Technology is not required for large-scale writing projects, but can be time- and labor-saving once a “best-of-class” suite is built. As I am particular about my tools, it has taken me some time to assemble the packages below. It is my hope that this list is helpful and saves you time; if there are technologies or products germane to dissertation and academic writing that I have missed, please let me know in the comments!

There are two tasks involved in a dissertation or any other large-scale writing project: the writing itself, and the meta-task of managing the writing.

The Apple OS X platform seems better suited, between it and Microsoft Windows, for the task of writing insofar as end-tools are concerned. However, as I run both Windows and OS X, and as I have collaborators who use both these operating systems, I use tools from both, as well as platform-agnostic tools.

Managing the text itself entails making backups and, for me, creating a cogent version control system (VCS). It is easiest to think of a VCS as an electronic paper-trail that you can revert to at any given time. Having a VCS means that I can “go back” to previous versions of the text, and also that I can continue working while the text is being reviewed. It does, however, create another two steps in the document workflow, but I am convinced that these two steps will pay big dividends as the checkin (commit) comments will give me insight into which text was changed, and why.

My Configuration

I use an Apple OS X Mountain Lion machine using Mendeley for citation management (hopefully I’ll switch to Sente soon), Scrivener for writing, and TimeMachine and Dropbox for on- and off-site backups, respectively. F.Lux helps me work at night without blinding myself–I do not conduct color-sensitive work, so this is a good option. Time Out helps with RSI and eyestrain, as I’m pretty bad at scheduling computer breaks for myself. I [try to] use the GTD method (assisted by OmniFocus [OS X only]) to schedule tasks, and the Pomodoro technique for finishing them. As I am writing my own software for the dissertation, I use WebStorm and Sublime Text 2 for writing code. Grammarian PRO X alerts me when I do something stupid in late-night writing spurts. I have attached an image of my Research Tools folder below:


Tools for storing and organizing references:

  • Dropbox (sign up here for more space): Provides synchronized cloud-based file storage space. This space may be accessed by any machine with a web browser, and folders may be shared with collaborators
  • Sente [OS X only]: A citation manager that also allows for in-PDF annotations, hierarchical tagging, bibliography generation, and cloud-based synchronization.
  • Mendeley [Cross-platform]: Provides a central repository for scholarly articles and citation management
  • Zotero [Cross-platform; Firefox plugin]: Eclipsed by Mendeley in terms of citation management
Writing and typesetting manuscripts:
  • LyX [Windows only]: A LaTeX-like document processor that shifts focus from formatting to content, and renders to PDF, HTML, and other files.
  • LaTeX [OS X, Windows, *NIX]: A typesetting system that permits exact rendering of content. I like LaTeX, I really do, but I make no claim of mastery. ScribTeX looks like a useful collaborative tool. Unfortunately, in the behavioral sciences, we don’t work in LaTeX so I must instead publish to Microsoft Word.
  • Scrivener [OS X & Windows]: A document processor with builds for both Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X. The OS X version came first and is superior.
Ergonomic & RSI-preventing software:
  • EyeLeo [Windows only]: Decreases eyestrain by presenting eye exercises and leading a user through them.
  • F.Lux [OS X & Windows]: Makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day. This is great for late-night sessions, as late-night exposure to blue-white light makes it difficult to sleep.
  • WorkRave [Windows only]: Assists in the recovery and prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).
  • Time Out [OS X only]: Helps you to schedule breaks away from the computer.
Backup & Version Control Tools:
  • I use SVN (about to transition to GIT) for version control
  • I use Dropbox and TimeMachine for file backup
Tracking time:
Document Workflow
  1. Check-in the latest version of the manuscript to SVN
  2. Manuscript conversion to MS Word
  3. Revised MS Word (files or hard-copy) comments come back to me
  4. Revisions addressed and put back into Scrivener/LyX/LaTeX
  5. New manuscript (with appropriate changes made) checked-in to SVN and merged with any incremental additions I have made in the interim

2 thoughts on “Technology

  1. Pingback: In search of a better tool… | PhDammit

  2. Pingback: About Last Night… | Slug No More

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