Scrivener vs Word vs Google Docs: Which is Best for Thesis Writing?

Given the choice between Scrivener, Microsoft Word, and Google Docs, which would you choose?

Institutions are pretty strict about the format in which a thesis should be submitted. However, there are no rules about what word processing application you can use during the writing process.

How you decide which application to use depends primarily on your budget, your writing style, and what features you need.

In this post, we’ll compare Scrivener, Microsoft Word, and Google Docs. We’ll go over the strengths and weaknesses of each, so that you can make the best choice for you. After that, your thesis writing process will (hopefully) be smooth sailing.

Why you should use Microsoft Word

1. Availability

Microsoft Office can be found in most workplaces and is a skill that is valued by most employers. Microsoft Word is perhaps the most familiar word processing application out there.

2. Abundance of features

Microsoft Word has been adding features since its inception in 1989.

As one website noted, “it’s the most reliable word processor for long documents or manuscripts that have several chapters, a dynamic table of contents, and indexing.” As such, it should come as no surprise that it is frequently the preferred choice for composing dissertations.

3. Microsoft Office Integration

This can be particularly useful for research projects that involve lots of data.

If you want to embed charts from Excel into your Word document, it’s totally possible to do so. Once embedded, any updates you make to the charts in Excel will be reflected in you Word document.

Why you should use Google Docs

1. Accessibility

Google Docs is the most accessible of the three programs considered here. This is because it is completely online. Don’t worry about those times when you don’t have access to WiFi – Google Docs works offline, too.

You don’t need to install it on your computer, but you do need a Google or Gmail account to use it.

2. Ease of Collaboration

As others have noted, “while you can download your Word doc and email to others for collaboration, you can invite collaborators directly from your Google doc or send them a link to access your document.”

When accessing a document you’ve shared with a collaborator (or multiple), you can see who is currently in the document and where they are in the doc in real time.

3. Auto-save and backups

Google Docs automatically saves your work as you’re working. It also backs up your saved files to Google Drive instead of your local hard drive.

Why you should use Scrivener

1. Auto-save and backups

Like Google Docs, Scrivener automatically saves while you work and can automatically back up your projects.

2. Saves your place

When you open a Google Doc or Word document that you were working on the previous day, the cursor is usually placed at the beginning of the document.

Each time I reopen my project in Scrivener, it opens not just in the document I was working on last, but in the very place where I was last writing. This makes it that much easier to pick up where you left off, no matter how much time you spend away from the project.

3. Side-by-side view

This capability makes Scrivener unique as a word-processing program. It’s true that you could just as easily arrange the window’s on your computer or set up a second monitor to achieve the same end.

But you can’t do that with a single chapter.

Scrivener makes it easy to switch between editing a manuscript – like a thesis – one section at a time and together as a whole. Each section of, say, a chapter, is written in a separate document. When I get stuck or want to reference something from another section, I can open up another section and see what I’ve already written as I’m working on a different section.

This could only be achieved in Google Docs or Microsoft Word if you were writing sections of a chapter in different documents from the beginning. But I never thought that way before.

It honestly seems like more of a hassle than just writing a chapter continuously in a single document.

4. Project targets

Another Scrivener feature I love is the ability to set word or character targets. This can be done for either: 1) the entire project; 2) sections within the project; or 3) the current writing session.

I’ve set up a daily target of 500 words and it really has improved my progress over the last few months.

Which program is best?

1. Cost

Google Docs is completely free to use.

Microsoft Word is free for students and educators, but for everyone else, it is $159.99/year or $6.99/month. That’s a steep price to pay for a word processor if you don’t have institutional affiliation.

Scrivener clocks in at $49/year. Compared with free, this can also be a significant financial burden for the chronically underpaid grad student. But I will say that it has been worth every penny.

If you want to try out Scrivener, there is a free trial available. It’s for 30 days and only counts the days you actually use it!

2. Formatting capabilities

Scrivener files can be compiled into Word documents and PDF files. Page numbers are added to the document, and footnotes and comments are included where they were input in the Scrivener file.

In Word documents created by compiling several sections in Scrivener, a hashtag (#) will appear at the breaks between sections.

The name of the project in Scrivener (in my case, this was ‘Dissertation’) appears in the header next to the page number.

Finally, the font and font size in the Word document default to those used in Scrivener.

All of these things are easily fixed.

A little more onerous is the opposite process – that of importing or copying-and-pasting work that was created in a Word document. To illustrate: I imported an entire chapter I had written and realized that all of my existing footnotes were gone. Vanished. Poof.

I’ll be honest – this was not enough to deter me from continuing to use the program. I have the original Word document (and Google Doc) version. All is not lost.

Google Docs can also be converted into Word documents and vice versa. These transfers tend to be more straightforward and faithful to the original, although occasional formatting errors may occur.

3. Citation manager integration

There are a lot of citation managers out there. Endnote. Mendeley. Zotero.

Everyone who swears by them has their favorite one.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I’m not particularly fond of citation managers. I’ve tried them. They just didn’t stick.

Honestly, the learning curve was just too steep for me.

Every time I’ve voiced this opinion, there’s always been at least ten people who have tried to convince me otherwise. All I’ll say here is that this point may or may not be important to you, depending on your own feelings towards citation managers.

If you care about them and are willing to invest the time and energy into learning how to use them, then this is my recommendation:

Microsoft Word is the only word processing program considered here that is able to play nicely with citation manager software.

If you wouldn’t touch a citation manager with a ten foot pole, then you can ignore this point in your decision-making process.

4. Collaboration

Whether you like it or not, collaboration is integral to the thesis-writing process. There will come a time when you have to share your work with your committee members, and they will give you feedback on it.

Scrivener doesn’t have collaboration capabilities (at least not yet).

For now, you have to export your file and send it as a Word document or PDF. Once you receive comments on your work-in-progress, you then have to integrate the feedback as you go along. Alternatively, you could make the changes in a Word document and then upload an updated file into Scrivener once you’re done.

Google Docs reigns supreme here. It is very easy to collaborate with others on a single document. This can happen at separate times or in real time, with multiple collaborators working on a document at one time.

Moreover, if collaborators respond to others’ comments, they receive a notification and can follow up promptly.

However, learn from my mistake and turn off notifications before sharing the document with a potential reader. I can tell you that it does not feel good to receive an email notification every time they leave a comment on your work.

A potential happy medium might be found in restricting your writing and editing to Microsoft Word.

Here’s a scenario: You write your chapter in Word. When it’s ready, you send it off for comments. Your reader returns feedback in the form of comments right in the Word document. Those comments can be integrated as you go through them in the document. Easy peasy.

The only hiccup regards having questions about a particular comment. Rather than the sort of instantaneous response you’d get from responding to a comment on a Google Doc, you’d have to compose an email. Then you’d have to wait for a response via email. Maybe the reader has an answer for you. Or maybe it would be better to schedule a meeting so you can both look at the document together.

Once again, there are more steps involved than you might want.

Final thoughts

I am 100% a Scrivener convert. It’s the word processing application I open (almost) every day. Acknowledging some of the reservations people have about using this application, I have a few final thoughts.

My recommendation of Scrivener is primarily for people early on in the writing process. The word targets feature was especially helpful for getting me into a writing routine.

I also recommend this for people just getting started because of the formatting issues that can arise when trying to import work you’ve done in other programs. Learn from my mistakes.

Or, if you’re going to do it, keep a backup version elsewhere.

Trust me. It’ll save you later headaches.

The most fail-safe way to avoid this major problem is to use Scrivener from the start, rather than picking it up in the middle of your writing journey. It’s way easier to convert Scrivener files into Word documents than it is to do the opposite.

You might hear from some people that there’s a steep learning curve to using Scrivener for academic work. Compared with my experience trying to use citation managers, I’d say this doesn’t have to be the case.

My biggest tip here: watch some Youtube videos. Seriously. There are obviously people out there who are using Scrivener to write their dissertations. Take a few minutes and see how they’ve been successful.

Relatedly, my final tip is only to use the features that you want to use.

Scrivener does have a ton of features, but do I use them all on a daily basis? Absolutely not. I only use the things that I need.

Obviously, there are few more hoops to jump through in order to share your work with others and make revisions. But I think they’re worth it.

What software do you use to write your dissertation/thesis?

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