Five Digital Grad School Tools for Writing I Can’t Live Without

Posted by on Apr 13, 2011 in Dirt, Productivity | 10 Comments

Writing is the most important, and most difficult, part of graduate school. The hardest part, for me, is getting my butt in the chair: unfortunately, there’s no tool that will ever force you into the chair and help you start making “tappity tap” sounds on your keyboard. After I get in the chair to start writing, there are a number of tools that I rely on to make my writing process easier, either with the actual writing, or mitigating the amount of digital distractions that come my way. I am, of course, a Mac user, so many of these apps are restricted to Macintosh computers.

OmniOutliner I am a big fan of Omni everything (OmniFocus is the best GTD app out there), and this is largely due to the fact that they don’t let their apps get bigger then they need to be: most of them do one thing, and they do that thing really, really well. OmniOutliner is very robust, but very simple, outlining software. I have begun to outline everything before I write it, ranging from my dissertation to articles to presentations. There are two things I like about OmniOutliner: the column function and the comment section. Columns allows me to add a row for images that might relate to the outline entry, or that I want to include in a presentation, or to place the citations I want to use for each topic. Comments let me add some personal comments to the item entries. This is helpful if I want to remind myself that I’m unsure about something’s placement in the document, or if there’s a certain tone or phrasing I’d like to include in that section.

Scrivener This is where my writing lives. This program lets you segment your writing project into a number of documents and folders. This helps me stay on task, and set daily goals for myself: instead of viewing my project as “Dissertation” I can view it in much smaller sections. There is so much to Scrivener, that it would take a number of posts to truly explain it, but I would encourage you to visit their site and check out their videos. It was originally developed for fiction writers, but has since been discovered by a whole host of writers across the spectrum. What I like the most is that you can import your research items into it, and write in a split screen: research on one half, documents and notes on the other. Scrivener is one of the best ways to gather information, keep track of notes, and write in an undistracted way that I have discovered so far.

Twitter It is on Twitter that I can receive feedback, encouragement, and motivation from fellow graduate students who are also writing. Finding a supportive community when you’re in the midst of writing something large is important; since I’ve removed myself geographically from my graduate program by moving to Virginia, I’ve lost that group. Twitter is a great way to build my own writing community. I also, on occasion, can cajole a work sprint out of some of my fellow writers online.

Concentrate Of course, while Twitter can be a great place for support, it can also be a great place for distraction. It will provide you with a distraction free workspace on your computer, by automatically opening applications you need, closing ones you don’t, and blocking websites and applications you don’t want open. I also love Freedom, which completely shuts down your network capabilities, and often use the two of them together, using Freedom as one of the apps that opens up automatically. What I like about Concentrate is that I can keep some of my network open, such as Google Scholar, while keeping Facebook blocked. What I also like is that everything is on a clock: I can set it for an hour, take a break when it’s done, and start up again. UPDATE: I just discovered these two scripts, which you can run from within Concentrate. They basically allow you to set up Concentrate to replicate the Pomodoro Technique, doing breaks automatically.

Quicksilver Often while I’m writing, I will get distracted by an idea or something that I need to get done. Typically, capturing these items mean leaving what I’m doing, and moving towards another application to take care of it. Quicksilver allows you to do lots of different actions through your computer, its most basic usage is opening programs, documents, and websites. However, you can also write and export text. Using scripts, I can now capture these distracting ideas, push them to programs I need them to be in, and deal with them later. All without opening any additional programs. For me, To Do items go to OmniFocus (the script is included in OmniFocus, I believe), and other ideas get pushed to Evernote. These then get reviewed weekly. Thanks to Amy Cavender (@Acavender), I just installed another script that will let me send tweets from Quicksilver, meaning I can post those tweets about how frustrating my writing has been without actually opening up Twitter (a deadly move for productivity, as those of you who tweet are fully aware).

Dropbox I know. This is six. But any list of writing tools without mention of Dropbox and backing up is not a worthwhile list. You can read more about Dropbox over here, but it is the best way to quickly and efficiently keep all your hard work backed up.

What are some of your favorite digital writing tools? What do you use to keep yourself on task, keep distractions out, and organize your writing?

Photo: “Writing” by jjpacres on Flickr.

  • http://heckducktales.blogspot.com AshleighHeck

    Excellent post. The way you summarize and simplify these tools to make them pertinent to writers of all kinds is definitely helpful.

    • http://terrypbrock.com Terry Brock

      Glad you enjoyed it! A lot of the tools, such as Scrivener, weren’t even developed with researchers in mind…so their applicability to all kinds of writers are particularly relevant.

  • Anonymous

    Great list. I’ve been using Scrivener for a conference paper and a book chapter and I find it incredibly useful for my borderline-ADD brain. Small chunks of work = good. I’ve been using a Pomodoro timer app on my Mac and my Android phone as well.

    • http://terrypbrock.com Terry Brock

      Concentrate would be good for Pomodoro: you can set it to run for a set amount of time, then it shuts off. I have been on their forum boards trying to get them to make it so you can get it to start up again after 20 minutes, or something…they haven’t bitten yet.

    • http://terrypbrock.com Terry Brock

      Actually, it looks as though someone created some scripts for Concentrate that do just what I was talking about: https://concentrate.tenderapp.com/kb/tips-and-tricks/applescripts-to-auto-concentrate-on-an-activity-when-done

  • Anonymous

    Enormously helpful! Cheers for recommending Concentrate.

  • Anonymous

    Enormously helpful! Cheers for recommending Concentrate.

    • http://terrypbrock.com Terry Brock

      Glad to help! Concentrate is really wonderful, and with those two new scripts that I added (see the UPDATE in the post), it is even better!

  • Anonymous

    Dropbox has changed the way I’ve looked at online drop boxes.

    Really excited to give Scrivener a try!

    • http://terrypbrock.com Terry Brock

      Scrivener is good stuff!