November is Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo at Methodspace! This post was part of the 2017 #AcWriMo series. The theme of week three was: Focusing to Be Productive. Being productive as a 21c writer means being able to find the right digital tools.
My academic writing primarily involves longer projects, namely books. Over the years I’ve tried a variety of strategies in the hope that I could use time to productively focus on writing, rather than wasting time trying to keep track of drafts and versions. In this post I will share my choices, and look forward to hearing about yours.
Writers need word processing software. Microsoft Word has become the standard, though alternatives exist. I’ve discovered that when burdened with documents of more than 50,000 words, Word gets tired and cranky. Formatting and other features stop working properly. It always seems that when I’m madly finalizing the manuscript for a book, hours and hours are unhappily spent trying to correct errors that occur when I try to compile multiple chapters into one document. I thought this was a result of an inadequacy on my part, but after reading the stories of other writers, it became apparent that this problem is quite common.
I decided to try something different for the book I am working on right now, so I purchased Scrivener. At the mid-point in the project, I am pleased with it. I set it up with the table of contents and added research excerpts, notes, preliminary drafts, and outlines. A labeling feature allows you to note whether an item is front matter, section introduction, or chapter and whether it is the first or final draft. This is a big help for me since in the past I was continually lost in multiple versions.
I like being able to see everything at a glance and easily toggle between notes and the chapter I am writing. The software includes a “cork board” feature that allows you to visually organize (and reorganize) notes. With my previous style, I would have many documents open at one time, which created a very fragmented process. Working in Scrivener feels much more organic than having to open up different folders in Word.
Scrivener has a nifty tool for setting targets for the project as a
whole and for the work session. This is great for those who like to
measure productivity by the number of words.
An important caveat: I have not reached the stage where I need to export the entire manuscript and shape it is needed to send to the publisher. I’ll write again in a couple of months and let you know how that goes!
Academic writers need a bibliographic manager. I was an early adopter of EndNote, and couldn’t live without it. EndNote allows you to build libraries of your references. You can create separate libraries for parts of your project, or for each project. I have assembled topical libraries, particularly when I wanted to share the references with a collaborative partner. It is easy to import those references back into a central library.
When you are downloading articles from databases, you can also download the citation directly into EndNote. Once you have selected the type of resource (article, book, website), corrected any details, and included keywords or other information you want in the record, you are all set. You won’t need to type it again.
If you want to cite that source, you use the “cite as you write” feature. When you enter the citation into the document, the reference list forms automatically at the end. If you cut and paste material into another section or a different document, the reference goes with it and is inserted into the list.
You have a choice of output style, so you can set it for APA, MLA, etc. If you have a document formatted in one style, and find a publisher wants another style, it is possible to change the output. EndNote includes a web version so you can access your libraries from multiple computers or devices.
Writers need flexible ways to get words onto the page. I am not a fast typist and don’t really enjoy it. A couple of years ago I was pleased to discover that voice-to-text capabilities had really advanced. I purchased Dragon Naturally Speaking, and my entire way of working changed. I find that writing verbally is very freeing, and I use it extensively. The accuracy is surprisingly good. With a high-quality mic you can dictate while standing or walking across the room, which is helpful if you are trying to avoid excessive time in your chair. Sometimes I use a hybrid approach, moving fluidly between speaking and typing. Voice-to-text is particularly valuable at the draft stage, or when I have handwritten notes I want to read into the document. Of course, this approach only works when you have a private space!
Writers need to capture wild ideas on the fly. Inspiration sometimes happens in the oddest places! I always carry a small notebook and pen with me. I also use Evernote for this purpose. I like being about to save and organize various digital items and artifacts on my smartphone or tablet.
Writers need to back up their work. As a former professor and dissertation supervisor, I have heard many horror stories about loss of work due to various computer failures and life crises. I do not want to trust my hard drive (or back-up hard drive.) What if…? I use Carbonite, a cloud back-up service. A benefit is that I can access all of my files from anywhere, and move between my PC desktop, Apple laptop, and Android table as needed. For shared files on collaborative projects, I use both Dropbox and Google Drive. I’d prefer to stick with one, but my collaborators have their own preferences, so I both are needed.
This post is not meant to be a comprehensive review of all possible options, or an advertisement for commercial products. I hope that you will share your recommendations and preferred writing tools in the comment area or in the #AcWriMo discussions on Twitter.