Tools To Stay On Track

As part of my efforts to refocus and find time for writing/research each day I have been thinking a lot about how to best organize my work and how to most effectively use some of the many apps and tools available for these purposes. The key for me (and for many other academics, I suspect) is portability. If I’m serious about finding time for writing/research each and every day, I have to be realistic and realize that this may often be on my lunch break or squeezed in to an hour I have between meetings. I also need a system that works well across the many devices I use (my office computer, my laptop, my iPad). What I don’t want to have happen is to find myself with an hour or two of “free time” to work on my book manuscript, but to not be able to use that time effectively because my notes, research materials, and chapter drafts are not physically with me. I also don’t want to be wasting precious writing/research time fiddling with settings, syncing, and just generally trying to get a piece of software to do what it is supposed to do!

I’ve been playing with a number of apps and pieces of software over the past little while, but hadn’t really set up a proper system until recently. I guess I wanted to test-drive a few to see which worked best for me and also with one another–compatibility is key! There are four apps/pieces of software that have risen to the top for me: Zotero, Dropbox, Evernote, and iAnnotate PDF. I like these because they have many useful features, are easy to use, and work well with one another. At the start of this semester I spent some time setting up a system that I’m hoping will help me stay focused:

1. I switched from EndNote to Zotero because of the portability factor. I was getting really frustrated with having my “library” on my home computer but only working from that computer a fraction of the time. So far so good. It was easy to import my Endnote library, and really like the ability to capture citations right from my browser! I can now access my library from anywhere I have an internet connection.

2. Dropbox rocks my world. Chapter drafts, articles to be read, image files are all just there waiting for me when I need them. No more worrying about whether I’m working from the most recent version of a document or not. I upgraded to a Pro account so I have more storage, and it is totally worth it. I love how easy it is to use, and I really love the new feature where my photos from my iPhone are immediately uploaded to Dropbox, a fabulous back-up system for any photos, but an especially great tool for keeping track of the photos I take on research trips.  Simply fabulous!

3. Like most academics, I take a lot of notes. I have handwritten notes scribbled in notebooks, typed notes on the computer, notes I wrote on my iPad with my stylus, etc. The trouble is, I hadn’t stopped to come up with a way to organize them. I would spend far too long looking for notes that I took on a book that I only vaguely remembered (“umm…I know I read a book that mentioned this last summer, what was it? The title had the word “Peace” in it and might have had a blue cover…”). Enter Evernote, a fabulous tool that works on my computers, iPhone, and iPad. You can set up multiple, searchable “notebooks” that then sync across devices. I am in the process of taking all those wayward notes and putting them in to an Evernote notebook called “notes for new book.” Transferring them all is time-consuming, but I am sure this will end up being time well-spent. I also have a notebook in Evernote with the images I am using for this project as well as a master “to-do” list.

4. iAnnotate PDF is another tool that I’ve started to use lately, and I find it especially great for reading journal articles as you can highlight and make annotations on the PDF document as you read. I do eventually still make notes in Evernote, but I find this a really useful intermediate step in the research process.

I’m sure there are other tools and systems that people have found useful for organizing a writing project. I’d love to hear about them!

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