Academic writing workflow for geeks

Warning: This post is about writing not gaming, so you might want to bail here.

At this point in my geek-evolution, I have managed to use just about every widget and tool around. Most of them I’ve concluded are like having a baby rattle on a pram. Ultimately you’re occupied, even happy, but someone is pushing you from A to B.

Now when it comes to creating a workflow for writing, it’s actually quite hard if you’ve been bashing the rattle as long as I have. Which tools to choose, which to ditch. So many choices, so many things I tried and abandoned. Worse still, so many things I used in a basic way, avoiding filling out the details. Live in the pram means wasting crazy amounts of time procrastinating, experimenting and avoiding commitment. A decade of using this stuff requires some degree of conscious remedial effort to get out the pram and walk around again.

The key is to remember this is that writing is about getting from A to B. Yes it’s about grammar and conventions too, but for many students – it’s about A to B. In my case, I’ve got to write this thesis thing, which seems rather dense and complex, and there’s only one way these things get done efficiently.

Everyone is different, by my brain doesn’t work well by starting at A and going to B thinking, so Word is useless to me. Word is a drag on academic writing, and it usually trows up talk of ‘referencing’ using End Note. I hate End Note, it crashes, it’s spawned of DOS and a resource hog in my view. Some people love it. I figure the same people who like to line up for things in shops. I’ve used Diigo and Mendeley for years in serious (and successful) protest.

I like to write using two tools. IA Writer, a bare bones, clean typing machine and Scrivener, which is an organisational powerhouse for writing an non A to B methods. I won’t dwell on Scrivener, plenty have done it already. But as yet, Scrivener and Mendeley are not wired together, which is frustrating. However, the solution (for me) is Papers2 and Scrivener.

I had to bite the bullet, and face up to being the consequences of spending too much time in the pram. I exported all my Mendeley references and notes in BibTex format and imported them into Papers2. I then used the smart keywords gizmo in Papers2 to semi-organise what I had (some clean, some dirty) into rough themes. Next I made folders for related (sort of) papers, cleaning up my tags I went. For example, I’m working on a narrative analysis of New York Times reports about games as networks right now, so I have a folder and keyword tags for that. I can also import my Diigo online-articles into Papers2 using the same process. Yes it’s boring, but it has to be done if I’m ever to walk upright in the sunlight.

The biggest question I had was – how do I insert references as I write. First, let’s assume I’ve cleaned them up (as Mendeley often gets them wrong). In addition, Mendeley’s ‘cite’ function into Word is still slow and clunky. I have to use two programs at the same time – and always fight off Word’s insistence that it knows better about formatting. In my Master’s years, I found OpenOffice to be less irritating with Mendeley, but ultimately the high-lords of academia only speak [doc], so more conversions and ‘save-as’ inconsistencies occurred.

The solution for me has been to use Papers2 double ‘control’ tap cite as you write. As I write in Scrivener, I just double control tap to bring up a gizmo that then lets me insert a reference (as a sort of short code). An example is something like {Seale:2010ip} 

When I’m ready,I can compile it for a format I want (word, pdf, epub) and so on right out of Scrivener. For most people, writing ends up in the infamously over-bloated Word as I’ve said. Using Papers2, all you have to do is tell it Word to compile your exported Scrivener text, and all you’re wonderful references turn into a flat Word [doc]ument.

One key advantage for the writing process is that you can now organise and re-organise ‘pieces’ of writing to different ends (some for blogging, some for journals, chapters and so on) plus be able to compile for many formats. No more A to B writing, no more citation dramas and lost time.

Writing isn’t just about wrangling Word and EndNote. It’s all about workflow. Sync your documents to SkyDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and you have a complete system whereby you have a few ‘source of truth’ files, and an almost endless ‘lab’ for writing on multiple platforms and devices. 


5 thoughts on “Academic writing workflow for geeks

  1. Pingback: Academic writing workflow for geeks | Everything Scrivener

  2. Good Post. Question.. While I have papers2, I use Endnote for citations with Scrivener. One thing that I still need to work on is on the review workflow. What do you do when you receive the word formatted document with comments from your advisor? Do you import into Scrivener?

  3. Hi! Great Post!
    As a theology student, I ended up with exactly the same workflow.
    I really just dislike the formatting-fuckups with word. so after I am done auto-formatting, i just forward it to Pages, to fix all the minor annoyings.

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