Kelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can find her on Twitter at @krh121910.

Ever feel like writing is a hopeless battle? I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter series this summer as a break from dissertation research, and while drafting this post on writing software, Mad Eye Moody’s voice from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire popped into my head. While discussing an upcoming battle with a dragon during the Triwizard Tournament, Mad-Eye  gives Harry two pieces of advice:  “play to your strengths” and “use a nice, simple spell that will enable you to get what you need.” While no one here at GradHacker has actually fought a dragon, I think everyone in graduate school has felt like Harry at one time or another. Whether it’s your first seminar paper, your dissertation proposal, or your final chapter, writing can feel as daunting as the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. Luckily, Mad-Eye’s advice still holds true for the graduate school writing process: play to your strengths, and use a nice, simple tool to get what you need. In other words, write in a way that works with your style, feelings, and writing process, and use a writing software that plays to your writing strengths.

Everybody writes differently, but most of us use the same software: Microsoft Word. Word is a useful program, but that doesn’t mean it fits our individual writing needs all of the time. Using a writing program just because it came with your computer forces you to adapt your writing to your writing software, rather than adapting your writing software to your writing process and style. Instead, consider changing your writing software to one that works with your writing style, needs, and strengths. Every program works differently for different people. The key is to find what works for you, which is going to take a little bit of research and experimentation if you’ve never written in anything besides a word processing software before.

To figure out what software works best for you, begin by determining your writing style and strengths:

  1. Keep a log of your writing for a week or two. When do you write? What do you write? How do you write? For how long? Make sure you take note of how you feel when you’re writing, especially moments of clarity, happiness, or confidence. Make note of negative feelings, too. If you feel anxious, when? If you feel stressed, why?

  2. Spend some time thinking about your writing process. How do you take notes? How do you organize information? Are you a visual learner? How do you want to write? What writing scenario would be ideal for you?

  3. Decide what features are useful to you in writing software. What do you use when you’re writing? Do you format as you go? What features are distracting or unnecessary?

Once you’ve figured out what you want in your software, it’s time to start doing some research to find which software fits your needs. Read up on different writing software based on the features you want, and then experiment. Most of these programs are free or at least offer free trials. Take advantage of free downloads and trial versions to test out new software. Try writing in different programs each day for a week, or try to use different programs for specific writing tasks. What did you like? What did you hate? Did you feel more productive? Do you like different software for different types of writing? You can begin with the list below, or start your own centered on the features you value:

  • Note taking: Programs like Evernote, Notepad, Wordpad, and Notational Velocity were all designed for note taking, but are organized very differently and contain different levels of formatting capabilities.

  • Visualization: Scrivener, Scrapple, and Wordle offer visual writing tools, which can be used for storyboarding, brainstorming, or mindmapping.

  • Searchability: Devonthink, Evernote, Papers, and Scrivener can all work like a personal research database for storing citations, notes, and files.

  • Discipline and Punish: Programs like WriteRoom, WriteOrDie, and Scrivener feature various intensities of full screen, distraction-free writing if you need your software to help you focus on the task at hand.

  • Editing: Microsoft Word has excellent formatting and editing capabilities and offers compatibility if you’re sharing your writing or need to print.

  • Collaboration: GoogleDocs (Google Drive) and Dropbox allow you to write collaboratively.

  • Citation Management: Endnote, RefWorks, and Zotero help keep your citations and sources organized as you write.

  • Compatibility: The folks over at Literature and Latte have sorted writing software by compatibility with either Mac OS X and Windows. If you need scientific word processing, something like Cassiopeia might be a good fit.

  • Old school: If you find writing on a computer difficult, or prefer taking notes by hand, go analog.

Note: New software has a learning curve, but don’t let that derail your writing. Limit your search and experimentation to a set time each day and stick to it. If a program isn’t working for you, trash it and move on.

For me, this process emerged organically my first year of graduate school. I found myself writing my seminar papers in small chunks but had difficulty visualizing the pieces of my argument in a single word document or text editor. I was getting overwhelmed by having things splayed across multiple windows and files. Because I use my writing as a way to develop and organize ideas, I needed my software to be designed to work with that. I found I preferred software with internal organization—categories, subcategories, options for sections and chapter, tags, etc.—rather than a continuous series of blank pages. Changing my writing software helped me solve these problems.

My primary software is Scrivener, which I use for drafting and organizing larger projects—like articles or my dissertation (we at GradHacker love Scrivener). But I choose different writing software for different projects every day, rather than just working within the limitations of a single program. For example, I wrote a 2500 word draft of this post in Notational Velocity and then moved the text to Microsoft Word for revision, and finally to Google Docs for editing and collaborative review. I have different strengths for different writing tasks, and my choice of writing software reflects that. For my dissertation, I keep research notes in Evernote, freewrite in Notational Velocity, draft and write in Scrivener, store bibliographic information in Endnote, and edit final documents in Microsoft Word. As I write in Scrivener, I can pull quotes and data from Evernote and not worry about formatting the citations I’ll eventually retrieve from Endnote. Being flexible about my writing software means that I use programs that work with my specific projects, needs, and strengths.  And that makes the writing process a lot less stressful.

What writing software do you use? And why? How does it mesh with (or clash) with your writing style and preferences? Have you found it more productive to switch software? Let us know in the comments!

[Photo by Yosomono via Flikr. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

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