As many writing instructors like to say, “writing is a process.” For the graduate student writer, the process of dissertation writing is new and strange, dramatically unlike writing seminar or conference papers, and well beyond the dreaded 10-page research paper of our undergraduate years. It’s something we’ve never done before and for which we (usually) haven’t been formally trained. There are lots of resources of course, books and websites and blogposts, but often our best practice–our process–comes about through practice, discovery, and trying lots of new things.
My process has been a long one (and I’m not done yet). I’ve come to realize that I need to pause in my writing and research. I need time and space to think without writing. I need to take my time to reflect and discover. Unfortunately, though, I also need to write. So here are some of the tools and tips which have helped me to streamline my process.
- I use Zotero to manage my sources. I love that I can archive websites and pdfs, add notes and tags, and sync across different computers. I tend to “collect” articles and book titles in open Firefox tabs or unread messages in my inbox. Zotero has made my life much easier; I can collect my sources and citations right in my browser. (Zotero can also generate bibliographies, although I haven’t tried that yet.) I exceeded the storage capacity they offer for free, but I am happy to pay the small annual fee to support this project. Zotero works really well for me, but there are other ways to manage sources and citations, such as EndNote or RefWorks. (My university offers students free RefWorks accounts–check your library!) There is usually a bit of a learning curve when you first start using source management software, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
- I use Googledocs for notetaking. I started using Googledocs when preparing for my exams; I created glossaries of key terms and concepts for my historical and conceptual fields, and then generated tables of contents and linked to my reading notes. It was a very clunky way to keep track of reading lists, but it’s a great way to take notes. I use Zotero now for my sources, but I still use Googledocs for reading notes, mainly because it’s so easy to find forgotten quotes and references by using the search function.
- After seeing several students lose work on broken laptops, I started using Dropbox to back up my work. (I had been emailing my work to myself, but that is still pretty risky as a back up system.) Because I work from several computers, I really like web-based applications, and Dropbox is fantastic. I installed it on my home laptop, but I log in via the web from school. After writing sessions at school, I upload my draft(s) to Dropbox via the web login; once I get home and turn on my laptop, Dropbox automatically syncs the new documents.
- I just started using a 3-ring binder. I often used binders to organize course materials and recipes at home, and I thought it would help me organize my writing. I have a section divider for each chapter, into which I’ve inserted chapter outlines. So far, I like being able to glance down at the overall plan as I draft the chapter draft; it’s a good way to keep my writing goals in sight (literally) without having to stop the writing, scroll to my outline, or open (yet another) file on my computer. They’re not there yet, but I also plan on filing “active” material there as well; the drafts, notes, and printed articles that are usually spread all over my desk now have a home.
- I also use markers and highlighters to help with revision, especially re-organization. I print the current draft, and color-code highlighters to specific ideas or concepts. Once I’ve marked like ideas (or differentiated between background information and my own claims and analysis), I have a good visual picture of my draft, and it’s much easier for me to improve the structure and organization. I either start making changes in Word or (and this way is usually more fun) use scissors on my paper draft, cutting out errant paragraphs and taping sections into their new homes.