Using Scrivener for Academic Writing: A Complete Guide

A university library.

Scrivener is a writing app that I use for my creative projects, but I’ve also used it for many academic papers throughout high school, undergrad, and graduate school. I feel its merits in this area are often overlooked, so I thought I would share my favorite features that came in handy when I was a student.

Below, I’ve given a thorough overview of Scrivener’s academic paper templates, as well as some key features. If you don’t know anything about Scrivener at all, I’d recommend reading my review before proceeding, so you can learn some of the basics of the app first.

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Scrivener Templates for Academic Writing

Among Scrivener’s project templates, there are four that may be suitable for academic purposes:

  • Essay (Chicago Style). This format is primarily used for publications in the social sciences, such as History or Economics. It does not use in-text citations, but rather relies on footnotes and a bibliography.
  • Paper (APA). Commonly used for papers in fields such as Psychology, Social Sciences, Education, Economics, and Business. This style uses an author-date in-text citation system with a full reference list at the end, and may include an abstract or outline before the main body of the paper.
  • Paper (MLA). One of the most popular academic writing styles, MLA is commonly used in the fields of Literature, Liberal Arts, and Languages. It uses in-text citations that reference the author’s name, and a Works Cited list at the end of the paper.
  • Research Proposal. This type of document may prove useful in many fields, including History, social sciences such as Psychology, and natural sciences such as Biology. It’s meant to explain your intended topic of study and methodology.

You can find these templates under Non-Ficiton when you open a new project in Scrivener:

The Non-Fiction Scrivener project templates.

Each Scrivener template also provides format notes that you can find in the binder when you open your new project:

The MLA paper format notes in Scrivener.

This will include a PDF sample essay as well as a few general guidelines on how to cite your sources. There are also links to relevant resources with more extensive information, such as Purdue OWL.


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Using Scrivener for Academic Writing: Key Features You’ll Want to Know About

Keep in mind that this post is not a review of Scrivener’s full feature set. For our purposes, I’m going to focus on the tools this app provides that I have found most helpful when using it for academic writing.

Certainly, there are some papers that you can easily draft in Microsoft Word or Google Docs with no trouble whatsoever. Scrivener would probably be overkill for your three-page Philosophy 101 essay.

However, for longer and more-involved projects, Scrivener’s organizational tools, formatting, and writing interface can make the whole process easier and more enjoyable. Here are some top features to put to work on your next assignment.

1. Outlining Tools

Scrivener’s built-in outlining tools are one of the most-loved features of the app. They’re great for organizing your ideas, and there are many different ways to use them, so they’re adaptable to your personal preferences.

The first such tool is the binder, which you’ll see on the left side of the Scrivener interface:

The binder for an MLA paper in Scrivener.

This feature is primarily used for big-picture planning of your project’s structure, as well as storing various documents. However, its drag-and-drop capabilities can make it handy during the early stages of the writing process when you may want to move sections of your paper around.

The more traditional outliner may be preferable to some writers who want to include extensive notes on each section of their essays. It also provides a more complete visual representation of your paper’s structure without the clutter of notes or research:

The Scrivener outliner for an MLA paper.

You can add synopses for each section in the inspector to the right of the main drafting area:

Adding a synopsis to the Scrivener outliner.

A third option is to use Scrivener’s corkboard:

The Scrivener corkboard for an MLA paper.

Here, you can jot down ideas on index cards and order them as you see fit. This is excellent for the brainstorming stage, when you want to be able to make quick notes and move them around.

2. Research Importer

Probably my favorite Scrivener feature when I was writing academic papers was the research importer. No more sifting through a dozen tabs in my browser trying to find the right journal article or website to cite – you can have everything you need in one window, available at the click of a button.

Just click on the Research icon in the binder, then select File > Import:

Importing research in Scrivener.

You can choose a file that you have saved on your computer (perfect if you’ve scanned pages from books in your university library or downloaded an article from a journal database) or enter the URL for a relevant webpage.

Then, just click on the item’s title in the binder to view the file or webpage:

Viewing an imported PDF in Scrivener.

This can help you stay on task (no temptation to go browsing the web), and speed up your writing process by keeping all your sources on hand.

3. Dual Screen View

Another handy feature that could help you get through your paper faster is Scrivener’s dual screen view:

Scrivener dual screen mode.

This is particularly useful when you need to copy over quotes from research you’ve imported into the app. You can enter dual screen view by clicking on the icon in the top right corner of the main drafting area:

Entering dual screen mode in Scrivener.

Dual screen view also makes it easy to refer back to earlier parts of your paper while you’re writing.

4. Ideas

There’s no telling exactly when a new idea for your paper might strike. If you’re in the middle of a specific section and don’t want to stop working on it to pursue a separate train of thought, Scrivener has you covered.

There’s a convenient Ideas document included in your project by default:

The Scrivener Ideas document.

Here, you can dump any ideas you want to come back and address later.


If you haven’t waited until the night before the deadline to finish your paper, you’ll probably want to read through it before you hand it off to your professor. During this editing process, you can leave comments for yourself regarding any revisions you want to make.

In the inspector, click on the speech bubble icon to open the Comments & Footnotes section. Then highlight the relevant text in to drafting area and click on the second speech bubble icon to add a new comment:

Adding a new comment in Scrivener.

This feature is very similar to the Microsoft Word and Google Docs equivalents. If you use this functionality when working in those apps, you won’t miss it if you switch to Scrivener.

6. Footnotes

Inserting footnotes is almost always a pain. Compared with other apps, Scrivener makes the process relatively easy. You can add a new note much like you would a comment, using the Comments & Footnotes section of the inspector:

Adding a new footnote in Scrivener.

Just click on cf to add your footnote, then type the citation directly into the designated area in the inspector. This makes it very easy to track, manage, and revise your footnotes as necessary.

7. Endnotes and Works Cited

Last but most certainly not least, Scrivener will help you bring together all your references and sources into a proper list of endnotes or a Works Cited page.

This feature obviously differs a bit depending on which format you’re working with. I’m going to focus on the MLA template, since this is the most popular style for academic papers.

All of your footnotes will automatically be collected into an endnotes page. Don’t worry if you don’t see them when you click on the Endnotes document in the binder – they’ll be added when you compile your project to print it or convert it to a file type you can upload for digital submission to your professor.

As for your Works Cited page, Scrivener sets you up with a template filled with sample citations:

Creating an MLA style Works Cited page in Scrivener.

You can use this as a guide for your own sources and simply replace the examples with your own references. It’s recommended that you double check the most recent MLA guidelines to ensure that you’re using the most up-to-date formatting.


Scrivener is usually touted as a creative writing app, but it also has templates and features that come in handy for academic papers. It makes it easier to organize your material and stay focused when working on your assignments.

If you’re feeling hesitant to invest in a writing app, keep in mind that Scrivener offers a student discount. There’s also a free trial if you want to take it for a spin before you commit.

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Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.

Molly Tyler

Molly received her B.A. in English in 2016, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2019. She now works full time as a digital content editor.

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  1. Hi Molly,

    Thank you so much for this, very useful!

    I have a question about footnotes and works cited. How are these two connected?

    You say that Scrivener will bring together all the references, but how does it know a footnote is a reference? And does it change the format (since the references change slightly in order between footnote and bibliography, e.g. order name/surname)?

    Or did I get it wrong – you need to write the bibliography/works cited part, while the footnotes will simply turn into endnotes once you compile the document?

    I’m asking because I’m trying to find a way to incorporate in-text citations and/or footnotes while writing, and I haven’t found a suitable way yet (no Mendeley plug in!)

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Martina – thanks for your question!

      In Scrivener, footnotes are compiled into an Endnotes document. However, they are not automatically incorporated into your Works Cited. Scrivener provides a template with some sample citations in a pre-made Works Cited page, but you still have to add each of your references manually. So, it’s as you said in the second part of your comment – you still essentially have to write the bibliography.

      The Endnotes page will only include the reference number and the content of the footnote as you’ve written it. Additionally, the endnotes are only visible once you export your paper from Scrivener to another format (print and Microsoft Word being the two most popular in my experience). In Scrivener itself, you’ll just see a placeholder page.

      Unfortunately, this will only automate your workflow if you’re using footnotes and endnotes to cite your sources. That said, the dual screen editor can make it easier to write your Works Cited page if you import your digital sources, as you won’t have to switch back and forth between windows as much. The same goes for quoting imported sources.

      I’d also say that I find the footnotes feature in Scrivener to be much easier to use than the equivalent in Microsoft Word or Google Docs. It seems to be less cluttered and not to suffer from as many formatting issues.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Hi Molly,

    I am using Scrivener on a trial presently. I just created my first publication with it. I ran into a time-consuming issue that no one is talking about and I write in hopes you have answer.

    My flow was Zotero, to Scrivener, to Word (which I hoped was only for final formatting and this is where there the problem manifest).

    I could not push from Zotero, so I pulled “research” documents into Scrivener (“Scriv”) in with “Import”. Where the source was readily accessible on the internet, the Import was from a website. As a sidebar important to the story, sometimes Scriv would give a browser update error in preview, so I resorted on occasion to copy the link from the webpage and pasted the link into the written draft as text, there not finding an easy way to embed a hyperlink so compromising to allow a visible web address for later hyperlink-embedding in Word.

    For other links which I imported into Scriv, both internal and internet, I learned that, before I could link them in my draft writing, I had to drag them from Research to a “References” folder in the template. At the time I believed that, especially for the internal documents which would not be readily accessible to readers, Scriv would not only Export to Word the documents in References folder but also similar documents (and text) I had in a template folder called “Back Matter” (or words of similar description).

    Nothing at all Exported to Word from Back Matter. The bigger problem was that, of my writing, only the text Exported to Word. All of my links from References were lost, including links to webpages from References. Links that I had pasted into the text as a text path to a link were, of course, present in the Word document. Links that had existed as embedded hyperlinks from online sources that I had copied and pasted into my Scriv draft were also successfully exported. What failed to export was links that were embedded from Scriv, as source documents with copies in Scriv or as links to webpages. In the result, I had to do the work over again in Word to embed my hyperlinks.

    For most of my writing, I do not include footnotes or endnotes. The citation is often in-line with hyperlink embedded text. If Scriv cannot easily handle this, then may days with it may be over.

    Nobody offering Scriv education is talking about this mystery, how to ensure your embedded links from Scriv are successfully integrated into final output. Was it something in the way the links were created? Something missed in Compilation? Perhaps it was a problem with Word (though non-Scriv hyperlinks were successful)?

    Any insight you have to offer a Scriv newbie would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi there! Thanks for your comment, I hope I’ll be able to help.

      First, I want to note that I’m not experienced with Zotero, nor have I used the exact citation method you’re describing. However, I have an idea of where things might be going wrong for you.

      Regarding your failed imports, my guess is that you need to update your browser to the latest version. This is usually a very simple process, and you should be able to find instructions for your preferred browser online if needed.

      Next, to add a hyperlink in Scrivener, highlight the text you want to add the link to and go to Edit > Add link. A popup will appear where you can add your link. In my test, links added this way to your Scrivener text export to Microsoft Word and work normally (although they are simply underlined and not blue in Word, so they may be hard to spot).

      Finally, you’ll need to take a couple of extra steps to export your Back Matter to Word, although it is very simple once you know where the settings are! Start by going to File > Compile like you normally would when exporting to Word. On the right side of the popup that appears, you’ll see a checklist of all the documents in the main manuscript of your paper. Only folders and documents included in your Draft will be available in this checklist.

      To include your Back Matter in your Microsoft Word export, you have two choices. The first is to add it your Draft before you compile your file. Just drag and drop the folder into the Draft section of the Binder on the left side of your Scrivener window.

      The other option is to include your Back Matter in your compiled file. This is possible and probably preferable, unless you have multiple folders you want to include (you will only be able to add one Back Matter folder to your compiled file using this method).

      In the Compile popup, under the checklist of documents for your main Draft, you’ll see two little checkboxes labeled Add front matter and Add back matter. If you select the Add back matter checkbox, you’ll be able to select your Back Matter folder from the dropdown next to it. This material will then be included when you export your paper to Microsoft Word.

      Scrivener compile popup with back matter added.

      Hopefully this helps and makes your writing and researching process smoother!

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