Facing that First Blank Page
Hemingway had his preferred writing tool. It was amber, came in a bottle and left his eyes as bloodshot as those of a PhD candidate pulling an all-nighter. Somewhere through the nights of reliving and re-imagining his heroic battles with brutes and beasts, magic flowed from his pen. Creative writing and the novel allow for larger-than-life characters and authors.
Academic writing and its processes are tamer, and more deliberate at best. There are editors and journal publishers who demand set parameters. Nobody lives vicariously when dissecting your research paper. Yet, with these elements of predictable patterning arises the opportunity for smart information technology geniuses of a different sort to develop extremely useful software for academic writing, great tools with which to overcome the dread of that first blank page and its opening sentence. And with what must follow. Writing your paper need not take on the same epic proportion that an old man out at sea, Santiago, fought to try and land that elusive marlin.
Here is a selection of frequently recommended research and writing tools worth exploring before tackling your next big project. We categorise them broadly into three categories:
Writing & Collaboration Software
It is a given that your monographs will see a good edit and proofread somewhere along the way. The same may not apply to your dissertation and journal submissions while still in your hands unless you enlist the help of professionals before the powers-that-be will see your efforts.
At a minimum, therefore, and especially if you are not a native English speaker, it is worth investing in software tools when writing your paper, that will perform spelling and grammar checks, and with a good thesaurus suggesting synonyms and phrases. Avoid settings that try to autocomplete your phrases and sentences. For that, academic writing is far too circumspect and meticulous. In this category, commercial suites such as MS Word and the storyboarding wonder Scrivener, and several open-source options, can be considered important academic writing tools.
For collaborative writing, where multiple rounds of edited versions, plus supporting documentation, figures and data come together, researchers may opt for GoogleDocs or DropBoxPaper, where they can work in the storage area, so to speak. These software suites also include several creative elements, yet when you are as focused on form as on substance, the scientific research community has made the free to use LaTex quite the favourite. It is described as ‘a document preparation system for high-quality typesetting, most often used for medium-to-large technical or scientific documents’.
When it comes to online writing tools, Mr Hemingway, enters the left stage again. Known for his crisp, short sentences, the Hemingway Editor App, in a similar fashion, will quickly alert you when too verbose, dense, unreadable or meandering into the passive voice. It is both judge, jury and rehab all-in-one; simply move your cursor over the problem area to find suggested replacements. When writing your paper essay using this tool ironically, the challenge is to keep your page white – absent from the App’s use of colour to indicate problem areas.
The gold standard for generations of academics has been the Chicago Manual of Style, now available online. It has been at the side of anyone who picks up a pen as part of the academic writing process, and you can count on it that you will be referred to it by a journal editor or publisher at some stage of your career (if your professors were derelict in this regard during your PhD student years).
When investigating software for reference management, the main goal is to find a solution that will allow you to store all your references in one place and make it easy to access and format them for the different output you are producing. Furthermore, think of this as a long-range relationship. Choose well when you start because it may be a nightmare to switch to incompatible reference management software later.
Commercial applications such as EndNote, Citavi and RefWorks compete with free software, including Zotero and Mendeley. If ever there was one area where it is worth your while researching the absolute perfect fit between your own research goals and the available software for academics, it is in this category. Which of us have not been weighed down by the tedium and time-sapping styling of citations and references during our early academic publishing forays? A good investment here is worth its weight in gold for the time it will save.
Research-related Software for Academics:
Open access publishing has created a treasure trove of information. As in so many other areas of life, the problem is no longer finding information, but rather making sense of the organisation of properly curated research of relevance.
The software solutions in this area help academic researchers create a modicum of order amidst this deluge. No need to introduce Google Scholar or ResearchGate. Next to look at it is Authorea, a free gateway to cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research.
Academics are an eclectic bunch, so one should allow for all kinds of interesting preferences or habits. We conclude here with a shortlist of fun or useful Apps that may be of interest:
- Ref-n-Write: Learn to use academic phrases on par with your colleagues, or see how others may paraphrase you.
- For projects in collaboration with several team members, and where coordination and timelines are of the essence, look at Trello.
- From the creators of Sleeptown, another App that tries to engender good habits, especially for academic writers, is Forest. When you put your phone down, a virtual tree starts growing. This allows you to focus on your work. When you get distracted by your phone, that tree dies! Shame on you.
- And finally, because no academic wants to fall foul on the wrong end of plagiarism, do make sure you have installed a plagiarism checker such as Turnitin.
Anxiously awaiting to see your opening line…
Pexels 2021 / image: Zen Chung