song on repeat keeps me working, but with more intensity
  8. Conference Travel: I’m Not Your Toy, by La Roux – woohoo! networking is my favorite! also breaks in schedules ftw!
  9. Fieldwork travelQuizàs, Quizàs, Quizàs, by Nat King Cole from the In the Mood for Love Soundtrack – seems to capture the bizarre mixture of emotions I feel when heading out from my home to the field

*dancing salsa by yourself is fine at home but you should probably listen to something else if you’re working at a coffeeshop.

Worldbuilding Questionnaire meets Research

Grant writing about your research demands that you answer some very big questions with very high stakes. When confronted with them, especially when I’m staring at a blank page, my resolve to Get Things Done turns to jelly and suddenly I realize I’ve let hours pass by doing nothing but checking Twitter and Facebook. The third time that happened this week, I decided I needed a new approach. Something that let me start thinking about my research in productive ways but didn’t have such high stakes. I needed a screen that gave me a new way to look at my work.

This week’s exciting answer came from one of my favorite fantasy authors from my childhood.

Patricia C. Wrede* created a list of Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions over at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America site that is truly spot on for fantasy writers and almost completely irrelevant to anthropological research. Perfect! Hard to imagine lowering the stakes more, really. So my buddy and I chose a short list of questions for each other (about 15), and set about answering them. It worked best when the questions were unanswerable in their current form, but worked metaphorically to brainstorm new questions about the research.

FOR EXAMPLE: If magic requires study, where do you go to learn about it? How do people fund their training? Is there an apprenticeship system, or are there wizard schools, or is it one-on-one tutoring/mentoring? Is an untrained wizard dangerous, or just an ordinary person?

The approach shook loose some new ways to think about my research and my fieldsite, and now thinking about those other Big Questions is a lot less intimidating. Another win for fantasy and anthropology!

* Author of the Dealing With Dragons series, which remains some of my Favorite Books Ever.

Meet My New Best Friends Fulbright, SSRC and Wenner Gren

This is my first semester of real grant writing, and that  means that suddenly my whole life revolves around getting to know what sorts of things I need to do to become BEST friends with the people distributing that money. I want to know everything about them so that they think I’m the coolest. You like salsa and pickle flavored ice cream? What a surprise! Me too! Allow me to introduce them.

Fulbright is super eager and new to the area (she probably just got a job at a local NGO). She imagines you to be potential soul-sisters but she’s not really interested in your work*. She likes to hang out, but not just chatting over a drink or anything like that. She’d rather go dancing, volunteer at soup kitchens, and ride the double decker tour bus. She also wants you to tell her about all your other friends.

By contrast, SSRC and Wenner Gren are work buddies from the University. In fact, it’s hard to imagine hanging out with them in any other context. They each have their little quirks. SSRC is delighted when he recognizes dropped names. Wenner Gren is a bit of a luddite (keeps paper back-ups of everything) but loves to sit and talk about new ideas and directions. In election season SSRC keeps track of the constellations of political alliances and Wenner Gren likes to forecast what will happen next. SSRC reads the literary fiction recommended by the New York Review of Books but you’re more likely to find Wenner Gren with her nose in a good dystopian fic.

Secretly, though, I know I’m just barely scratching the surface with these guys and if anyone knows them better, they should give me the inside scoop.

*Even though you’re pretty sure that your work is your soul.

Opal is for Outlining

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the second of many.

Opal is an outlining program for Macs and one of the programs I rely heavily on in grad school. It costs $32, but has a free 30 day trial that is exactly the same as the full version. If you outline, but you get overwhelmed at all the writing you have on the page, this is a really good program.

Opal screenshot

It’s good at a very short list of things. Pretty much just writing and editing outlines. But if that’s part of your writing process (and how could it NOT be if you are a grad student or academic?), this is a huge step up from just writing in a text file or a word document.