A Structured Approach to Essay Writing Using Scrivener


In this video I’m going to walk you through a Scrivener template that can help you manage both the structure of an essay project and provide some guidance for how to organize your time so you can actually complete the project before whatever deadline you may have.

If this is your first exposure to Scrivener you might to check out the previous video titled “The Writing Tools I Use”, which is in the section on "Your Ideal Writing Workflow".

I want to remind everyone that you don’t need Scrivener to implement the principles of structured essay writing that we’ve been talking about. Scrivener has some attractive features but it’s just a tool, and there are lots of different ways that people can implement the principles.

The Basic Template

In this document you can see the standard three folders in the binder that you normally start with, a draft folder that contains the elements of your text document, a research folder that contains research materials, and the trash folder where any items you delete will be sent to, until you decide to empty the trash permanently.

We’er in the “scrivenings” view, which gives you a preview of the content in any of the text files that are selected in the binder. In this case there is no content, but you see a bunch of line separators, indicating that there are some empty text documents nested in the “draft” folder.

If we untwirl the draft folder you see three sub-folders, labeled “preliminary”, “essay draft” and “revisions”.

If we untwirl these folders you see some additional nested folders. Under “preliminary” there’s a folder called “The Assignment”, one called “Timeline and Scheduling”, and another called “Structure Brainstorm”.

If you’re wondering where the icons come from, Scrivener comes a large collection of icons that you can use to help identify files or folders. You can access them just by right-clicking on the name, and you can there are quite a few to choose from.

Now, if we look down to the ‘essay draft’ folder you’ll see there are sub-folders corresponding to the introduction, the main body, the conclusion, and references. This is where you’ll create text documents for these parts of the essay.

In Scrivener you can add a lot of meta-data to any folder or text document, but you can’t see that in information the scrivenings view, so let’s switch to the cork board view, which you can access by clicking this middle button in the view options toolbar.

If I have the whole draft folder selected in the binder, then the cork board view lets you see the next-level folders displayed as index cards. So are the three folders, and now you can see some text associated with each. This text area is called the “synopsis” in Scrivener, and you can access it just by typing on an index card, or by opening up the Inspector, which you can open with this blue information icon in the toolbar.

As I select each card you can see the synopsis information changing in the inspector.

I’ve used the synopsis areas to briefly identify the content of each folder and how you might use it while you’re writing.

So, the preliminary folder includes the details of the writing assignment, your project timelines and deadline information, and any notes you have on the structural features of the essay that you’re trying to write.

The essay draft folder contains bits and pieces of you draft, and there’s a reminder to use the binder to highlight and work with structural components of the essay.

The revisions folder is last. You may get feedback on drafts of your essay, either from other people or from yourself, after a second reading. It’s convenient to keep any information about feedback in one place, and any revisions you make to the essay based on your feedback.

There’s a third view in Scrivener, called “outline view”, which you can access by selecting this right-most button in the view options toolbar. It displays folder titles and the synopsis for each folder. You can also twirl-down the disclosure arrows to reveal the contents of each folder, like so.

You can drag and drop folders and files within this view, just as you can in the binder. But for now let’s go back to the cork board view, and this time select the preliminary folder, so that you now see the sub-folders for the assignment, timeline and structure brainstorming. And I’ll close the inspector for now.

The synopses give us information about what to put in these folders.

For the Assignment folder, you want to put an exact copy of the wording of the writing assignment. It’s shocking how often students run into problems with their essays because they haven’t read the assignment carefully or have forgotten the details of what they’re being asked to do.

Under Timeline and Scheduling, you want to put information related to the due dates and deadlines for the essay. Sometimes an essay assignment has several deadlines, depending on how your instructor wants to break down the writing process. You might have a deadline for getting an essay topic approved, a deadline for identifying reference materials, and a deadline for a first completed draft, which may be different from the final deadline.

Your teacher is giving you these deadlines to force you to spread out the writing process and not wait until the last minute and rush to complete the assignment.

Now, a common problem for students is that if they’re not good at meeting deadlines to begin with, then they may miss these intermediate deadlines too.

So, part of this task is not only to record the deadlines, but also to draft some kind of timeline, using a text document or a checklist or a calendar, that blocks out areas of time.

This is where you want to think through the writing process and what tasks need to be completed by which date to ensure that the whole thing is done on time. You want to build in time for doing research and collecting materials, time for draft writing and time for revisions.

Of course, simply writing your deadlines down doesn’t force you to meet them. No one is pointing a gun to your head. But in my experience, for people who have a problem with procrastination and anxiety about writing, the very act of writing down deadlines and blocking out time periods for working on the essay can help to get them over the hump and get them working. This is partly because procrastination is often a consequence of anxiety, and advance planning helps to reduce anxiety.

This last folder is called “Structure Brainstorm”, and this is where you spend time thinking and writing about the organizational structure of the essay that you’re being asked to write.

In a composition class you might be asked to write very specific kinds of essays that are artificial in many ways, because they’re trying to make you aware that different forms of writing have different structures, and they’re giving you practice at writing within these different forms. Like writing a compare-and-contrast essay, versus a narrative essay, versus a process essay, versus an expository essay, and so on. So here you could add notes about what those kinds of essays look like, reminders about what elements they’re supposed to have.

In most cases outside of a composition class, your instructors will tell you what kind of essay they’re looking for, and you’ll need to pay attention to the directions and the type of writing that is common for the subject matter and the class.

Here, if there’s any confusion at all about what’s being asked, I always recommend that you ask your instructor for clarification about their expectations for the structure of the essay. Ask them in an email, and then cut and paste their response into this section, so it’s easy to refer to it when you’re writing.

Now, moving down to the essay draft folder, if we click on that and view the folder structure in cork board view, then you can see the synopses for what goes in a given section and what function it serves within the essay.

In the introduction we have a reminder that this is where we provide background and setup for the issue we’re discussing, this is where we state our thesis statement which articulates the main point of the essay, and this is where we might provide some kind of roadmap or overview for what the reader can expect in the remainder of the essay.

These kinds of reminders may be elementary for an experienced writer, but for many student writers it’s not elementary, they really do need to be reminded of the basic elements of essay structure. A lot of students know all this, in the sense that they recall being taught it at some point, but it’s not reflected in their writing, so there’s a disconnect between what they say they know about essay writing and what actually shows up on the page.

A template like this helps with that kind of problem by making your structural choices explicit and forcing your writing to conform to those structural choices. You’re always free to mess around with the structure, but the structure will always be coordinated with the text.

If we look at the “main body” folder, you’ll see that there isn’t much to say about structure without knowing some details about the essay project. But the goal here is to break up the elements of the main body into sections and subsections that reflect the structure you worked out in your brainstorming session, and create that outline here in the binder.

The concluding section is pretty standard, there’s a reminder to summarize the main thesis and the argumentative strategy of the essay, and room for some optional commentary.

Most college essays will require some references, and at some point you’ll need to collect all those and format them in some consistent way, so there’s place here to do this.

Most students don’t use bibliography software to automatically create reference lists, so I’m not going to talk about that here. Graduate students writing longer research documents may start to use those, but the vast majority of students just type their references at the of the document, so that’s how this template assumes you’ll do it.

For the sake of completeness I’ve added a “Revisions” folder. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback on drafts of your essay, it’s really helpful to have a place to collect all that feedback. There are tools in Scrivener to take “snapshots” of your text that you can roll back to previous versions, but the more common way to handle revisions is to create a new copy of your draft and do the revisions on that new copy.

So in this section I would duplicate the whole essay structure in the main body and put it in a folder in the revisions section, and make whatever changes I want to make to this document. And I would do that for any significant new revision. That way I always have a copy of my original draft that I can compare with any revision.

So that’s it for the draft section of this template. Now if I click on the “Research” folder you can see there are three sub-folders. Only two of these are really research-related. There’s a folder for storing web links and folder for storing research documents, like word or pdf files or videos files or whatever.

The final folder is for storing final versions of your submitted essay. I put it here in the Research section because you can import and display any kind of file type in the research section.

Your final version could be a Word document but it might also be a Pages document or a pdf document, or a Latex file — who knows, people create documents in all kinds of formats. You could have a presentation associated with your essay, so you can store your PowerPoint or Keynote files here, or a link to your Google Drive account where you have these things stored.

The point is just keep everything associated with your essay project in one place, rather than have the elements all scattered across your computer or have to keep track of hard copies of everything.


That’s our tour of this structured essay writing template. I hope it’s clear now how it can help you manage both the structure of an essay project and provide some guidance for how to organize your time so you can actually complete the project.

In the next video I’ll show you an example of a very short demo essay that was written using this template, so you can see how it might work with an actual writing project.