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Academic publishing query letters: should you bother? by Joanna Hare
D-41-notes

Joanna Hare is currently a Subject Librarian at City University of Hong Kong. As a research-practitioner, Joanna’s interests include information and digital literacy, research support for Humanities and the Arts, and innovative models of customer service. She continues Dave Hare’s series blog posts in the AcWriMo 2016 series.

dave_3_1As a librarian, I often attend presentations by representatives of academic publishers about ‘how to get published.’ These usually cover broad, basic advice like checking the journal’s scope before making a submission and using the correct academic style. One thing that is mentioned is to ‘pitch’ your article to the editor directly via a query letter. Book authors use query letters and academics can use them too. These letters typically include a brief (usually one to two paragraphs) synopsis of your academic writing, which is then sent to the journal’s editor asking if it is something they might publish. You can see a sample here.

Query letters are work. Thinking about them prompted me to reflect on whether they are actually worth the effort and if the letters actually do lead to higher publication rates. To find out, I contacted the editors of a few of the highest ranked Communication journals according to the Scimago Journal Rankings (SJR) and asked them about their thoughts on query letters:  

Steve Jones, editor of New Media and Society, does not mind receiving query letters. However, he makes it clear that he ‘cannot “pre-review” manuscripts on the basis of a query, which is something writers often seem to want’. Jones adds that ‘there is no advantage to sending a query letter, ultimately, unless an author is truly uncertain about whether a manuscript’s topic is or isn’t a fit with the journal.’

Jonathon Hess, editor of Communication Education, is ‘happy to get letters from people who are familiar with the journal… and are asking about specifics that couldn’t be answered by looking online.  But general emails pitching papers for which it’s clear the author has no familiarity with the journal aren’t a good use of my time.’ Hess goes on to say that if after reading the journal’s scope statement the author is still unsure if their work is suitable, he would ‘prefer that she or he just submit the article rather than sending an inquiry.  It’s much easier for me to see the paper and offer a clear response than to try to guess based on a description. I screen most submissions within a week, so authors will find out promptly if the paper doesn’t fit or isn’t strong enough for review.’

Tuen A. van Dijk, editor of Discourse Studies, says he does not receive query letters that often, which is perhaps due to his journal’s practice of pre-review: ‘prospective authors get an automatic reply when they submit a paper, in which they are asked to pre-review their own paper on the basis of very detailed criteria of the journals… so they already know what kinds of paper we publish or not.’

Rasmus Nielsen, editor of The International Journal of Press/Politics (IJPP), says ‘the majority of the query letters I receive are not very helpful, because they either (a) reflect that the author has not actually read the journal, or just consulted our aim and scope or (b) is trying to flog a sub-standard manuscript. A minority of query letters are interesting and useful for me, but in that case almost always reflect the fact that the author already knows that a given manuscript may not be a good fit for IJPP.’ ’

So, what should you do?

It is clear from these responses that if you only do one thing before reaching out to an editor prior to submitting your article it is:

Read the journal’s aims and scope first!

An editor’s receptiveness to a query letter has a lot to do with personal preference, with most stating that they do not mind receiving letters. However, it is critical that you demonstrate that you have an understanding of what the journal is about. You can make this clear in your letter (for example, ‘I have read your journal’s aims and scope and my work fits these guidelines for reasons A, B and C’).

If you are not already very familiar with the journal you are submitting to, I would recommend going further than reading the aims and scope to reading several of the articles published in the journal. This will give you an idea of the writing style and topics covered, and how your article would fit in an overall volume. Referring to specific articles in your email to the editor is also evidence that you are familiar with the journal and committed to publishing with them.

A caveat: in my experience it can be worth reaching out to the editor for advice on writing an article if they are producing a ‘special edition’ of the journal, such as a special topic or an edition dedicated to a recent conference. The scope and type of article accepted for special editions may be slightly different and the editor might be able to guide you in a direction that is more likely to lead to publication. But of course, check the website to make sure this information isn’t already easily available!

Thank you to the editors who provided valuable advice for this post.

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A simple start to a publishing strategy: journal lists by Dave Hare
D-41-notes

Dave Hare is currently a part-time lecturer at City University of Hong Kong. His research work concerns film studies, specifically contemporary cinema stereoscopy. This is his second blog post in the AcWriMo 2016 series.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14594792869/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14594792869/

So, following last week’s post, you’ve decided to use AcWriMo to finalise and submit your work to a journal. The next thing to do, according to almost every academic blog ever, is to create a ‘publishing strategy’ or ‘publishing agenda’. You can read about strategies and agendas here, here, here, here, here and here, and also here (and basically everywhere else*).

Publishing strategies don’t always come about in the prescribed way. For me, it was made clear in a job rejection email that I wasn’t being considered for a position because I didn’t have enough Arts & Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI) and Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) publications. I knew that I needed more work published, but I applied for the job anyway and (Surprise) got rejected. The upside of that downside was that I got specific feedback on how to shape my publishing strategy: to look to journal ranking lists, which university departments obviously use to gauge job candidates (as well as a bunch of other stuff, as in exchange knowledge, apply for funding grants, evaluate staff performance, build careers etc.).

There are issues, however, with this type of publication strategy. Tseen Khoo, one half of The Research Whisperer blog team, discussed a few of these issues in a post back in 2014. She concluded the post with the thought that ‘you may still end up “publishing to appease” every so often, but don’t let it be your life’; which is to say there are particular times to focus your attention on journals that others favour. For me, given the response to my job application, the time is now.

For the uninitiated, journal ranking lists are LONG. The A&HCI, for example, is almost 200 titles across multiple fields of study. So, you need to start by filtering out irrelevant titles. A friendly academic librarian can help you with this task; I know, because one helped me. Here is a summary of that librarian’s advice:

  • Step one: Create a spreadsheet to list the journal titles you are going to target for your publications. The spreadsheet should include all the relevant information about the journals you plan to target, such as the name, links to the Aims and Scope, recommended article word counts and a ‘Notes/Comments’ column for any extra details about the vibe of the journal.
  • Step two: Skim the title lists to identify titles relevant to your field. My field is contemporary cinematic stereoscopy, so keeping my outlook broad I selected any titles that seemed to be about film or media studies, as my work spans both aesthetic and industrial aspects of contemporary cinematic stereoscopy.
  • Step three: As you find a title that seems relevant, visit the journal website and find their ‘Aims and Scopeinformation. This should tell you if your work will fit in the existing scope of the journal. Add any titles that seem promising to your spreadsheet. At this stage be prepared to be both disappointed and surprised: you may find that the well-regarded journal you were hoping to publish in is actually not ideal, while the scope of journals you are less familiar with might end up being the perfect fit.
  • Step four (optional): Email the editor/s of the journal/s and ask if your work sounds appropriate for their publication (more on query letters in the coming weeks). Suffice to say this email should be short and to the point, with a brief description of your work. A typical response to this email will (1) note that your work is interesting and (2) that you should submit it for consideration, providing that (3) you have followed the journal’s style guide. It may not provide too much information, but it might just help you decide which journal you’ll submit to first.

After following these steps, my list included about 25 relevant journals, five of which stood out as being clear targets. In addition to these, I also included journals that might be useful for future research. Now, I am ready to get on with the task of editing, re-writing, and proofreading. A quick note for those AcWriMo-journal-writing peeps that already have a publishing strategy: Your target journals may have posted a recent call for papers, redefined their aims or have a new editorial board. A quick check to see if journals have changed is a good idea before settling down to write.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3903230097/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3903230097/

Forming a publishing strategy (or agenda), conducting research into a journal index, and creating lists, all count toward your AcWriMo success as well as the goal of journal article publication. If you’re doing these tasks, please share your experiences on Twitter and Facebook using the AcWriMo hashtag.

*because the interwebs is loaded with academic blogs talking about strategies … including this one.

Writing a book, not a dissertation by Astrid Bracke
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astridAstrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the first of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

So you want to write a book. Perhaps there’s an idea that you want to explore and didn’t get round to in your dissertation, or you’re ready to go into a wholly different direction. Or you feel you have to write a book to get the right job, or have a better chance at funding money. A few years ago I wrote on writing a book proposal. This series is about writing the book, from start to finish.

In this first post, I discuss how writing a book is different from writing a dissertation.

Most importantly, writing a book is a much more solitary endeavour. While getting your PhD you wrote under supervision. The meetings with my supervisor were a way for me to check whether I was on the right path and to discuss my ideas. Not working in such a framework can be a real relief to many. Perhaps you fundamentally disagreed with your supervisor, or felt tied to departmental themes. Writing a book frees you from all that: it’s your book and your choices. This can be paralyzing at times, and even lonely.

It also means that getting feedback on your work requires more initiative. And where first you might have gotten the feeling that at least you were accountable to someone (your supervisor), now you’re not really accountable to anyone but yourself. If your book is under contract with a publisher you’ve got a deadline, but that’s not quite the same thing. They might check in with you, but a supervisory relationship, for good or for bad, doesn’t exist.

There’s a few ways in which you can create a supportive environment for yourself while writing a book. The first is to use your network to get feedback – or to expand your network. I drew up a list of scholars who were working on themes related to my book and asked them for feedback on individual chapters. I already knew these people: I’d talked to them about my project at conferences, had provided feedback on their work or published in special issues they edited.

Yet even if you don’t already personally know them, scholars are generally happy to help. There might be someone whose work you use a lot, or who gave an interesting paper at a conference that ties in with your research. Indeed conferences are great places to ask people whether they’d be willing to read your work. Whether you know them or not, it’s important to be clear on your expectations: with the exception of one scholar whom I know well, I never requested feedback on more than one chapter, asked people to reply by a certain date and offered to repay the favour (and of course thanked them again in my acknowledgements).

Conferences are also a great way to create the accountability that is lacking when you’re no longer a PhD student. Use conference papers not only to try out your ideas, but also to make sure that you finish certain chapters by a certain date. The added benefit is that you’re likely to get useful feedback.

Another way of creating accountability and alleviating the possible loneliness of writing a book is by looking for writing buddies. For a while a friend and I would agree to send each other (parts of) chapters and articles. We’d set a clear deadline and meet for coffee that day. We wouldn’t necessarily read each other’s work, but making the promise to be done with something by a certain date did stimulate us. And discussing our work over coffee was often inspiring. You may even get together with a group of colleagues, or join a MeetUp group of academics. Sharing your deadlines with others and having the chance to talk about the writing process provides some of the structures that being a PhD student, often surrounded by other PhD students, offered.

I was really surprised about the time it took me to write the book, compared to writing the dissertation. Writing the book took me about a year, working on average one day a week, versus around three years nearly full time for the dissertation. The reason why it took so much less time is, I think, because writing a dissertation is much more about the process and about learning the ropes.

This is also the final difference between a dissertation and a book. A dissertation is what in the traditional guild-system would be the product of an apprenticeship. In the dissertation you demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about the area you’re working in and that you’ve read (almost) everything. In a book, many of these concerns do not apply. If in writing the dissertation you have to prove that you’re worthy of being part of a scholarly community, in writing the book you show that you are.

In my next posts I’ll write more about the process of writing a book from start to finish, from planning the work to communicating with the publisher.

Quantity or Quality (or Both)? Defining your goals for AcWriMo by Dave Hare
D-41-notes

Dave Hare is currently a part-time lecturer at City University of Hong Kong. His research work concerns film studies, specifically contemporary cinema stereoscopy. This is the first of a series of blog posts for AcWriMo 2016 by Dave Hare.

START

By now, you’ll be aware that AcWriMo is an event that encourages different forms of productive changes. The reference to ‘write-a-thon’ on the AcWriMo about page dek will lead many participants to focus on quantity, or ways that they can produce more written words. Larry Burton’s account of a corresponding write-a-thon event (NaNoWriMo) primarily talks about this form of change. He writes, ‘the important thing at the end of November was that … I had pages and pages of words just waiting on me to massage them and reshape them’. In his case, the completed draft paper was an achievement that reinforced the benefits of his new quantity-based process and routine. This change will work for some, but if you’re like me, you don’t actually need to produce more words; in fact more (mo) words are probably going to lead to more (mo) problems. In my case, I’ve got an entire PhD thesis to shape into publishable articles and I’ve got an article that has previously been declined that needs editing attention. Quantity isn’t a motivating force for the changes that AcWriMo can help me with: quality is (a fact that happily aligns my role as PhD2Published Journal Articles section editor with my current situation as an under-published academic looking for work). My point is to approach AcWriMo bearing in mind the changes in your academic work that you’d like to make.

Keep Your Promise

(Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1917). #467. Telling the folks about France. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-08c6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

So, if you’re like me, November work will mainly concern massaging and reshaping words for specific publications; what Raymond Chandler calls cleaning up (‘Throw up on your typewriter every morning. Clean it up every noon’). The blog and Journal section already have a number of excellent posts relating to cleaning up. For example, the final four posts of Ellie Mackin’s series on Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks might provide the exact information you need. They cover feedback (Week 9), writing clarity and argument revision (Week 10 and 11), and polishing (Week 12), which are all necessary parts of the cleaning up process. The posts (and Belcher’s chapters) all sit satisfyingly (like) into the AcWriMo event’s one month schedule (first week, ‘Giving, Getting and Using Others’ Feedback’; second week, ‘Editing Your Sentences’; third week, ‘Wrapping Up Your Article’; and, fourth week, ‘Sending Your Article!’).

Alternatively, you might prefer throwing up and cleaning up (as Chandler did). In that case, Allan Johnson’s PhD2Published post, ‘Writing the Second Book – Week 1’ describes a mixed approach: a daily blend of drafting and rewriting work. The benefit of this mix is illustrated by the fact that Johnson overcame writing work that he says had been dragging on. His major change, which occurred at around AcWriMo 2015, was mostly to do with the energy he spent on this work, specifically Johnson says he learnt to better manage his energy output rather than management of time and this resulted in greater work output and better work practice (note: the work Johnson cites is his soon to be published second book, The Fisher King’s Wound: Sequence, Consequence and a Sense of the Beginning, 1919-1945).

Finally, I want to suggest collaborating with a work friend or colleague during AcWriMo. This collaborative work would be taken up in addition to AcWriMo’s support network of writers, and would aim to change the way you work via processes of negotiation and compromise. In this case, Charlotte Frost and Jesse Strommel’s post, ‘Collaborative and Public Writing Techniques for Google Docs’, discusses processes of collaboration that involve the document (spreadsheets, word docs, presentations) sharing program, Google Docs. Collaboration, they say, provides a range of benefits to workers (including accountability, camaraderie, instant proof-reading and peer-review, less work, progression, and socialising). So, if you haven’t collaborated on a project before, maybe November is a good time to test it out.

The point is to consider how AcWriMo can benefit your work process and situation, whether that means writing more (as in Burton’s case); editing and re-writing more (as in my case); a combination of drafting and re-writing (as in Johnshon’s case); or collaboration. AcWriMo provides a forum to test out new and/or different ideas and processes.

Skeleton

November is nearly here and the write-a-thon awaits, so get to thinking! (the alternative is a ye old timey skeleton holding a whaling spear will appear in your room and threaten to skewer you).

Are you ready for AcWriMo 2016?
oprah-phdometer

As we approach the end of October, it’s time to get ready for Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), the month-long academic write-a-thon that happens every November. If you are new to AcWriMo, or if you wish to refresh your memory on the AcWriMo rules, read this page.

oprah-phdometer

Don’t forget to download the all new PhDometer 3.0 app to participate in AcWriMo 2106, track your progress, and share with the global #AcWriMo community! See you on the leaderboard soon!

 

My Love Affair with Mendeley or How Mendeley Is Basically My Brain – Part 3 by Minka Stoyanova
minka 2

minka 2A revolutionary optimist and expert procrastinator, Minka Stoyanova subscribes to Wheaton’s Law, believes that brie and red wine will solve most of life’s problems and likes to pretend she is working towards a PhD at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media.

 

 

 

 

WHAT’S WRONG WITH MENDELEY — and how to get around it.

minka 9

Mendeley is by far the best research management tool I have found to date, however there are some aspects of its complete research suite that some users might find challenging.

THE CONS

PDFs

Everything I have mentioned works best for pdfs and can have limited or no functionality for other file types. This means that users might have to convert documents, particularly e-reader formats to pdf in order to reap the full benefits of Mendeley (I find Adobe Acrobat and Calibre to be powerful conversion tools).  

OCR

Additionally, Mendeley has no integrated OCR functionality, so image pdfs (such as scanned book chapters) should be run through an OCR tool (like Adobe Acrobat) before being added to the Mendeley library or the document content will likely not be catalogued by Mendeley’s crawlers.  

DUPLICATION

If users want direct access (i.e. not through Mendeley) to their files through cloud servers, but also want Mendeley on any one of their devices to import documents via the “watch folder,” duplicate documents will be created in the Mendeley database.  This is because each device recognizes the new content in the watch folder as new, to that device — and thus adds the content to the Mendeley library. As a fix for this, Mendeley does include a powerful tool for merging duplicate documents, but some users might find the process annoying and/or time consuming.  

SYNC

Sync, sync, and sync again.  Mendeley only automatically syncs libraries upon opening the application. Thus, if one is apt to regularly switch between devices it is prudent to regularly sync Mendeley’s library manually – or at least to do so at the end of each Mendeley session.  

ANNOTATIONS

The greatest complaint I have regarding Mendeley’s functionality is that annotations made within the body of the text (sticky notes) are not included in the document “notes” section and thus are not included in Mendeley’s search function.  These annotations can be exported along with the highlighted text and attached to the document through the Mendeley library, but this does create an extra (and seemingly unnecessary) step in the reading-to-access workflow.

FINALLY…

Despite its small annoyances, Mendeley’s integration of robust library features and e-reading capabilities make it a solid option for researchers looking to pull together many different perspectives and to discover the nuanced connections that can emerge from a large body of text.  

minka 10

[see you at the beach]

Meeting Scrivener – Part 4: What No Tool Can Do by Dana Ray
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2136923757_3fef83563b_oWriter. Dancer. Tea Drinker. Idea Wrangler. See more of Dana’s work and writing at www.danamray.com

Congratulations! You are just a few days from the end of Academic Writing Month. It has been a remarkable amount of work and effort. Perhaps you made all your goals. I have a confession: I struggle to meet goals. Rarely do I set a word or page count to meet and then actually follow through. Sometimes, that makes me feel like a failure. But the process profoundly challenges me to push into new terrain in the composition and drafting processes. My writing can improve trying to meet new goals even when I fail to meet them; trying to run a mile helps even if we huff and puff and walk most of the way.

Often, it is the process itself that is illuminated and gives the best take-aways from a month like AcWriMo. My words might be weak on the page but I have learned new skills and tools to keep pushing forward with writing.

Trying Scrivener has been a useful lens on my writing process in a deeper way that I had reason to consider before. Years of using Microsoft Word make the first drafting steps seem familiar. Familiarity can trigger all the old habits and hang-ups and anxieties before the first word is even in the document. There are things that a new, shiny tool cannot solve: drafting aversion, anxieties, stress shut downs, revision nightmares, etc. Fundamentally, Scrivener cannot solve the person demons and hang ups that we each carry into the lonely process of drafting. But Scrivener, or other alternative writing tools, can thwart what we expect in the first writing moments. With an altered first step, we have the chance for a new outcome.

Scrivener, as a new and unfamiliar writing space, made it easy for me to notice some of my quirks, like the myriad of ways I dart to distraction instead of drafting. Writing can be an anxious process for me. I have had to face my fears about writing in a new way than I had before. I have had to face the things that prevent me from sitting down and getting the work done.

In conclusion, Scrivener did not become my new best friend. But any new tool, if we give it the chance, can jolt us out of our detrimental habits. New tools can shine a little light on the more miserable parts of our inner academic world, the difficult places where the shiny ideas and associations that got us into scholarship are not as alluring as they once were. Recognition is the first step toward addressing the far more difficult inner work that a new tool cannot ever solve. Tools are only as useful as we make them. It takes time and discernment and some messing around (and the Longest Tutorial) to figure out what works for us.

I raise a glass to you for your hard work! To Scrivener! To our tools old and new and to all the light they shine!

 

Summary of my favorite parts of Scrivener:

  • Pin board. The ability to shift sections of text around in the document by looking at the note card visual of a project.
  • Zen mode. Cut the distractions and get ‘er done.
  • Integrating media with the writing process.
  • Words not pages. Okay, truth be told, I hated this because the pages make me feel like I got somewhere instead of infinite incompleteness. But shifting my measure of success really impacted my conception of the writing process.
  • Potential for creative and scholarly work existing in the same project board.

Writing the Second Book—Week 4 by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book

Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing habits and systems.

During AcWriMo 2015 I have been sharing some of my observations on managing large-scale writing projects such as books, observations which have grown largely out of the initially difficult transition I faced between finishing my first book and then moving on to the second.  In previous weeks I have written about managing the different forms of energy required in a large-scale project and measuring and evaluating progress.  This week I will be rounding things off with a summary of my weekly review process, which ties together each of the elements I use in project management and helps keep the whole system running smoothly.

My own weekly review is based partially on David Allen’s GTD Weekly Review, but has been adapted heavily and transformed as I began to explore the specific requirements of advanced long-form academic writing.  I have set up each of the following tasks as scheduled tasks in Things, where they appear each Friday to make sure that I keep on track.  Although there are several other steps in my weekly review related specifically to teaching and administration, below are the elements related directly to my research, which, anyway, forms the bulk of my weekly review.

Process Evernote Inbox: I have been a committed Evernote user for years (and am, indeed, the Evernote Higher Education Ambassador), so all of my devices, browsers, and RSS readers have been set up to easily send notes to Evernote.  By the end of the week, my Evernote Inbox will have a number of articles, websites, book reviews, or blog postings that may or may not be related to my research at hand.  I first scan through my Evernote Inbox and assign relevant tags as necessary and if any particular note will need further attention for my research project, I create a task in Things to remind me to do that next week.

Review Projects and Yearly Planning Calendar: After processing my Evernote Inbox, I move to my projects currently underway and my yearly planning calendar which organises all writing tasks for the year.  By measuring and evaluating progress of my work during the week I am able to assess if I am still up to date with my plans for the year and can make changes as necessary.

Review Upcoming Tasks: I make a great effort to update iCal throughout the week so that I have a good record of precisely how much time I spent on various tasks, rather than just a reminder of how much time I had planned to spend.  Reviewing the past week can provide good insight into the rise and fall of energy levels, and may suggest the need for reassessing writing and research plans for the coming week.  This might create additional tasks to add to Things such as a trip to the library on Monday morning for secondary sources, or requesting a particular article not available through my library’s databases.

Process Things Inbox: By this point in my weekly review, my Things inbox has accumulated quite a few new tasks.  Many of these might not be ‘tasks’ at all, but really events that can be scheduled in iCal (for example, a library visit is an event rather than a task because it can be scheduled for a specific time).  Once I have scheduled all events in iCal, I then move to the remaining tasks, which I tag as necessary and advance through Things in a typical GTD task-management process.

Review Upcoming Week: My calendar for the coming week will by this point be quickly filling up with repeating events (e.g. classes, department meetings) and newly scheduled events.  Now is the time that I can move around and adjust sessions for drafting and rewriting—I have already set this week as weekly repeating events, so now it is just a matter of moving them to where they best fit in my schedule.

Review Future Objectives: I always like to end my weekly review (and, thus, my Friday afternoon) with a brief review of my future goals and objectives, such as plans for a new article or ideas for a conference presentation.  I keep these as tasks in the Someday folder in Things, and it is always useful to review my new steps and to keep these in mind as I move forward into the following week.

My Love Affair with Mendeley or How Mendeley Is Basically My Brain – Part 2 by Minka Stoyanova
minka 2


minka 2A revolutionary optimist and expert procrastinator, Minka Stoyanova subscribes to Wheaton’s Law, believes that brie and red wine will solve most of life’s problems and likes to pretend she is working towards a PhD at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media.

 

Last time on Minka Talks About Mendeley

I suggested what I believe to be the two greatest challenges facing academic researchers:

1.  Going Digital: Freeing oneself from the paper prison..

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2.  Actually Knowing Things.

minka 4

 

MENDELEY THE LIBRARY INTERFACE

When I first encountered Mendeley upon starting my PhD, I was immediately excited by its potential to overcome both of these challenges.  However, at that time, it’s lack of a mobile application (for Android) forestalled its ability to truly allow me to “go digital” — as I believe reading is an activity best completed away from one’s desk. But, even without on-the-go reading support, Mendeley’s library interface proved a powerful tool towards solving the second academic challenge: knowing (or more correctly — remembering).

Mendeley’s library interface is not unlike its similar open source alternative Calibre. Though, the design is (in my opinion) a bit more clean and academic.

[I don’t need no stinking hearts!! wait, maybe I do]

Furthermore, I find the interface and the functionality to be more intuitive in Mendeley than in Calibre. Thus, while Calibre’s large library of open source expansions/plugins probably make it the more powerful digital library, Mendeley’s ease of use and ease of setup makes it the superior library manager for me. After all, time spent learning software is time not spent reading papers!

Screenshot (164)

[Because even academics need time for the beach]

[Calibre is still a powerful conversion and publishing tool, and is the most convenient way to strip DRM and convert proprietary reader formats to alternative formats… if I were to do such things — DRM Buster, pirate ship]

Another key feature of Mendeley’s library is that Mendeley allows users to attach external documents to their original documents.  In this way, notes exported from other readers, external notes documents as well as other papers or reviews can be associated with a given library document. Thus, each document in a Mendeley library can encapsulate and make accessible the entire milieu of personal research a user has completed around a given text.  

In support of my personal research methodology however, Mendeley’s real potential arises from the powerful integration of three basic library features. The three features behind Mendeley’s power are: watch folders, flexible organization options, and its comprehensive and powerful search tool.

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[all of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips; itty bitty interface!]

WATCH FOLDER

Mendeley’s watch folder function streamlines the research process by automatically importing and analyzing new files. Once a user sets up a watch folder (which can be any folder(s) on the user’s computer), any documents added to that folder are detected and automatically imported into the Mendeley library. Thus, when I am collecting research texts, I need only dump them in a single (completely unordered) folder and they automatically appear in my Mendeley library.

ORGANIZATIONAL FLEXIBILITY

This functionality merges perfectly with Mendeley’s second great library feature, its organizational flexibility. Mendeley allows users to organize their content in a variety of ways including: by tags, in folders, or through citation data or other document metadata. Mendeley’s approach to documents as database objects — which allows objects to hold multiple tags or appear in multiple folders/subfolders — empowers users to rapidly create nuanced lists of subject-specific content without having to build completely new and cumbersome operating-system-based file plans.

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[I just spent all week organizing my documents — I am totally ready to research now!]

 

POWERFUL SEARCH FUNCTION

While the ability to create flexible file systems is likely the most basic function of any library application, Mendeley’s powerful internal search engine provides the real functionality that makes the organizational system shine. Mendeley searches access all of documents’ metadata (citation information) as well as text content, and user notes. As a result, a simple keyword search within one’s own library can quickly create highly nuanced document lists that reveal not only connections within the document’s content but also within the user’s notes on those documents. This kind of search tool — that goes deep into the content of the documents as well as any notes or other documents attached to them — allows users to make the kind of cross-document, cross-authorial connections that would normally require an extremely deep understanding of a large number of scholars and texts. 

 

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[I require all the papers that are about referencing underwater basket weaving … ven diagram!]

[Thus, Mendeley is basically my brain.]

[crystal ball: Oh great Mendeley… tell me what I thought in 2012]

 

MENDELEY, THE E-READER

All of the above-mentioned functionality had already made Mendeley an important part of my research system before June of this year. But, despite my regular use of Mendeley’s library function, I was still anxiously awaiting the release of their Android mobile application. The desktop e-reader is a solid interface with a simple but effective system for note-taking, highlighting, and annotating texts. However, without the ability to read on-the-go, Mendeley was never going to liberate me from my paper prison.

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[so many books!!! schlepping]

I am happy to report that, despite its somewhat delayed release, Mendeley’s mobile app is everything I expected and then some.  All of the functionality from the desktop version seems to have been replicated in the mobile version with the added benefit of downloading only those documents which you are actively working on — thus protecting the limited resource of device memory while also allowing academics to have access to all of their documents. Downloaded texts can be read on or offline and changes made will be synced to the cloud once Internet connectivity is again available.  

By combining a strong a library and citation managing tool with an e-reader Mendeley makes itself a one-stop-shop for my research needs.

In the next instalment though, I will discuss the things I don’t like about Mendeley and some workarounds I have come up with for these challenges.

 

Meeting Scrivener – Part 3: Mixing and Matching Using Scrivener for Digital Research by Dana Ray
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2136923757_3fef83563b_oWriter. Dancer. Tea Drinker. Idea Wrangler. See more of Dana’s work and writing at www.danamray.com

Composition rarely involves just text on a page. And increasingly, in a digital world post Roland Barthes, we learn to read more than words on a page. Our texts are not simply words but a compendium of different media and sources. And this makes the long academic project incredibly difficult to organize and tackle. It is not a matter of merely arranging our sources to analyze but sorting them and noting them as we construct our thoughts on the page. The writing process is the act of analysis. How can we write in a way that gives us full access to the texts and ideas that motivate us while focusing on getting the words on the page? Can Scrivener be the tool that enables a new kind of writing process?

What Scrivener can do:

Scrivener creates a writing process that exists alongside constant reference to digital sources. It does not expect you to write constantly flipping back and forth between source documents and your writing process. Various media and text files can be integrated with the writing process. You can add images and YouTube videos and web pages into the Research Folder and easily view them in the split panel frame feature. And really, this is a game changer for the composition process.

Screenshot (208)Interdisciplinary academics draws on multi-media sources as well as text sources. And this is introduces a whole new realm of possible writing processes. Scrivener can participate in that with the split panel frame that allows the writer to consistently view various references while composing. You don’t have to wait until a later stage to begin integrating references and comprehensively analyzing sources.

I imported a term paper on partner dancing in literature as a test run for the feature. Over the past week, I have begun revising the text and considering possible ways to break the original paper into multiple texts for publication. My primary task: I needed to collect and arrange digital dance sources and analyze them during the composition process. It was great to have access to YouTube videos of Regency period dance reproductions right alongside videos of contemporary West Coast Swing “Jack and Jill” competitions. I can play a video and easily type thoughts as I viewed the video. This creates a close integration between my written text and the image I view. I can explore the possibilities of real time response as I write.

Here’s the rub:

I wanted to integrate the videos into the text itself and easily format the Scrivener file into a digital form. This would allow video to live right beside the analysis rather than imagining my paper being read only on static print paper. Instead, I imagined research being engaged digitally. And this is where Scrivener ceased to help me.

Scrivener CAN export to flexible forms like html (yay!) and basic .txt files. For those of you in digital humanities or the like, this will give you all you need to move to create a fully digital text with integrated images and media files.

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The problem for me is based in my composition philosophy. For those of us without computer know-how, we need formats that allow composition to happen with close integration with media files.  And Scrivener’s digital exporting options cannot include images and media files included in the writing text itself.

What I wish Scrivener could do and someone should definitely create:

Integrating images and videos into the text itself in a way that is easily exportable to digital formats. What I mean is this: more scholarly writing needs to include images and videos within the text itself. We need platforms that allow our research to easily format with images and videos rather than simply providing links or screen shots to be inserted later. There is a growing integration of sources and formats that is reflected in both writing process and writing outcomes. The way we construct things is not the same as it used to be and we need platforms that allow composition to exist alongside formatting tools.

Now, I am aware that this is a highly unfair ask of Scrivener. They never claimed to be the solution to a new age of research formatting and text/media integration. Scrivener has only ever claimed to focus on text production, getting those elusive words on the page. Everything about the tool is aimed at that outcome and that outcome alone. Blaming a platform for not being what it never wanted to be is highly illogical of me as a reviewer.

So let’s give some kudos to Scrivener for what it does: creating a split frame feature that permits dynamic reading/analysis and composition process. Full integration into digital platforms with our multi-media sources is just around the corner.

Writing the Second Book—Week 3 by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book


Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson 
is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing habits and systems.

Over the past two weeks I have been writing about some of the difference between finishing my first book and my second book.  My first book began life as my doctoral thesis, and thus much of the writing process was comfortably braced by my supervisor and my fellow PhD candidates, all of whom, even if their topics were completely different to mine, contributed to the sense of camaraderie and research community.  Once I began drafting my second book, however, I discovered that not only did I need to begin to think more about project management, but that I needed to think about project management in different ways that I had before.  After a year of false starts and failures on the second book, I began to reconsider the management of energy levels in academic writing, and develop some habits and systems to make the best use of my energy rather than just my time.

As I described last week, the differing types of energy required during the drafting and rewriting stages means that I measure progress in these areas in different ways: while drafting I measure progress by words written each week and while rewriting I measure progress by time completed each day.  But, of course, assessing progress is only one part of the problem.  There is still the matter of scheduling the time that is needed in order to achieve this progress, and over the past three years I have developed several habits and systems that have helped:

  1. Set goals for number of drafting and/or rewriting sessions you plan to do each week. For the past three years, my stretch goal has always been to spend three hours drafting and three hours rewriting each day, for a total of 30 research hours per week.  I have always considered this ideal as something to aspire toward, and rarely have I achieved it.  My actual goal is 20 research hours per week, with a mixture of time for drafting and rewriting.
  1. Set up repeating calendar events for periods of drafting and rewriting, even if these will rescheduled at a later point. When I look at next week’s schedule in iCal during my Weekly Review (more on that in my next post), I will already have two three-hour sessions each day scheduled for drafting and rewriting.  Many of these sessions will be moved, shortened, or, sometimes, deleted, but because I have already set these up as repeating calendar events, I receive a constant reminder to keep pushing forward and the amount of work that I should, ideally, be committing to the project.  Using repeating calendar events also means that I don’t have to manually add events to my schedule—it becomes just a simple matter of dragging and dropping to where they best fit.
  1. Front-load the week. Every week is different, with different amounts of time spent in meetings or required for teaching preparation, administrative roles, and other surprise tasks and urgent deadlines.  While some things like one’s teaching schedule or a regular weekly committee meeting don’t more around a lot, there is still a great deal of flexibility needed throughout the week.  For this reason, I try to schedule as many of my drafting and rewriting sessions early in the week so that if things do come up, these can be pushed back to a later date.  Beginning each week with a sprint also means that occasionally I get a free Friday afternoon!
  1. Use the Note field in a digital calendar to make a note on where to begin tomorrow. Both creative writers and academic writers agree that it is important to end each day of work by making a note of where you left off and what to begin with tomorrow.  Turning this into a ritual at the end of the working day can provide a sense of finality to what one has achieved that day, and set up tangible goals for the next day in order to hit the ground running.  Rather than making these notes in the document itself, I add it to the Note field in iCal: this gives me access to a snapshot of my progress on any of my devices, and gives me a record of what I managed to accomplish each day.
  1. Complete a Weekly Review on Friday afternoons and a Monthly review at the end of each month (more on these reviews next week).

My Love Affair with Mendeley or How Mendeley Is Basically My Brain – Part 1 by Minka Stoyanova
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minka 2A revolutionary optimist and expert procrastinator, Minka Stoyanova subscribes to Wheaton’s Law, believes that brie and red wine will solve most of life’s problems and likes to pretend she is working towards a PhD at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media.

WHAT IS MENDELEY?

minka 1                                                                                                           [Mendeley is all of the things, Mendeley is my brain]

Mendeley is a research management/digital library software package. Although the library can manage a variety of media types, Mendeley’s strengths lie in its text-based-content manipulation. The software package includes a reference manager (a la refworks, or Word’s embedded citation manager), a digital library interface (like Calibre), an e-reading application (similar to Kindle Reader, Adobe Reader, Preview, Google Books etc), and a collaboration tool which allows researchers to share documents and view each other’s notes. It also includes web-based social functions such as the creation of profiles, much like Academia.edu.

Documents imported into the Mendeley library are also backed up to cloud servers along with any notes, highlights and annotations. These documents are synced to the cloud and available across computers/devices.

Mendeley is not necessarily the superior option for any one of these functions, but its ability to integrate all of these functions into one software experience makes it a flexible and streamlined option, wherein researchers are able to pick and choose the functions that best suit their research styles, creating an ideal research management tool.

I don’t use all of Mendeley’s features. For instance, I have never used Mendeley’s social or collaboration tools, though I can see why they would be useful for group-work situations. I also rarely use Mendeley as a reference/citation manager as I do most of my writing in Google Docs. Google Docs does not (directly) support Mendeley citations and while there are workarounds available to use Mendeley’s citation engine in non-supported word processors, I am lazy and create my citations in the old-fashioned way.

In the few cases where I have used Mendeley as a citation manager, I have found it intuitive and powerful. It creates citations and bibliographies in an impressive number of journal-specific/general styles with tight integration for Word, LibreOffice, and BibTex.

For me, Mendeley’s most powerful functionality is in the integration of a solid library interface and a solid e-reading application as this combination solves the two greatest challenges facing academic researchers:

1.  Going Digital: Freeing oneself from the paper prison…

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2.  Actually Knowing Things

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In the next two posts, I will review Mendeley’s functionality as a Library Interface and as an E-Reader.  Finally, I will review discuss some of the cons of a move to Mendeley and suggestions to get around them.

Meet Scrivener – Part 2: The Longest Tutorial by Dana Ray
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2136923757_3fef83563b_oWriter. Dancer. Tea Drinker. Idea Wrangler. See more of Dana’s work and writing at www.danamray.com

The hardest part about learning to use Scrivener is the instructions in the longest tutorial ever created.

And I do mean long: 22+ mini-articles that take more than predicted three hours to read. As a busy person, I did not appreciate how difficult it was to fully learn this new tool. As I said before, I’m not a techy. Tutorials are absolutely necessary for me to survive in this world. But the instruction was indirect and chatty rather than efficient and to the point.

The upside is that the tutorial is written for the non-techy (me!). It imitates the friendly voice of the eternally patient friend. The tutorial writer will not shame you for any confusion. It gives suggestions and helpful guided practice. And it is very, very thorough. By the end, you have experienced every feature that Scrivener offers.

But long-winded paragraphs are not how I learn. On a good day, I struggle to read instructions accurately. I won’t tell you the number of times that I’ve destroyed the simplest banana bread because I misread the teaspoon of baking soda as a tablespoon of baking powder. If the instructions are not even in a list form, my mind wanders.

The tutorial became an enormous barrier to me employing Scrivener as a new tool in my writing projects. To do the job thoroughly, it took six hours. By the time I finished, I had forgotten many instructions from the beginning. Albeit, the friendly tutorial encouraged me to take several tea and biscuit breaks, and even a glass of wine. I completed those instructions perfectly.

 

So is Scrivener worth the tutorial?

As with all things, it depends on your project goals. For some, Scrivener is not going to have the pay off that they want after such a steep learning curve. For others, they won’t find it that difficult to learn and therefore can jump right in.

Others will find it difficult but well worth the effort. I suspect that I am in this final category because of my work style. I, for one, am a compiler, collecting notes and references and short paragraph sketches and section headers into a large, tangled pile before I can write a basic thesis. Scrivener, once I get used to it, has all the features that my old school sticky note piles but without the difficulty of reading my own hand writing or losing anything. Instead, I can employ my same project tactics but in a visually clean word processor. I no longer have to separate my initial thoughts from the drafting document itself. Every writer and academic is unique, and never more so than in their project habits Scrivener is designed to be useful to the most tangled work styles. The hope is that anyone using it can tailor it to specific and quirky structures.

If Scrivener were any simpler, it would not accomplish its goal of being flexible to the awkward, unaccountable tactics we each take to sort our ideas into comprehensive arguments and order.

But getting comfortable enough in Scrivener to “be you” takes time that none of us have. So here’s my advice: only use the shortened tutorial. Do not sink yourself into the full tutorial—unless you adore the rambling explication of tools in a 22 Step Process. Play with Scrivener as you develop your project from brainstorming to completion. And when odd buttons and difficult tasks frustrate you: use the YouTube videos. A visual demonstration was more helpful and faster than the chatty written guide.

Even with the initial barriers, it does not take long to see how Scrivener can particularly help academics. I am going to quickly highlight some of those features for the beginning users. I include the tutorial sections that tell you about these features.

Footnote, Annotations, and References: Step 5D “References” & 5H

It can be incredibly difficult to integrate footnotes and annotations into long research documents using Microsoft Word. Formatting becomes a tedious process and can clutter the pages. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it can be easy to miss footnote content. Scrivener allows footnotes to be stored away from the working text itself, a kind of digital sticky note that you can open as needed.

In addition, you can import actual reference texts into your project so everything is one place instead of strewn across document folders and various reference works.

Split Pane Feature: Step 8 “Splits”

Split pane feature is a beautiful tool to use with references. The screen splits in two and two documents can be viewed at the same time. I find that integrating references often requires flipping back and forth between browsers my tiny laptop screen; it’s annoying at the very best and confusing at worst. Split pane allows you to view the PDF you found in JSTOR or the screen shot of the webpage you are analyzing at the same time you are writing your analysis. 

Composition Mode: Step 4 “Composition Mode”

As Scrivener acknowledges, this is not innovative in the world of word processors. However, it is great that it is there. Go into Composition Mode and it is just you and your text. Composition mode allows you to access many of the Scrivener formatting and writing tools without having to exit the focused view. With the significant word counts every day this month, focus is essential.

 

Next week, I’ll address how Scrivener affects interdisciplinary projects, particularly those that require multiple forms of media like in the digital humanities.

Writing the Second Book—Week 2: Measuring Time and Energy Through the Writing Process by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book

Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing process.

Last week I wrote about managing creative energy by dovetailing the drafting and rewriting phases so that one chapter or portion of work can be in the drafting stage while another is being rewritten and revised.  The primary reason for doing this is that these two stages of the writing process rely on very different forms
of thinking and commitment.  Spending a full day on just drafting or just rewriting is an easy road to burnout, but spending a little bit of time each day on both of these activities becomes much more manageable and keeps the project moving steadily ahead.

On an ideal day I would spend three hours on writing, three hours on rewriting, and three hours on teaching and administration, but, of course, that ideal day almost never happens.  Since the academic life is filled with commitments and interruptions that can easily whisk one away from research, I began to think about how best to manage my writing progress alongside these other responsibilities and while keeping the project on track.  While I still use the Pomodoro Technique during some parts of a project, I soon discovered that it perhaps wasn’t the most useful way to organise all aspects of the writing process.

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Because the drafting phase of any writing project is about creative exuberance, about finding the connections between ideas, and, ultimately, about using writing to think through the argument, focusing exclusively on the amount of time spent in the process may not be the most useful indicator of accomplishment.  When drafting a new chapter, I might be reading key sources, writing short summaries and observations, or developing my own lines of thinking and interpretation.  After the first or second week of drafting a chapter, I might not have written many words, but at the end of the three months I usually spend on drafting, I had better had something in the region of 10,000-15,000 words that can be further refined and developed during rewriting.

For this reason, I set incremental word count goals during drafting, based on weekly word count rather than time spent writing or daily word counts. By the end of the first month I aim to have at least 2000 words written (most of this time, of course, will have been spent in secondary research) and then in each subsequent week my goal is to complete an additional 1000-1500 words. Thinking holistically about words-per-week allows for the periods of additional research necessary for ideas to formulate while still keeping me on task.  And, as I try to integrate digital and analogue tools in my research for their best-intended purposes, I keep track of the growing word count in a rather old-fashioned sort of way: a blank monthly calendar pasted into my Moleskine.

But because the rewriting phase is much more connected to analytical precision, focusing on details, and, ideally, shaping the earlier draft into something accessible to others, I needed to set a much more regimented daily practice for myself in which could maintain focus and built forward momentum.  For this reason, I continue to use Pomodoro during the rewriting phrase.  I use Pomodoro Pro which not only provides all the necessary timer features, but keeps track of time spent on projects (very useful data for my monthly self-review, which I’ll explain in a future post).

Because drafting and rewriting rely on such different forms of the thinking and energy, it is important to track and evaluate progress using a method best suited for each stage.  While drafting, I use a pleasingly old-school method of noting my weekly word count in a notebook to allow for the rise and fall of creative energy through the week while still keeping my work focused.  And when rewriting, I use a rather more contemporary time management technique to keep forward momentum through the analytical precision required of rewriting.

Meet Scrivener – Part 1 by Dana Ray
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2136923757_3fef83563b_oWriter. Dancer. Tea Drinker. Idea Wrangler. See more of Dana’s work and writing at www.danamray.com

I am not a techy. New programs are a nightmare I indulge in only on Halloween. Backing up my new laptop took a frantic struggle with a defunct external hard drive and far too much money spent on new external hard drives. Oh, and it took nine months after I bought the new computer. I could have born a child in that time frame.

I am not a techy. I am a writer and an academic and a student. I write. A lot. My projects vary from short articles to unwieldy term papers to an appalling thesis that thunders overhead. I get the challenges of organizing projects and arranging goals within the tangled mess of word documents and file labels and the notation fiascos and revision comments. I am the patronus of all non-techy writers. I am the struggle of man vs machine.

But a few months ago, I began to wonder what existed to help me that I had simply overlooked. Was there a program out there that could help my writing process? A program that would allow my messy structures to continue intuitively but suddenly renders them comprehensible and (of all beautiful things) searchable? It seemed a lot to ask from an inanimate object.

Then someone introduced me to Scrivener. They claimed it could solve all my problems and more. And if I could finally get that external hard drive to back up and open an account with Drop Box, perhaps I could learn how to use this new tool as well. Oh, and they offer a one month free trial. What would be the harm in trying?

Let me back up and explain exactly what Scrivener is designed to be. Scrivener is a word processor designed by writers for writers. But when I hear the term “word processor” I immediately think of Microsoft Word. In fact, Microsoft Word is merely a product name for just one of many word processors that exist out there. According to a Google Search, the technical definition of a word processor is this: “a program or machine for storing, manipulating, and formatting text entered from a keyboard and providing a printout.” It’s a very basic definition of what used to be revolutionary but is more humdrum to us now. We can use a program that let us see ourselves compiling words and then allow us to print those words on paper. Magic!

Scrivener is one just processor and one designed for writer and writing projects rather than a multi-industry interface like Microsoft Word. Is comes packed with odd and inventive features that I’m pleased to share with you like “Zen mode” (a focus viewer), split screens, brainstorming tools, and more. But I’m getting ahead of myself! Join me in AcWriMo as I share with you my first time, non-techy Scrivener user experience! I will share the ups and the downs, the positives and the negatives, some how-tos and what to avoid. At the very least, exploring Scrivener in AcWriMo will uncover plenty of important food for thought about the academic writing process and all the challenges of surviving it!