Monday, September 12, 2011

Tricking out your Mac for long-form academic writing (especially a dissertation)

So, many of you are in the process of writing your dissertation, and those of you who aren't, do other long academic writing. Anyway, there are lots of products to help you write with a Mac, and most people I talk to don't seem to use many different products to help with their productivity. A quick note here: If you are being highly productive, besides making sure you back-up your work, there is no real reason to play with other systems. But many of you come here because you are goofing off from your work. So, if you are goofing off anyway, you might as well goof off in ways that can help your long-term productivity. So, some products to help you work.

(1) ALWAYS BACK-UP YOUR WORK! I don't have a lot of smart or specific suggestions here. For example, there are pros and cons to backing up on the cloud or not. I would welcome suggestions in comments for specific back-up strategies for macs. But all of you should be backing up in some form or another.

(2) Word Processing:
The main option is, of course, Scrivener. Fairly cheap at $38.25 (that is the educational license version cost), it is versatile, and also allows you to make documents into formats that other people will actually look at. What makes Scrivener such a fun product to work with, is that it allows you to have total control of writing in many different points throughout a long work. It also is great for giving you control at the changing of different parts of the document. Want to experiment how splitting up a paragraph and turning in two will look? You can type it out and easily switch different views to get a good sense of it. Also, the writing mode is perfect for just writing, shutting out the rest of the computer and everything but a surface for putting words onto.

EDIT: Two additional notes for Scrivener, this post from Charles Stross is pretty useful for learning and describing the basics of use. Also, here is an academic template for scrivener.

I haven't had a chance to use MS Office 2011 for Macs, but I have only heard good things. The one I have is pretty terrible in lots of ways, and is mostly used because the world uses MS Office.

I have used openoffice for Macs, and I have to say I was distinctly underimpressed. It is regularly slow, and causes more pinwheel action than most things I do on a Mac. The price is nice, for you grad students, but there are some other really good options.

I have tried two other word processors, and I want to briefly discuss them. One is Apple's iWork's Pages. I enjoyed using pages primarily for making fliers and image heavy texts. I don't do a lot of work with images in my academic writing, so I haven't really used it for that. However, I hear good things. As a standard word processor, it was pretty strong. But not amazing, and I had a lot of compatibility issues.

The other one is Mellel, which I only played around with long enough to expire the free trial. I really liked it a lot. Fast to load, and really controllable writing experience. I definitely felt like I had more control over the aesthetics of my document. But its lack of compatibility (it doesn't support docx, and only supports doc partially) made it not a good investment for me.

There are plenty of other word processors I haven't tried, like Bean and Nisus Writer. I recently was talking with someone who uses Scrivener for all of her long-form writing, and uses bean for all of her note taking and shorter word processing needs. If anyone has any experiance with other word processors I would like to hear them.

(3) Bibliography/Digital Library: I use Bookends. That is also the only one I have any experience with. It is fairly affordable at $99 or $69 (student), and I really like it. Anyone out there with experience with EndNote, Papers, or Sente? I can say that I found Bookends fairly easy to work with, and have never had the sort of problems to make me go and play around with the others. I have heard good things about Papers, but never really used it.

(4) Spelling and Grammar Check: Most of your word processing software will have some sort of spelling and grammar checks (MS Word's Grammar check is pretty decent these days, honestly). However, I suggest Grammarian Pro2. I know some people who cannot stand it, and it requires some active work in the beginning to get it synced to your particular problems and needs, but I think it is worth the effort.

Okay, what did I forget? Other suggestions or reviews? If I get enough of them I will make a follow-up post. Also, I guess I should say I have gotten no money, or even free products, for this post. But if anyone wants to give me free products to review for them, let me know.