Software for dissertating, 2016 edition
June 9, 2016 3:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a dissertation (specifically, an ethnography). What writing software do I need (Mac OSX)?

I'm doing a PhD in cultural anthropology. I'm a few months into this dissertation-writing thing after more than a year of fieldwork, and I need to get it together. This is the current jumble: Simplenote for my free writes; Notational Velocity for my field notes; Word documents for my dissertation writing; password-protected folders for all my audio files, PDFs, and photos; and Zotero for my secondary sources.

Ask MeFi has addressed writing software before, but I'm not sure what's still useful in 2016. I'd like something that can:

1. Make sure my data is secure. Ideally, I would like to keep my entire library of stuff inside a password-protected sparse image and keep that synced in my Dropbox.
2. Keep all versions of my writing up to date. It should be easy for me to painlessly excerpt bits of my writing as Word documents to email to writing groups, advisors, etc. My version tracking is so bad that I've found myself searching through my sent emails to determine which is the best, most recent version of a particular section. Yikes.
3. Encourage me to write. I'm writing ethnography, and I want to glance at my notes and just start writing about them, fast. I love doing free writes in Simplenote, and sometimes they turn into bits of the dissertation.
4. Help me organize around emergent themes. I have never been able to sustain any effort to keep anything organized by tags, ever. Eventually, I will abandon whatever tagging system I started to implement on some caffeine-fueled afternoon. But my advisor is telling me to keep track of themes coming out of my fieldwork. Is there an easy way to do that?
5. Cite sources in AAA format. Zotero works for me right now.
6. Be pretty future-proof. I'll likely be drawing on this material for years to come, so I'm wary of fiddly file formats and anything that might ruin my workflow if it stops being developed.
7. Cost less than $150 and not require subscription fees.
posted by a sourceless light to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
scrivener! Make sure you get the educational pricing, and check out various blogs for tips of how to structure it. The included tutorial is also very worthwhile. Never again will I use anything else to write.
posted by femmegrrr at 3:20 PM on June 9, 2016 [8 favorites]

Not sure why my hyperlink isn't showing up:
posted by femmegrrr at 3:21 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'll second Scrivener. Its "files" are actually packages containing your text, so you can extract it later if the company goes belly-up and you can't open the app any more. The main issue I've seen is that it stores images as RTFs, with images embedded as binaries, so getting them out might be a minor challenge.

Getting started is easy, though learning its versioning features ("snapshots") takes some more time.

I like DevonThink Pro Office for organizing my notes, because its AI features can suggest other documents in its database that are related to the one you're currently viewing, and thus it can help you see connections you might otherwise miss. The main limitation to that for me is that my notes are in several languages, and it doesn't know that a document that frequently contains the word "Ameise" might be related to one that uses "ant" or "fourmi" a lot. Unless you want the OCR features, you don't need the Office version; DevonThink Pro is pretty good.

So my basic workflow: Bibliographical information goes into Bookends (Zotero seems fine). I take notes on my sources and the scholarly literature in DevonThink Pro Office. I sometimes use Scapple (also from Literature & Latte) as a basic brainstorming and mindmapping tool. I then start to compose in Scrivener, switching between its note card and editing views. I use Bookends temporary citations in my footnotes. When I have something to share, I can either print it as PDF (if I don't need to expand the citations) or export as RTF or Word and have Bookends format the references.

That's where the workflow gets tricky. You have to make the decision going forward which version is authoritative. Usually for me, when I share stuff with colleagues I make any changes in Scrivener, but once I format a MS for submission to a publisher, that becomes the definitive version and I retire the Scrivener version.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:38 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just came here to suggest Scrivener and DevonThink Pro Office. You'll never want to write using anything but Scrivener again.

If you're not a fan of tags but want to organize your research somehow, DevonThink Pro is for you. Steven Johnson's great blog post on it got me interested in it. My workaround for citations is to make a separate folder for each resource, and give it the same title that you'd give your citation, similar to what he did: Claire Smith. "Interesting Paper." Location: Publisher, Date.

That way, when you use the AI features, the software automatically brings up snippets of related research (that you don't have to tag), and they're automatically brought up alongside the folder name - voila, your new citation. (Keep in mind that the screenshots in that blog post are hella old and now the software can do absolutely everything.)
posted by blazingunicorn at 4:39 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

(This is actually rockindata) yes, keep everything in Dropbox, and also a second place. I have two friends lose a year of work ( and in one case, a summer of field data) due to theft and/or hard drive failures.
posted by juliapangolin at 6:58 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Scrivener, yep - wrote a book and a thesis in it. Great organizational tools that will help you do what you need - tag, annotate, sort, version control.

I went to Mendeley for organizing secondary sources; it indexes entire PDFs for completely searchable text, and I like the interface much better than Zotero. When I read a whole book I also just add my reader's notes doc to it so it will index and search just like it would an article.
posted by Miko at 9:31 PM on June 9, 2016

LaTeX + Bibtex?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:50 AM on June 10, 2016

Oh, two more thoughts:

1. Arq plus Amazon Glacier is a great secondary backup system. Your data are encrypted before upload, with a password you choose, and it uses the tar format, so if Arq ever goes belly-up, you can still extract and recover your data. It's dirt cheap; you have to wait several hours to restore data, but the way I figure it, if I lose both my computers, my external HD with its encrypted backup, and my Dropbox account, I'd be in a situation where immediate access to my data is the least of my worries!

2. It wasn't clear from your post whether you sync Notational Velocity with Simplenote. If you don't, I suggest it, unless you have some reason to keep them separate.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2016

I was a very early Notational Velocity user and recommended it often (including here on MeFi), but the developer was always sporadic about development and never even officially moved from beta to final on version 2.0 — no update since early 2011. There are a number of unresolved bugs and compatibility problems and there’s no guarantee it’ll ever be fixed if the next major OS X release causes it to stop working at all.

Because Apple has greatly improved iCloud security over the years and the current versions of Notes both on OS X and iOS now can password protect individual notes (in addition to the general iCloud security), you might find it safer for long-term data storage to migrate from NV.
posted by D.C. at 8:29 PM on June 10, 2016

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