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NVivo as a Writing Playground

06 May 2013 - BY Cynthia Jacobs IN advanced, coding, find, NVivo, sets, trees, word, writing

I spend a good deal of time writing.

Over the years, working with NVivo has raised my standards for having many things in one place, well organized along multiple dimensions.

For a long time, though, I overlooked its potential as a writing tool, or writing environment.

A while back Judy Davidson published some work on her Journal Project, where she transcribed and coded personal journals from a period of years. That work spoke to me and lingered, but it took a little more time before I could get beyond importing, coding and memoing to seeing NVivo as this kind of environment for producing or composing.

I’ve recently begun to see it as a veritable writing playground.

As I began to see that I could write inside NVivo, I decided to import a good deal of past work. I now compose new work in this virtual comfortable space.

A few of my epiphanies from within…

Advanced Find

Advanced Find becomes a way to find all the documents I’ve worked on recently (or to satisfy my curiosity about what I was working on in a particular period). This allows me to have a complex folder structure, and to create documents in various pieces and places (similar to what Scrivener allows) but still easily find them by time.

Use Advanced Find to retrieve documents by timeframe


Using Sets to gather documents of particular types (say, fiction as opposed to essays as opposed to more scholarly things) or periods has served me well so far.

I have a skeletal Source Classification in place, and I can see that this might become useful if my use of the Sets becomes more extensive and the list grows long.

Coding and queries

Coding is powerful for gathering parts of a whole (again, similar to what Scrivener does), the usual thematic sorts of groupings (usual, that is, for an NVivo user, but a new thrill for a writer to have this capability), and the occasional ‘interesting thought – come back to this’ sort of node.

It does change the process a bit.

As if there were not enough distractions in the world, writing inside NVivo makes it (all too) easy to act on the thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if I could go back and see all the times I’ve written about [word or phrase or a few words to get at a concept]?’

With a text search query, running this quickly with all of the default settings – all sources, as a preview – immediately yields the list of documents, which in itself can be interesting but also means that I can immediately open any of those.

That query with its default settings also generates the Word Tree, my personal favorite as the most useful visualization in NVivo currently. From there I can easily see context, and recurring context as the tree makes frequent phrases visible.


Use a Word Tree to explore words in context

I’m still discovering, but this has been enough to keep me coming back. Like wearing a seatbelt, or being in my own [literal] writing space with all the familiar books around, it’s now where it feels right to be doing this work.

Do you use NVivo to support your writing? Love to hear about your approach in the comments below.