Embedded below is a presentation I gave to new research students in the history department at St Andrews.
While introducing some tools that I find useful in my own academic workflow, I hoped to make the general point that using different applications to break up the messy, complex beast that is the research project makes it more manageable.
It is technically feasible to write an entire PhD project using only Word, but no sane person would do this.
By thinking about the disparate tasks that make up research and writing and considering what tool works best for each function, it becomes easier to envision just how you might go about writing a lengthy dissertation.
1) The One Thing
A text editor to write: Ultimately the most important tool is the one that facilitates the transfer of ideas from your brain onto the page. Any text editing program works just fine, and often the simpler the better. Text editor
Managing PDFs: How are you going to read the mountain of text coming your way? I favor PDFs as you can ‘make it your own’ by marking it up with notes and highlights without incurring the wrath of the librarian. (I’ve also written on this here). Skim
3) Note Taking
Capture your thoughts: I’ve disciplined myself into thinking ‘if there aren’t notes, it’s not been read.’ I worry less about how I take notes and more about where they end up: Evernote
4) Capturing Material
Getting your research onto your computer: I’ve taken a camera on all my research trips without any problems. I recommend a stand, multiple batteries, and making sure you keep track of what you’re photographing. (I’ve also written on this here.) Any cheap digital camera
5) Creating a Research Database
Making your research usable: Once your data is captured and backed up on your computer, what next? You need some way to make sense of what you have. I use Devonthink to recreate the archival structure on my computer and have tagged and made notes directly on the primary sources. Devonthink
6) Idea Generation
Coming up with ideas: With your data under control, how to begin asking meaningful questions of it and then providing good answers? Rather than succumb to ‘blank page syndrome‘ in Word, turn instead to mind-mapping and list-making; there’s no such thing as a bad idea at this stage. Freemind
Overcoming ‘blank page syndrome‘: The first draft needs to be about exploring your ideas rather than burdening yourself with the expectation of an immediate ‘perfect draft.’ I use Scrivener, which provides a much more fluid environment for the early stages of writing. Scrivener
Make referencing painless: My other mantra: ‘If it’s not in Zotero, I haven’t found it.’ Keeping your references up to date makes life so much easier when writing later on. Commit early and fully to citation software. Zotero
9) Editing / Formatting
The final task: After drafting in Scrivener, I’ve now moved to Word. When using ‘print view’ the text looks to be at the final stage, which can be intimidating but is also helpful when used at the right time. I find that I read my own writing differently at this point, much more like the end reader might. Don’t move your writing project to this stage before you are ready for it! Word
Getting your research out into the world: Stake out your research space online so that you can build a community around your interests. Don’t feel you need ‘all the answers’ to contribute, asking your research questions publicly is a great place to start. WordPress & Twitter
You have my permisson
You have my permission to spend a couple of weeks getting to grips with the technology that you choose to incorporate into your academic workflow. If you don’t take that time now, at the beginning, when will you?! Good luck with the project The presentation slides are embedded via slideshare: