Management Tools for Writing (Part I)

By Jiaqi Wang
For most graduate students, writing is a daily activity. We need to record fleeting ideas and organize our mental analysis. With the rapid advancement of Internet technology and the explosion of information, writing has evolved from a pen-and-paper activity to a science of information management. Imagine you and your colleagues are working on a tech report. Everyone has their own computer, work schedule, and source of information. So, you think it would be ideal if you could instantly share all the information and remotely work on the same report in an unobstructive manner. This wishful thinking is fairly reasonable, and if you have similar technical needs, this blog is tailor-made for you.

In this blog, we will very briefly introduce you to four aspects of writing and its management. Specific topics include cloud/disaster-proof writing, reference management, formatting, and version control.

Cloud/Disaster-Proof Writing

When waiting for the elevator or dining in the cafeteria, have you ever heard people complain about losing their data/writings in all sorts of catastrophic situations? These disasters can be prevented if we move our writing from Microsoft Word to the cloud.

Nowadays, cloud storage is getting cheaper and cheaper, especially for managing papers which do not take much space at all. Common storage providers include Evernote (60 MB for free), Dropbox (2 GB), and Google Drive (15 GB). There are even providers which give out 2 TB for free. Probably you all have dabbled in these cloud services. Here, I would like to recommend the Google Doc program in Google Drive service. Google Doc has a user interface which is fairly similar to Microsoft Word, so migrating your writing to it does not really require much learning. The cool feature that I find useful is that it will automatically save your writing so that you do not need to worry about any kind of technology failures that may occur. If you have used this program before and found that the formatting features that it provides were a bit vanilla, rest assured that this would not be a problem. Just go to the “Adds-on” dropdown menu and choose a formatting plug-in that you like.

Reference Management

Are you frustrated about managing your references? Does it take tons of your precious time to generate citations? You wish you had a personal assistant who could do all the laborious work for you. Good news! You can have one and it is free. His name is Zotero.

Zotero is an excellent referent management software which has many superb features. To name a couple, assuming you are using its web browser extension in Chrome or Firefox, saving the references you find interesting is just one click away. The references can have many formats, e.g., web content (NYTimes), bibliographical information (library catalog websites, Amazon), research papers (Google Scholar, Jstor), images, and videos. Once Zotero has detected the reference, it will show a little Capture Icon in the URL address bar. By clicking it, Zotero will save the reference and most amazingly extract the bibliographic information for you. When you want to cite a specific reference, all you need to do is just drag this entry from Zotero to your paper, which will automatically generate its citation.

If the click and drag features have already convinced you of its potential and you are ready to take it to its full power in your own reference management, our library is organizing two workshops that specifically target at Zotero:

Zotero on Your Laptop (two-part series):

– Jiaqi  Wang