How to Draft a Thesis (Partly) on Your Phone

In my mind, the time and space needed for writing is proportional to the project. Writing a shopping list? The notes app on my phone is fine for that. Writing a thesis? I’ll need months of full days at a big hulking desk with a desktop computer, fifty software programmes, several hundred books, a printer, a scanner, a personal barista…

But life doesn’t always allow us such luxuries.

Often we have to squeeze in our writing when and where we can: around jobs, kids, and myriad other responsibilities. Obviously, working at a dedicated desk is ideal. But I wondered: if worst comes to worst, and you simply can’t (or can’t always) sit down at a desk for regular writing time, is it still possible to make serious progress on a thesis?

So I did a bit of experimentation and found that while some desk time is necessary, there are lots of parts of the thesis-writing process that can be done in small units of time on a phone or tablet.

With clever use of apps, cloud storage, and careful syncing, you can make significant progress during bus rides, in waiting rooms, in supermarket queues, and during night-time moments of inspiration. As a parent, I’ve even written large chunks of text while pinned to the couch by a sleeping baby.

In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned about:

If you’ve got your own techniques for making progress away from your desk, add them in the comments!

Quick ways to capture ideas and generate text

Sometimes, when inspiration hits, you just want to capture ideas quickly. If you know roughly what you want to say (or you’re happy to brain-dump until you figure it out) then it’s really easy to fill rough pages from your phone.

If you plan to mainly write your thesis on a computer, but just occasionally brainstorm using your phone, then you probably don’t need specialist apps. As casual & quick options, you can try:

  • typing ideas into your Notes app
  • keeping an ongoing notes or ideas document
  • using your Voice Memos app to record your thoughts orally

I love to write a first draft by using voice-to-text in the Microsoft Word app to narrate all my ideas into in rough form so that I have a lot of text to build upon and edit. I speak directly into my phone’s microphone and leave slightly longer-than-usual pauses between my words so that the app has the best chance of understanding me. With this technique (assuming I know what I want to say) I can generate over 300 words in 5 minutes on my phone with just a couple of manual edits for minor typos. That means, in just 5 minutes a day, I can write around 10,000 words a month! Sure, those 10,000 words will need further work – but that’s a solid start.

With any of these options, you can export your thoughts so that you can keep working once you’re at your desk. Use your preferred option: e.g. by saving to Dropbox, AirDropping between devices, or emailing the file to yourself.

Doing significant drafting on your phone

If you plan to do a significant amount of drafting on your phone, then it’s time to get serious with a specialist writing tool.

Using MS Word

My thesis in the MS Word app for iOS

If you are already drafting in Microsoft Word, it’s worthwhile getting the Word app on your iOS or Android device. This is usually charged as a subscription, but AUT students can sign in via your AUT Office365 ProPlus account. Once you have Word on both your desktop and mobile devices, you just need to store your thesis files somewhere that can sync between them. I personally use Dropbox, and a free Dropbox account comes with enough storage to handle the files for most postgrad research projects.

Voila! Now you can write at your computer, save, hop on the bus, pull up the same file, and continue writing on your phone.

I personally find the Word app helpful for small bits of drafting and editing, but it can be a little clunky – especially when navigating a document as long and complex as a thesis. It’s also quite limited when it comes to including notes & materials (unless you don’t mind constantly flipping between files). That being said, it’s a great choice for those already familiar with MS Word and wanting an easy way to add productive writing time throughout the day.

Using Scrivener

My thesis structure in Scrivener

Another great phone-friendly option is Scrivener. This is a dedicated writing app (iOS only, sorry Android users) that is designed for writing all kinds of complex academic and creative projects. If you want to use Scrivener for iOS, that would mean switching your thesis-writing into Scrivener on your desktop / laptop computer too. I recommend you do a little research on it first – it’s not for everyone – but the devotees are evangelical.

In Scrivener, your thesis ‘project’ can be broken down into chapters or sections for easy navigation. The built-in ‘Research’ and ‘Notes’ sections allow you to add supporting materials (like rough ideas, plans, transcripts, etc.) that you don’t necessarily want to include in the final thesis. You can also use Scrivener’s corkboard feature to view a storyboard-like overview of the whole project.

Working on my thesis introduction in Scrivener

My personal favourite Scrivener technique for my phone is to use voice dictation in the ‘Notes’ section to overcome periods of writers’ block. I narrate my problems, talk about ways I might solve them, and generally gab into the microphone until I’ve figured out a way through. Then I switch into the body of the thesis and implement my solutions (copy-pasting any bits of my narration that are good enough to work from) – knowing that my narrated process is saved right there in the same app.

Scrivener is built for text, so it’s not a complete solution for those who will include a lot of figures or diagrammes in their thesis. It’s also not great for complex formatting, or creating your final layout. And – a major drawback – I haven’t found a way to integrate with reference managers in the iOS version. Drafting on Scrivener in iOS can work really well, but you will need to do the citing & formatting on a desktop or laptop computer; and you can expect to export to another tool entirely (typically MS Word) for the finishing touches.

Want to do more than just drafting on your phone?

Here’s a summary of some other tools you can use to work on your thesis from your iOS or Android* device – read on for more about each!

Collecting ideasOneNote^OneNote^
^Has a desktop version that syncs with your phone

*As an iPhone user, I’ve only personally tried the iOS tools.

Collecting: Writing a thesis means collecting a huge variety of materials – readings, data, notes, transcripts, and so on. OneNote is great for this! You can quickly capture and organise your thoughts while out & about, or late at night when your computer is shut down. You can also sketch freestyle, which is great for formulating figures & diagrammes.

Editing: Grammarly is a classic choice for those wanting to fix up spelling & grammar issues on the go. There is a Grammarly app, but many people choose to add Grammarly as a keyboard extension for integration with other writing programmes. Bear in mind there’s a cost for Grammarly, and check out our prior Thesislink post for details on how Grammarly works for thesis-writers.

Referencing: EndNote has a free iOS app… just sign into your existing EndNote online account, and sync your existing reference library to your phone. Check out this video for an overview. However, it’s not very practical in my experience to try to cite while drafting on your phone in either Word or Scrivener. It’s possible (though annoying) in Word; instructions here. I don’t know of a reliable way to enter citations from your phone in Scrivener… but if you’ve found a good way, let us know in the comments!

EndNote doesn’t have an Android app; though Android users can use an alternative product called Qiqqa (pronounced “Quicker”). It’s designed primarily as a PDF reader, but includes citation management tools. I haven’t used that one, but many swear by it (and, bonus, it integrates with LaTeX). Here’s a quick video overview. If you prefer EndNote, you can always use your Android device to access your EndNote Online account via a browser; but that’s not the most practical solution for active citing.

A word about saving & syncing

The big danger of working across devices on your thesis is losing some of your work. Let’s say you write 500 words on your phone while waiting for the bus; but then you open your thesis on your desktop computer, and the new additions aren’t there. Heartbreak!

No matter which tools you use for drafting and storing files, it’s important to get into good saving & syncing habits.

  1. Keep your master copy secure in the cloud.
  2. Sync from the cloud before starting a writing session.
  3. Save to the cloud before ending a writing session.
  4. Have your document open on only one device at a time.

Here are some extra tips:

  • Get to know how your chosen tools work by reading about their sync & save features, and doing some testing on your own devices before establishing your writing habits.
  • If you end up with conflicting versions, that’s a sign that you’re not exiting your document on one device before opening on another (hence having more than one version of the document ‘active’). This can get messy fast, so don’t leave lots of conflicted versions lying around in your files. Make sure you’re working to one master copy.
  • For extra back-up, you might like to create dated saved archive versions in addition to your master copy (just in case the master copy is accidentally deleted or overwritten).
  • Remember to have wifi / data enabled on your devices so your changes will save in real time (I’ve been caught out by this one!).

A word about final formatting

If you are coming to the end of your thesis-writing process, I would really recommend committing to some desk time. While it’s possible to draft on a phone, there is a lot of formatting in the end stages that really demands a bigger screen (especially because what you see on a mobile-optimised view will not match how your thesis will look when published).

Always check the current copy of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook for up-to-date info on your formatting requirements.

If you’ve been drafting in Scrivener, you will need to ‘compile’ to Microsoft Word to do the final formatting. Allow plenty of time for this, as some things can look different after the compiling process depending on the fonts and styles you have used (for example, my italics in Scrivener turn into underlines in Word). One you have your compilation in Word, you can use the ‘find and replace’ function to quickly fix up any formatting that seems to have changed in translation (see image below).

Doing a ‘find and replace’ in Word to change underlines to italics (hit that ‘Format’ button for options)

Be sure to do a final scan-through for any lingering formatting issues before you submit!

So the final verdict: is it possible to draft a thesis on a phone? Absolutely! You won’t be able to do 100% of your thesis-writing on your phone, but certainly you can make a lot of progress. If you’re juggling your thesis-writing with other responsibilities, drafting partly on your phone can be a great way to make use of time that might otherwise be unproductive.

But you know what? Unproductive time is important too. By all means set up your phone to be a thesis asset, but ensure you have clear boundaries so that your thesis doesn’t end up infiltrating too much of your downtime.

Got some tips for drafting your thesis on your phone? Add them in the comments below!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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