As an academic and a writer, I enjoy exploring new software and workflow processes.
Nothing is wrong with using Microsoft Word or Apple Pages; at the end of the day, you just need a reliable set of tools with which to capture and publish thoughts. At the same time, there is so much innovative software out there.
Here are a few tools I have used or use regularly to unlock my imagination and productivity. The tools are organized from Easy to Hard.
- Ease 5/5, Usefulness 3/5: Google Drive (Formerly Google Docs) Google Drive started out as an alternative to Dropbox in that it mirrors itself from your hard drive onto the cloud. (And every file change is auto-synced.) Pretty soon though, the market got crowded in the cloud backup business. So Google added Docs, Sheets, Forms, Slides, and Drawings apps to make the utility indispensable. “Docs” is 10x better than Word or Pages; Sheets is 10x easier and more intuitive than Excel; Slides is 10x simpler and more intuitive than Powerpoint or Keynote, and Drawing is 10x better than “Microsoft Paint”. And all these files are automatically in the cloud. I’ve used Slides, for example, in my philosophy classrooms or conferences across the country and never have to bother with thumb drives or plugging in my own laptop or any of that nonsense. Furthermore, nothing in the Office Suite that I’ve used corresponds to Google Forms, which I’ve used to create surveys for class and for fun. Drive does almost everything I need it to do.
- Scrivener. Ease 3/5, Usefulness, 4/5. Scrivener is the best all-around writing software I know of. It is useful for academic work, fiction, novels, screenplays, you name it. You write in plain text and “compile” (export) to .Docx for further editor or you can compile straight to PDF. Beautiful. It’s $40 and worth $400. The initial pay-out of time spent learning how to make Scrivener go is very slim, maybe a day or two. But I’ve spent years unfolding new discoveries. I’ve written the first two or three drafts of my dissertation in Scrivener and could not have done so without it.
Medium - Markdown
If you are ready to take your writing to the next level, consider Markdown. Markdown allows you to write in plain text but “code” the formatting into the content. For example, a hashtag “#” becomes a heading, and “##” becomes a subtitle, and a word wrapped in asterices becomes italic. The raw text looks like this:
# heading ## sub-heading *italic*
You can learn Markdown basics in about 10 minutes here or here. Why do this? A couple reasons. First, consider how much time you have spent over a lifetime formatting your writing. Whether it’s academic papers, poems, essays, stories, screenplays, web pages, resumes, or anything else, formatting takes forever. The longer the project, the more time is soaked up in formatting. Markdown leverages your time. One minute learning Markdown will save you a hundred hours of future formatting time. Secondly, Markdown “speaks” HTML, PDF, Doc, etc. It was originally designed for web writing, but works for anything. You can write one plain text file and instantly convert it to a beautiful PDF paper or a beautiful website.
Once you learn the basics, you can use some of these Markdown software utilities:
- Ease 2/5, Usefulness 4/5: Texts.io is probably the best Markdown utility I know of since you can do web or paper-based writing. The display is beautiful, clean, minimal plain text with light WYSIWYG mark up. Also, it’s free. The idea here is to code in Markdown, exporting to .docx to clean up or straight to HTML or other formats. For academic papers, with a bit of customizing, you can export straight to PDF. First you create a style sheet, then a bibliography for footnotes, then write your paper. I’m working on a video to explain how to use Texts.io and will post the link here when that’s done.
- Before you try Texts.io, you could try three others: Mou was the original markdown utility. Still simple, light, and customizable. Macdown is a very similar markdown program. I like it a bit better than Mou, but both will help you get your feet wet. The live-preview option is essential to learning the basics. * Dillinger is a nice “online version” of Mou or Markdown. It’s very pared down, but the benefit is you don’t have to download the hefty Macdown to get started. If you write in Markdown, or want to learn, this site is an easy way to instantly preview your Markdown code.
- Ease 1/5, Usefulness 5/5: Sublime Text 3. This is for L33T h@ckerz. It’s like Texts.io but more powerful and more customizable. You can program beautiful academic papers using a mash up of plain text, Markdown syntax, Pandoc (for conversion), PDFLatex for presentation, and Bibdesk for citations. All these programs are free but require some programming competence. Dan Sheffler explains in painful detail how to do this, and some web searches will turn up some helpful information as well. I am working on my own, very simplified written or video instructions, and will post the link when I can. Once you get this workflow down, it is amazing. It makes beautiful, lovely, amazing, awesomely formatted papers. I’m currently writing my dissertation as a plaintext markdown file (AcademicMarkdown syntax) in Sublime Text 3.
- I’m working on a template for formatting philosophy dissertations here.
Other Fun or Useful Utilities
- Word Count Tool. I use this regularly to check wordcount on student paper PDFs.
- Words to pages. This tool is useful when writing for presentations or lectures. It helps you estimate how many pages your paper will be, how long it will take to read or to read outloud. etc.
- Simple Writer. This playful tool from Randall Munroe of xkcd fame helps you write using only the 1000 most common words. A good exercise for testing how well you understand a thing.
(That’s all for now! This post will be periodically updated: first update, July 2016)