Writing tools for the dissertation

I’m reading a dissertation that includes a note describing the word processing software used to write it (Microsoft Word, to no one’s surprise). I think Word’s last really good release for the Mac OS was in 1992. Since then, I’ve found Word to be intolerably slow and balky with long documents. The only reason to keep it around is that Word documents have become a de facto standard format.

Swiss Army knife: My main writing tool is Scrivener. This is a well designed and affordable app for note taking, outlining, drafting, and revising entire writing projects. I came to it after trying and discarding quite a few alternatives.

Gwen Hernandez has a good series of Scrivener posts at her blog, The Edited Life. Many of her “Tech Tuesday” posts have been devoted to it. The series starts here.

Meanwhile I’ll run some screenshots past you. (Click on any of them for a larger view.)

I recommend Scrivener to anyone preparing to write a book, dissertation, play, or other major project. It assists at every step of the process: research, capturing ideas, churning out text, and arranging parts into a whole. It supports citation and useful formatting, but the focus is always on the language you create, not its appearance.

Mellel icon

The polisher: Scrivener exports your work to a traditional word processor, such as MS Word, for final sprucing, printing, and sharing with editors and publishers. Having sworn off Word myself, I was at a loss for a while as to what to use in its place. The answer is Mellel, a deft little word processor from a small Israeli shop. (Mellel is Hebrew for “text.”) It is small, quick, and (for those who need it) the best available at handling Arabic, Hebrew, and other right-to-left languages. The developers don’t just accommodate academic writing; they seem to dote on it. You can integrate bibliographical software if that’s your thing.

PDF reader: For articles, books, and documents in PDF form, I’m using an open-source app called Skim. Besides being as good an on-screen reader as you could want, Skim lets you make margin notes and, if the file supports it, highlight and circle passages of text. It has been invaluable in helping me keep many of my notes with the source.

Open formats: Scrivener, Mellel, and Skim all have the virtue of not converting one’s work into a proprietary format that can only be decoded by that particular app. So in case the app suddenly becomes unusable (and a freak disaster simultaneously strikes the annual MacWorld expo, wiping out the world community of Mac developers), you will still be able to get at your work and export it to another app — even to Windows, if you so choose.

Open-source insurance: Just to make assurance doubly sure, I can always export my work to NeoOffice, a Mac port of the open-source office suite OpenOffice.org (OOo for short). The OOo word processor (called Writer) imports and exports Word documents without any serious glitches, and footnotes and endnotes are a breeze.

NeoOffice has its drawbacks. It hogs more than 420 megabytes on the hard drive, making it about 45 percent heavier than my next largest app. Its launch speed can be get-some-coffee sluggish. Because I use it so seldom, it usually nags me to download an update; if I choose to do so, this involves going to the website and navigating past a request for donations. (I have a clear conscience about not donating.)

Still, it’s good to have NeoOffice for insurance. As a bonus, should I ever have to open a WordPerfect document again, NeoOffice (and OOo, of course) handle the job perfectly. Microsoft Word might be able to manage it, but is likely to first require that you track down the install disk — if you are entitled to handle one — and type in that absurdly long registration code. In the time that takes, you might as well type the whole document over.

A note about Apple Pages: As cute and clever as it is, Pages always gets a touch of the vapors wherever footnotes are involved. It’s the one shortcoming that still makes Pages seem more like a toy than a tool for writers. To be fair, Apple made a conscious decision to steer Pages more toward layout and design, which it does quite well and intuitively. Unfortunately, college writers who rely on Pages are likely to find themselves trapped while working on their first term papers. Exporting their work to Word will normally make their footnotes disappear. Most will end up buying a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac, which will invite a different set of problems.

I was reckless enough to knock out a few short academic papers in Pages, but have since abandoned it. I now think it might have been kinder and more honest of Apple to simply omit footnotes entirely from Pages.

Instructors could make things easier on students by accepting PDFs as an alternative to Word or RTF documents. If the instructors are addicted to Word’s proprietary change tracking system (and there’s no good reason to be), they would still be well advised to make room on their drives for OpenOffice.org and its top-notch handling of non-Microsoft files. (OOo won’t open Pages documents, but in my experience it recovers “lost” footnotes from Pages files that have been exported as Word documents. Neither Word nor Pages itself is as reliable.)

As always, your mileage may vary.

Minor update: Some application icons were removed. More detail about Mellel.

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One thought on “Writing tools for the dissertation

  1. Hey, Rob. Thanks for the shout out. I think using Scrivener for academic works is a great idea. I wish I’d had it (and a Mac for that matter) in grad school. Good luck!

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