Circus Ponies Notebook and Scrivener for Writing

Steve Jobs once said: “Computers are bicycles for the mind.”.

Circus Ponies Notebook and Scrivener exemplify this sentence for me. I could not have written my diploma thesis without Circus Ponies Notebook and I wouldn’t have been able to finish my PhD thesis without both Circus Ponies Notebook and Scrivener.

Both programs are presented in detail in the blog entries: Scrivener — A perfect program for dissertation writing, and Circus Ponies Notebook: The Best Tool for Structuring Creative Writing Projects (esp. Research Projects). I have also written an article about using Circus Ponies Notebook for academic writing.

Here I just want to point out to those three blog entries and make a case for using them together for (longer) creative writing projects.

Imagine a wild, colorful girl, who is interested in anything and everything, and holds an impossible width and depth of information that she can order in any way she needs. That’s Circus Ponies Notebook. And now imagine a cool, clear thinker, who is very focused on what he does best. That’s Scrivener. Now combine them and you have a very powerful combination for creative writing.

Circus Ponies Notebook can be used to collect notes for a project and structure them in a way that make sense, that you can follow when you write down the text based on that information. This allows you to focus on individual details, small subsections, while never staying from the path of the article itself. This tremendously reduces the cognitive load you have to handle as you do not need to keep in mind all the information you do not actually need at the moment.

Scrivener on the other hand can be used to write the text in, as it has some of the best features for writing I have ever seen, including a “Backup To” function that automatically uses current date and time for the file name, a good outline for navigation, version control, and much, much more. Forget Word when it comes to writing larger texts. Word was made for letters and such-a-like, not for longer, more complicated texts. Scrivener’s main strength is that it lets you focus on writing (and re-writing) and also reduces tremendous amounts of cognitive load.

Taken (and used) together both lets you focus on writing, which is hard enough in itself.

Mentioned articles:


  1. Especially through your blog I was convinced of using the software that you are using. Notebook and Scivener (but for academic stuff I still prefer LyX).
    But, as you, I also use DEVONthink. What I don’t understand – how is your relation between DEVONthink and Notebook in your workflow?? Do you collect articles and stuff in DEVONthink and you just take some bits from there and copy them to Circus Ponies NB? In another post you say your dissertation outline was 1305 pages – how did this then relate to DEVONthink? (One disadvantage of putting everything to NB is probably that you cannot use the ‘see related text’ function in DEVONthink.) Also, is NB with such a huge file (1305 p.) still running smoothly?
    Thank you again for your work on this blog! – I’ll also check out your new book!
    Best, Max

  2. Hello Max,

    I did write my dissertation before stumbling upon DEVONthink, so there is (was) no relation between DT and CPN for my dissertation outline. The outline was actually a bit sluggish, as it had a lot of cells (it was all on one page, the page number related to the amount of pages it would have been when printed as seen in the preview mode of print). For writing the dissertation I broke it down into subparts (Introduction, Study 1, etc.), sorted it in another CPN file, and wrote it down.

    Regarding my current workflow, it’s on page 327 (book page number, not Acrobats) in OC2. I use DEVONthink to store material (files for work projects, an image database, one for sounds, one for vids, one for private project, one for sources (all articles), one for private sources, but use CPN to make notes about the topics that I deal with (e.g., topic notebooks like information on writing articles, advisory, etc., and article notebooks where I put in information for articles I want/need to write). I have recently switched to reading articles on an iPad (in GoodReader, as Sente turned out to be too sluggish) and will probably store the highlighted sections in separate CPN files. I’ll write a posting about it once I have found a stable solution.

    All the best


  3. Hi Daniel, great information…thank you! However, It’s now late 2012 and I am wondering if you are still a Circus Ponies Notebook fan or is there something you have found that you like better?I have been using Scrivener for years now and love it. Scrivener is tailor made for folks like me who are not linear thinkers. Scrivener is also a great place to put all your information–once you have found it and then sorted out the bulk of it that is not relevant to your project–in my case a novel. However, Scrivener is not the best tool for the initial hunt for that information that you are not yet sure is relevant. If you throw too much information (from various sources and file types etc.) into Scrivener it’s just too hard to find and sort from within. So it sounds like you are saying that Circus Ponies Notebook is the best tool for the initial information hunt–the broad dragnet for scooping up large amounts of information that you “think” might be relevant. And then once you have gathered your information in Circus Ponies Notebook, you can sift through it and decide which parts are truly relevant and then import those relevant bits of information into Scrivener. Am I correct?

  4. Hoi Roy,

    I am still using CPN when it comes to outlines for writing or Project Planning, Programming, etc. Works great. However, if you are unsure what the endproduct will be, you might try another collection method, e.g. DEVONthink to just collect stuff first. I use CPN when I have an idea in which direction the project is going to create the structure for that project and to have all information available there. Have a look at the PDF of the book regarding DEVONthink and Content outlines.

    All the best


  5. For those not using a Mac, the program Citavi will enable you to do what is described here with Circus Ponies along with other fabulous capabilities tailored for the academic. There is a free version of Citavi that hardly differs from the full version. And . . . Citavi additionally embeds within Microsoft Word so that your Citavi outline, notes, quotes, images, etc. are all juxtaposed right next to your writing area in Word. Double-click on an outline item, note, quote, or image, and it pops into Citavi where your cursor is, taking citation information along with it and dynamically building your reference list at the end of your document. There are TONS of incredibly awesome capabilities in Citavi, and the developers are ever adding users’ feature requests. It’s an academic’s dream.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for sharing your tips on organising outlines in CPN (as well as all your workflow). It helped a lot in my organising workflow (i’m not as organised as you but am getting there someday).

    I’m trying to write my thesis now and I’ve read through many of your articles but is there a preferred way you moved from CPN to Scrvener? Or it really was just open a note page in CPN and manually copy-paste into a page in Scrivener? (or i’m missing an easy import step?)

    Also you organised your subheadings (for ex within Introduction subheading 1 subheading2 etc) you had separate pages for them in Scrivener?

    Thanks much for your help!


  7. Hoi Dee,

    after using CPN for the Outline I use Scrivener to create the sections and then put CPN next to Scrivener and write it. It’s less copy paste and more typing — given that CPN contains the information and not the finished text. This posting here might be helpful or this one.

    As for working in Scrivener, I did use different “pages” (elements in the outline).

    Hope this helps.

    Best regards and success with your thesis. 🙂


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