Writing Tools

Happy new year! I did entertain the idea of writing on Dec. 31st so that I would have one article for 2015. Alas, it didn’t happen. But I have been writing. Since Oct. 2014 I’ve contributed a chapter for a book and in between moving and having a baby with my partner, I’ve managed to squeeze out a solid third of my dissertation. During the past year I’ve tested many approaches and programs to help me, so perhaps this would be a blog topic to begin 2016, in case you are writing a large document and are considering what software to use.

Here’s a list of what I am currently using, in no particular order. Some are Mac-only but I’ll mention alternatives. Then I will critique the apps I rejected and give reasons why I like the following:

Until last week I was using a different document processor, Lyx, and I really enjoyed it until I upgraded my MacBook’s operating system to El Capitan. (The problem has to do with LyX using a part of the computer’s directory that Apple decided to cordon off, for security reasons, so any program that uses /usr/local/ becomes dysfunctional.) Otherwise I really like Lyx and am grateful to my partner for introducing it to me. I will probably use it still when I create tables, then copy & paste into Texpad, which requires you to hand-code tables, ugh!

(Texpad is for Mac, but Lyx also works on Windows and Linux systems.)

In case you’re wondering, Texpad and Lyx are document processors, not word processors. They use the LaTeX typesetting language to make structured documents (click for more on the original TeX), which is most often used in science and academia. Among other benefits this makes auto-numbering of sections, figures and tables painless no matter how I move things around. Additional (free) packages are also available for various scientific fields that allow one to easily write equations or, in my case, musical harmony symbols. You can whet your appetite at the CTAN website to see what’s on offer.

If I were to use a word processor I would use Nisus Pro but then my reference manager would have to change too, probably to Bookends (both are for Mac), to make the transition less like rubbing my face against a brick wall. In general I prefer commercial apps that save in open source format, that way I get a good user interface and my data is safe in the long-term, being accessible and not encrypted in a company’s binary format, in case I ever switch programs.

I tried a few reference managers but settled on BibDesk. (For Mac, but JabRef might is probably the equivalent for Windows and Linux users, also avail. for Mac.) It’s simple and it saves as a bibtex file, integrating with Lyx or Texpad. I tried ColWiz but it broke a library for a very important music program which I use often (Scala). Zotero has a handy button for your browser, but it’s too tempting to simply press the button and not check if your reference is properly saved and organized. There were others that I tried, Papers and something else, but BibDesk gets the job done without also trying to be the best article browser and pdf reader/highlighter.

Speaking of pdf readers I use Apple’s default Preview. I don’t make notes here (see next paragraph). I had tried something else but the notes that I actually made would not copy & paste or otherwise transfer satisfyingly to my writing software.

I may as well mention DevonThink too. The most exciting feature of this pdf organizer was its auto-sorting, supposedly using artificial intelligence to build a concordance. Then you can see which words are most frequent. Guess which word comes up most often in all of my pdfs: “The”. The first fifty to a hundred words are ubiquitous and useless, then there’s a wide grey area before your topic-specific words start coming up, but so what? And the auto-sort feature was dumb: it sorted my pdfs based on their cover page so, e.g., all the articles from JSTOR were put into the same folder, no matter what their subjects were. It’s a big program, so maybe I’ll try it again. Mac only, but for Windows there’s a lot of buzz for Microsoft OneNote, which would also do the job mentioned in the next paragraph.

For note-taking I use Circus Ponies Notebook (CPN). It’s for Mac only but Windows users can try EverNote or OneNote, they are very good. I was really averse to trying something with such a silly name and logo but I instantly liked Circus Ponies and use it often (and, yes, you can change the cute cover picture to something else). It has a strong indexing feature and a way to make links between disparate texts. Basically I make a page for each article and then write an annotated bibliography. This way I have a record of what I’ve read, with page numbers so I can find the original text easily, something general enough to jog my memory and be useful for any future writing or presenting endeavour.

Before CPN I was using Scrivener, but over a year or so my document got out of control, growing in all directions. I still love Scrivener and will use it for other things, as an idea- or note-taking assistant. In the end, however, I couldn’t really export my text to a robust processor, and to be fair Scrivener doesn’t claim to be a word processor. I even tried writing in Multimarkdown style to make the transition to LaTeX easier, but it never quite worked and all the preambling with supplementary files and classes was an eternal headache without resolution. I finally asked, Why bother? This was when my partner urged me to write straight into Lyx. I’ll conclude by saying that Scrivener’s word count feature, broken up into chapters and sections as I organized my dissertation, was a great motivator. The progress bars allowed me to see how much I had written for each chunk, and that put my mind at ease. Also a delight was its index card sorting ability which really helped me organize the sections and subsections of my work. I will continue to use Scrivener with joy but on other, newer projects. (For Mac and Windows)

I had read often of a classic technique for the literature review, of making a literature matrix, so finally I tried one and never looked back. Using any spreadsheet (I prefer OpenOffice over LibreOffice) all one has to do is make rows and columns of articles and topics, then fill in the intersecting boxes with the author’s info and your reactions. I list articles down the left column, by (lead) author’s name, and use the top row for about 15 topics found within the articles that are relevant to my own research. So, rows are topics within each article and columns are articles that touch on each topic. Cells are short descriptions (with page numbers!) and my thoughts on the matter, connections to other cells etc. I read article by article (INPUT) but, later, write topic by topic (OUTPUT), gathered into groups. Lit review: done.

To complete my arsenal I need to use something specific to my field, a music notation program. For composition work my weapon of choice is Finale but I’ve collected many gripes and I am entitled to criticize it after being a solid user for over a decade. Once again my partner urged me to try something different, MuseScore. I’m starting simply, just a few bars of one to three staves to make musical examples for my dissertation. I can drop them in as PNG files (though I would prefer getting Lyx or Texpad to recognize MuseScore’s SVG files), then label and reference these as figures in my document. MuseScore is open-source but is quite easy to use. I haven’t tried it yet on an ensemble piece with individual extracted parts, but the big attraction for me was the microtonal notation and very handsome output.

Nothing else to report. I always have a little paper notebook in my bag or pocket but, to be honest, though I often scribble down thoughts that come to me when I’m out & about (a co-worker once asked me if I was graphomanic) I seem to rarely transfer these jottings to where they would be useful, i.e. into CP Notebook, Scrivener or wherever. Instead the little notebooks fill up and inevitably crawl to the back of a drawer, only to be unearthed months later with, “Oh yeah! I meant to do something with that” exclamations.


About th

musician, thespian
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