Tweaking Evernote for focused writing

By the time you start getting into the writing phase of your thesis, your outline will have evolved quite a bit from what we discussed earlier. You will now have most these Meta-Sections broken into several chapters, which have lots of sub-sections. For me, the “!Thesis Inbox,” “A.Introduction,” & “zz.Admin” notebooks remained as seen before in the section on Evernote Set-up. I did not need any finer-grained organization for these section of the thesis. That stated, Notebooks B, C, D, & E progressively evaporated according to the needs of my thesis and outline.

For example: My Background section ended up being three separate chapters, Ch2-Cultural Context, Ch3-Framing Design Education, & Ch4-Preliminary Investigations. I also ended up adding a new notebook for one of my appendices (Appendix A. I had three appendices, but Appendix B & C were just reformatting some survey questions and data, so I left this reference in the C.Methodology notebook). So, as I was getting ready to start writing a specific chapter, I would start a new notebook, titled with the associated chapter number and a working title. Ideally you would do this during your weekly planning time and then not have to mess with it too much after that.

As I started writing Chapter 3 on Design Education, I made a new notebook, then went into the “B.Background” notebook and dragged everything relating to Design Education to the new notebook. I found this very helpful because I could easily focus on the sources and notes immediately relevant to what I was writing that day, without being distracted by other topics. For the most part, this new chapter focused notebook was usually fine-grained enough for me. For a couple of chapters though, this was not quite enough because I would be using a single reference for several different parts of the chapter. In these cases, Evernote Tags came to the rescue. Because Evernote is so good at searching, I did not really use tags that often, but for a few chapters I created sub-section specific tags that I could attach to notes so that I could filter the notebook to only show the specific material for the sub-section I was currently working on.

When it was time to sit down and write, I now had Evernote tweaked and dialed in to help me only see what I needed to see to be able to write what I needed to write at that specific time. Aside from having everything I needed for my thesis organized in one place, accessible at all times, there is one final thing I loved about using Evernote for this. When I was at my primary desk, I could easily open Scrivener on my primary display, and Evernote on my secondary display and see everything I need without flipping around between windows. This is great, but I did A LOT of writing not at my primary desk. In these situations, I could open Evernote on my iPad and get very close to the same effect. The only downside of this method was that I would not be able to copy and paste from Evernote to my writing software when using my iPad in a “Secondary Display” sort of way, but this was far less annoying than dragging an external display around or only feeling productive in one place because I “really need my other display.”


If you have been getting things all organized, planned, and set-up how I’ve suggested, then you are now ready to write. You have done your weekly planning, so you have an idea of what you need to focus on. You have checked your calendar, so you know what kind of time you have and you know what chapter you are focusing on this week.

Time to get to work.

  1. Grab your most recent outline.
  2. Fire up Evernote and open the corresponding notebook for the chapter you are working on.
  3. Fire up Scrivener. Close all folders except the chapter folder you are working in this week.
  4. Use your outline as a template and start creating new documents in your chapter folder for all your topics, ideas, concepts, subtopics, and other nuggets you think should be here.
  5. Start copying and pasting notes, quotes, and what ever else you need in to these new documents. Split things, combine things, push things around to bring structure and organization to the chapter.

There isn’t much else I can offer here. Just WRITE!

Start filling in the gaps. Explain bullet points so that they become sentences and paragraphs. Rephrase concepts so that they become your words and not your source’s words.

Keep writing.

If you get stuck. Click that bullseye in Scrivener and see if you’ve hit your daily writing goal. What color is your status bar? Still red, orange, or yellow? Move to a different section or idea in your chapter and write on that for a while. Make forward progress. Progress bar Green? Nice work! You have a choice to make. You can switch to another idea in the chapter and keep writing because you still feel good about writing. Or you can call it a day and go get a beer. Progress bar says you’re still on track.

If you don’t get stuck, if you are in the zone… just keep writing! Do not check your word count progress. Do not stop writing. Hit Command S and keep writing. 

Because you are using a digital calendar, if you are doing it right, eventually an alarm will go off letting you know that you need to move onto something else in your day. Hit Command S. Open your target window an check your progress. 99% of the time when you’ve been in the zone like this, that bar will be green and you will have smashed your daily goal. This is awesome because it lowers the bar for the chapters that you will really struggle with. Take a breath, pat yourself on the back, and shut your software down knowing you had a great thesis day.

If that bar is not green yet, open your calendar and schedule another hour or two later in the day if you can to finish up. Make a call or fire off an email canceling your evening social engagement if you have to. This will not happen often.

Keep notes about your writing days.

Look for patterns. Are there days that you consistently struggle? Maybe those are not the best days to write. Can you push other things around to allow you to write more on the good days? Do your writing sessions go better in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Can you fairly consistently hit your daily writing goal in the 3 hour timeframe you’ve set aside or are you a slower writer than you thought and need to start scheduling 4 hour blocks? Or two 2 hour blocks? Keep notes and adjust as needed.

You CAN do this!

Some Final Scrivener Pro-Tips

Because I am confident that you will want to write in Scrivener because it is hands down the best tool I know of for long-form writing, here are a few more things that I think you should know, but I wasn’t sure where else to put them.

Pro-Tip 1:

Scrivener has a feature called “Snapshots.” This is a built in versioning system. Before you make significant changes to a section, particularly one that you have shown to an advisor, its is a good idea to take a snapshot of it. In the off chance that your advisor reads your next draft and says to you, “Where did this come from? Go back to all that good stuff you had last time I saw this” you will be able to by opening the previous snapshot and getting it back. You can learn more about Snapshots on the developer’s site in this tutorial.


Pro-Tip 2:

You have Scrivener. This is good. Ten-to-one, the people you are sending your drafts to do not have Scrivener. So this means you cannot just send your advisor your Scrivener file. One, it is a proprietary format that nothing else knows how to read. Additionally, this is just bad practice because it does not protect your work very well. This means you will have to compile your drafts to another format. Scrivener makes this easy, and can compile to a slew of different formats. Generally, I will always say this should be a PDF. The only exception to this would be if your advisor or editor is insistent on a Word file so they can use the track changes feature. I would caution against this though, as it will be a bit of a pain for you to make those changes later in Scrivener. That stated, you could theoretically compile your draft to a Word file, send it to your editor, receive the file back, open it in Word to accept the tracked changes, then copy and paste this back into Scrivener. Seems like a real hassle to me and I never tested this, so your mileage may vary on this work around. You can learn more about Compile Settings on the developer’s site in this tutorial.


Pro-Tip 3:

When you go to compile your drafts, the compile window lets you tick boxes next to the various documents in Scrivener to only compile those. This is great so that you can easily just compile one chapter and not send your advisor partially written stuff or things that you’ve agreed is done. This way, if your advisor chooses to print it, you save a few trees by not printing pages that are not needed.

Pro-Tip 4:

The Compile feature is capable of making huge changes to your formatting. This is good because it lets you worry about writing, not formatting. We know that by the end of this, your thesis is going to have to be double spaced in Times New Roman 12pt. This is annoying to write in though. You can set the fonts in Scrivener to whatever you want. 1.5 spaced Helvetica Light 10pt? Sure. Personally, I like Archer or Cambria, but whatever. Copying a bunch of stuff from some other paper you wrote and it is in some other typeface? Don’t waste your time reformatting it all. Just leave it in that type face. When you compile a draft, you can have it replace all your fonts with Times New Roman 12pt double-spaced.

I made a compile setting that does this and also handles most of the other weird formatting that the thesis requires. I called it thesis and this is what I used to compile drafts to send to my advisors. It is not perfect, but it is close enough for during the writing process. At the very end of the process, I did end up exporting my final draft as an .RTF and dumping it into Pages for the Final Formatting.

I am happy to share this with you. Download it with this link.

Pro-Tip 5:

There is a default compile setting called “Enumerated Outline.” What this does is spit out a hierarchical outline of all the selected to be compiled Scrivener documents and folders. Not far into the writing process, I went ahead and added index cards in all my folders for all the stuff that was on my working outline. I moved these around to recreate my outline and its hierarchies. From that point forward I just used my Scrivener file as my outline, moving things when needed, renaming items, solidifying structure, etc… This way I did not have to maintain some other outline anymore. Then, whenever I needed to have an updated copy of my outline, just compile as “Enumerated Outline” and there it was as a .pdf to be put into Evernote for safe keeping and printed to take to an advisor meeting.

Pro-Tip 6:

Remember when I said that your outline is also a communication tool? Whenever you send a draft of a chapter to your advisor, include your most recent outline. Thanks to the outline compile setting mentioned above, this only takes a few extra seconds. A couple of additional minutes attaching your draft PDF to your Outline PDF and now you are good to go. When your advisor is reading a single chapter, they can use the outline to remind them of the context, what came before, what comes after. This cuts down on the number of comments on your thesis like “but how do we know this?” We know it because I will tell you it in the chapter before, even though I have not written that chapter yet. “But it isn’t on your outline?” It will be now. Create a new index card for it in the appropriate place and it is now on your outline and you will not forget to write that part when its time to write that chapter.

Pro Tip 7:

Backing up. If you dig into the Scrivener Preferences, there is an option to have Scrivener automatically save back-ups of the file to a folder you specify on closing Scrivener. I would set this up if I were you. This way, if your file gets corrupted, you will only lose your work from the most current session. I suggest that you set it up to save back-ups to a folder in some sort of a cloud folder sync service such as Dropbox or Box.net.

Ohio State Students should use BuckeyeBox as it is a free to you for upto 50GB of storage and is just a branded version of Box.net.

More about BuckeyeBox can be found here.

That leads me into the final thing I want to talk to you about. Backing Up! ->