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Josh Braun’s Blog // I have it written down somewhere . . .

Scrivener as a Syllabus Tool Sep 15, 2012

A few years ago, when it was still relatively new, I wrote my masters thesis in Scrivener.  It was a good experience, but at the end of it I didn’t feel like the application had benefited me all that greatly.  This isn’t a comment on the software, which is excellent.  Rather, I simply found that my personal writing process is just as easily carried out in a traditional word processor as an organizer tool like Scrivener.

But while Scrivener may not have ended up my tool of choice for writing articles and manuscripts, I’ve found it incredible for constructing and revising syllabi.  Three features make it particularly awesome for this:

The Corkboard and Drag-and-Drop Reordering of Text

One of the most tedious tasks of building or revising a syllabus is the constant reordering of subjects.  Part of making a class hang together is establishing a logical flow for the material, which means deciding on a good order for the course’s various topics.

For me, this is a trial-and-error process, which means reshuffling the various topics until the sequence makes sense.  It’s also trial and error in the sense that I learn from experience and revise the sequence of topics for a new offering of the course based on what happened in the previous one.

This is the sort of task for which you’d normally throw a bunch of Post-its on a whiteboard, or toss a bunch of index cards on the floor and rearrange them until you were happy with the result.  Scrivener emulates this functionality nicely, allowing you to shuffle the units of your course like so many index cards—in the interface, each “card” stands in for the reading list or description of that week’s class (see above).

And if you’re not a fan of skeuomorphic bulletin boards (I can only handle so much of them), Scrivener makes it just as easy to do drag-and-drop reordering of the topics as points in an outline (see right).

Only, when you’re finished with this process, rather than a bunch of loose index cards that still have to be typed up and contextualized, you’ve actually reordered the text of your existing syllabus.  With the exception of a bit of always-vital proofreading, you can rework the whole schedule of your course and output a new complete syllabus in seconds.

Store Notes and Slides Right Within Your Syllabus Document

After a class is over, I often find I’m left with a mess of scattered notes, lecture files, and PDFs of readings, assignment sheets, and handouts.  My day-to-day organizer program, Together, is pretty good at handling these and saving me from myself.  But now that I’ve begun to keep my syllabi in Scrivener, I can do one better and begin storing these files right within the syllabus document itself.

That’s because Scrivener “documents” are actually Evernote-like binders of files.  The software includes a feature that allows you to store files related to your writing project right within the Scrivener document itself.  For folks who use Scrivener for extensive writing projects like book manuscripts, this generally means stuff like interview transcripts, field notes, or data tables.  But if you’re writing a syllabus, you can use the document’s “Research” folder to store notes, lecture slides, and handouts.

If you decide to remove or swap out a unit from your course schedule, you can also drag it to the research folder.  This removes it from the “final” version of the syllabus, but keeps the text in a form that you can drop right back into the schedule if you change your mind.

Flexible Output

Once you’ve got a version of your syllabus you’re happy with, Scrivener’s “compile” feature can export it in over a dozen different formats including as a PDF, e-book, webpage, or Word document.  This turns out to be very handy when you’re distributing your syllabus to different audiences.  The class may want a webpage they can check, you might like a version you can throw on your Kindle when you travel, your tenure review committee needs a PDF, and the next professor to teach the course would like a Word document she can edit.

The output isn’t always perfect—Scrivener itself highlights for users that its strong suit is composition, rather than formatting, and suggests you do some fine tuning in a word processor or layout program.  Still, its default output is generally serviceable.   I do wish there were a way to add a line or two of custom CSS when I’m compiling a document for the web, rather than relying entirely on Scrivener’s robo-formatting or going back in with a text editor after the fact.  But given how Scrivener frames itself and its uses, this is more a feature suggestion than a criticism.

One Other Cool Thing

I use Papers as my citation manager and I recently discovered that it includes support for Scrivener.  This will make the latter even better for syllabi, since it will take all the friction out of throwing citations and readings into new courses.

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  • Pingback: Scrivener as a Syllabus Tool | Everything Scrivener()

  • I have this now saved off on my Diigo list. You’ve made my EDLT 573 class assignment all the more robust!
    Thank You. Thank You. and yes, Thank You.

  • PineTree

    This is a great idea!  Thank you.  I just started using scrivener and hadn’t thought of this feature before.  I need to overhaul one of my graduate classes and this is a perfect way to do it.

  • Sean Worth

    Truly a great tool. I have been using Scrivener since lat year’s NaNoWriMo.  They offer a free trial and if you decide to buy you can still get 20% off here:

  • Derick

    You may find the syllabus template I created for Scrivener useful.  Details here: