Using Scrivener to write your music dissertation or book

I am a huge, huge fan of Scrivener. (No, I am not a paid shill!) Scrivener is like a digital trapper keeper or scrapbook, with tons of options to organize, visualize, and move stuff around. Scrivener also has an iPhone app that syncs with your desktop app so you can write from your phone. Game changer.

I cannot overstate how much Scrivener helped me to write my first long document (my dissertation). By default, I think most people open up Microsoft Word or the equivalent when it’s time to write, and Word works fine for many years of one’s academic career. But long-form documents are a different beast, and a more flexible tool like Scrivener offers many advantages.

I’ll let you look up arguments for Scrivener on your own, as there are many (1, 2, 3). I’m going to focus instead on three practical tips for how Scrivener can make your life easier when you write your dissertation, thesis, or book:

  1. Categorizing and organizing all kinds of stuff
  2. Outlining and subheadings

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Categorizing and organizing all kinds of stuff

The trapper-keeper-ness of Scrivener is one of its main advantages. On the sidebar on the left, you can see the highest-level categories of junk I had in this “trapper keeper”. I had my dissertation proposal, front matter junk that my university required, the actual meat of the diss, a journal, paper/presentation versions of diss material, random notes, random ideas, research (screenshots, recordings, and other various media—Scrivener accommodates tons of file types), and some non-relevant stuff like interview questions for when I was on the job market.

Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 3.17.17 PMThis ability to insert all types of media into one mega-document is particularly relevant for our field of music, because we are so frequently working with sound files, image files, etc. It’s really nice to have all of this stuff, still organized, in one application that syncs across platforms. With the split-screen feature (shown here on the left), you can simultaneously look at a book scan, another part of your document, or any other document in your “trapper keeper” while you write.


Outlining and Subheadings

Scrivener is lauded for the outlining factor. Outlining is essential in a long document, and you get to see your outline the whole time while you write in Scrivener (if you want). Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 2.25.43 PMYou can use it to navigate around your document, of course. You can also use it to move your content around—just drag and drop the section to where you want it in the outline. You can even test out reorderings by only selecting certain sections—the viewer will temporarily group them into a continuous document without altering the actual ordering in the outline.

Outlining also allows for the easy and consistent creation of subheadings when you compile your document. I wrote my diss in Scrivener 2, which was more strict about when headings were created in compilation and when they weren’t, but in Scrivener 3, whether or not a section has a heading is totally customizable (full explanation here). In my example to the right here, my first-level sections had titles, while the second-level sections did not.

Placeholder texts for musical example insertion and numbering

Placeholder text is life changing.

How often has this happened to you:

  1.  decide to insert a new example in your manuscript
  2. go back and re-number all your examples
  3. and their in-text references
  4. double check to make sure everything matches up
  5. send manuscript to reader
  6. reader points out several places where your example numbering doesn’t line up


Placeholder texts fix all of this. Placeholder text is basically like little bits of computer code that you type into your manuscript which then renders a different way once you compile the document. I used this for automatic, consistent numbering of all my examples throughout my diss.

You can find info on placeholder text by going to Help > List of All Placeholders…. Scrivener folks explain this pretty clearly:

You can create special auto-numbering placeholders that include a name and a keyword to enable you to refer back to auto-numbers, for instance for referring to tables and figures. The format of such auto-numbering placeholders is this:


Subsequent instances of placeholders that use the same auto-number type, name and keyword will be replaced with the same number as was generated for the first instance of that combination; only placeholders that have a different keyword will cause the number to be incremented. This is best explained with an example:

[An image]

Figure <$n:figure:myImage>

[Another image]

Figure <$n:figure:nextImage>

[A table]

Table <$t:table:myTable>

See Figure <$n:figure:myImage>, Figure <$n:figure:nextImage> and Table <$t:table:myTable>.

When compiled, this will result in the following:

[An image]

Figure 1

[Another image]

Figure 2

[A table]

Table One

See Figure 1, Figure 2 and Table One.

Note how the placeholder “<$n:figure:myImage>” occurring later in the text was replaced with the same number (“1”) generated for the first instance of that placeholder.

In a multi-chapter document, we usually use two-part example numbers: chapter number.examplenumber, like 3.2. For my case, I found it easier to still manually add chapter numbers, but then use the placeholder text for the example number. So I wrote Example 3.<$n:figure:TT_prechorus_chorus> is a transcription of… in-text.

This then corresponded with my example below that paragraph. For my caption, I then wrote: Example 3.<$n:figure:TT_prechorus_chorus>: Prechorus and chorus of “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”. 

When I compiled my document, Scrivener automatically replaced all this funky code with a number.

I also used placeholder text to automatically insert my examples into my document at the appropriate points. I was so grateful for how this streamlined the document I was looking at and allowed for easy swapping out of examples, etc. There are a few ways in which this can work, but the short version is, I wrote <$img:[filepath]> in-text, and Scrivener found that file and inserted it in place of the placeholder text when I compiled.

tl;dr: this

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becomes this.

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Document bookmarks, aka Trapper-Keeper-like organization of all sorts of files

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My mind was blown when I saw Julianne Grasso post on twitter that she uses the Document Bookmarks feature of Scrivener to quickly access dissertation files while writing. You can add web links or files stored on your computer. If you add media like videos or .mp3s, you can view/hear the media in-app. This is extremely useful for music scholars, since we’re frequently tabbing back and forth between media and our writing!

One of us, one of us…

The advantages of Scrivener for writing in general are well-documented, but I hope this illuminates some particularly useful tips for music-related writing. There is a bit of a learning curve for Scrivener, but wouldn’t this be the perfect winter-break project?

If you have more questions or ideas for what to include here, please don’t hesitate to contact me on here, leave a comment, or tweet at me! I want to spread the gospel of Scrivener.


  1. Thinking of writing a music (jazz) instruction book. I’ve written 3 math/stat textbooks using WORD and I don’t want to re-experience the grief of keeping track of inserting images along with figure & table numbering!

    (1) Do you have any recommended reference(s) for setting up Project Templates and Document Templates? I’m thinking of using the ‘usual’ format of music instruction books, which I would suppose to consist of Copyright Page, Title Page, TOC, Chapter Page(s), Sections within chapters, Figures, Tables, Index Page, Footnotes Page.

    (2) Do you recommend a particular engraving software for creating Treble/Bass staves? I would only need to create Lead Sheets with staves and/or TAB for guitar (I already have software for generating fretboards). What file format do you recommend for figures (TIF, PNG, etc)?

    Just some references to help me get stated would be appreciated.

    1. Hey! 1—I think the Nonfiction template type has most of that if not all. 2—I use MuseScore which is free and quite full-featured. It can do what you describe. I have the best results with TIFF.

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