Mac word processor for academic writing in the humanities?
July 10, 2008 7:13 PM   Subscribe

I don't like Microsoft Word much; it feels really bloated to me, and has so many features I never use. I've been looking for an alternative for some time. What word processor does the hivemind recommend for academic writing?

I am a graduate student, about to tackle the beast that is my dissertation, and am hoping to find one word processing program (that is hopefully not Word) that I can use for it as well as the other articles and such that I need to work on. I've been waiting on the official release for OpenOffice 3 (for the native Mac support), but in the current lull in the school year, I was hoping to test the waters and find what works best for me.

My writing is usually pretty straightforward. I have no need for elaborate figures, mathematical symbols, or anything like that. I'm in the humanities, and if it works with MLA format, with occasional forays into, say, Chicago, that's good enough for me. But, on the other hand, I'd like something that produces documents that are portable enough that, if need be, I can use Word or OpenOffice on the school's computers, and can easily send something off to a journal without having to re-format the entire document because it got garbled in translation. I also occasionally receive (and provide) feedback from professors and colleagues who use Word's "Track Changes" and "Insert Comment" features; support for these things would be nice, too.

Oh, and I also use spreadsheets as part of my research workflow.

Am I stuck with keeping Office on my computer? Or can I switch to something else completely? What about Mellel?

Cheap is good, too.
posted by synecdoche to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Why wait for the newer OpenOffice?

I've had good experiences with Zoho (albeit short) and Google Docs.
posted by theichibun at 7:26 PM on July 10, 2008

I've had good experiences with Zoho (albeit short) and Google Docs.

The OP can't write a dissertation in Google Docs...

I say go with Mellel, but you will probably have to keep Word on for commenting. I switched over to Mellel pretty much completely and if I have to, I just export to Word and then incorporate any comments generated in Word in the Mellel document. Mellel + Bookends and you'd be good for dissertation writing.
posted by stefnet at 7:31 PM on July 10, 2008

Maybe not the whole thing, but it can be started there and switched over when the newer OpnOffice comes out.

But I can also see how someone wouldn't want to do that.
posted by theichibun at 7:36 PM on July 10, 2008

If you're doing dissertation, you'll be back to MS Word, because all those features you dont use right now? Well, you'll be using them for the dissertation ;) --> Endnote integration; Outlining and Headings; Footnotes and Endnotes; Comments - Notes - possibly even auto-saved versions; Sections and Chapters, formatting symbols and images and captions, etc etc. Suddenly all that bloat will be a godsend ;)

That said, if you want a separate text editor to get your narrative content in (before you port it over to Word), try the q10 editor - a wonderfully simply 'typewriter' of a text editor. Full screen and virtually no options, and complete with typewriter clicky sounds as you type. Its fun.
posted by jak68 at 7:37 PM on July 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

AbiWord is nice and lightweight but has most of Word's better features. Runs on Mac, compatible even with Word 2007 format. I set my (non-technically oriented) mom up with it at home and she has written a whole lot of things for a continuing legal education program with no annoyances.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:41 PM on July 10, 2008

Incidentally, according many tech reviewers on the internets, open office is a "memory and resource hog. Contrary to popular belief (among Open Source advocates), Microsoft Office came out very lean and fast while Office Suite was just the opposite" See here for instance.

And before you think that thats old news from 2005, here's one from 2008: "OpenOffice tests show it's progressively getting slower", which says:

"Users wanting to break away from Microsoft Windows and Office have had little viable alternatives when looking for competing products...Each new release of Open Office offers a slew of performance improvements, but at the same time may bloat the software so it operates more slowly. Yesterday, the independent blog Ninja posted several benchmarks providing an analysis of the continuing decline of the speed of OO".

I myself (i'm also writing my dissertation in the humanities) switch between Q10 and Word, I write narrative in Q10 but then paste it into Word once its over 10 pages or so. I like Q10 for its delightful retro feel, and Word because I need (and appreciate) its features -- which increasingly and incrementally I began using and today I appreciate them quite a bit...

If you're seeing performance problems with Word, then you most definitely will see them also with Open Office. Maybe your laptop needs more memory? Do you have at least a gig of RAM? I've got a gig and Word flies on my laptop, I've never had performance issues with it. RAM should be relatively cheap to buy (check for prices, there's a nice wizard there to help you select the right ram).
posted by jak68 at 7:47 PM on July 10, 2008

As for an online editor like google docs or zoho, I'd really be uncomfortable having my dissertation on anything but a local copy that I can see and backup myself.
posted by jak68 at 7:49 PM on July 10, 2008

oops - you have a mac -- here's "writeroom" which is q10 for macs (actually q10 ripped off writeroom for pc's, but whatever).
posted by jak68 at 7:50 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

How about Abiword?

It's lightweight (9MB), has the ability to read and write Word docs, has an interface similar to Word, has support for tables and footnotes and apparently has a very good grammar checker (if you want that). Not sure about its ability to track changes and insert comments.

Main website is here - but to get a version compiled to run on OS X you could go here.

Abiword is Free Software - that's free as in Freedom (no proprietary control of the source code) and free as in price.

On preview, Inspector Gadget beat me to it.
posted by Sitegeist at 7:52 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure how Scrivener handles the Track Changes and commenting features in Word docs, but it does import and export them, and for writing and organizing, I love it.
posted by clavicle at 8:01 PM on July 10, 2008

IF there is a style or class file for your school's dissertations, LaTeX and whatever editor you like. A pre-existing style or class file means that you don't have to worry about anything when you take your dissertation to the Evil Ruler People; it will all of it be correct.

Maybe others will chime in otherwise, but I would not in a billion trillion years trust my dissertation to a workflow that went from writing in Whatever at home, to editing the resulting document in Word at school, to re-editing the document in Whatever back at home. That seems like a recipe for a weird, inexplicable fuckup that eats your entire dissertation.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:04 PM on July 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

There's a great nytimes article with some options (sorry for the messy link, on bberry)
posted by acidic at 8:10 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pages 08 for no-hassle word-processing.

Numbers 08 for the occasional spreadsheet.

$80 for the whole package (including Keynote) from Apple.

Check out the trial first ... You won't regret!
posted by mahoganyslide at 8:13 PM on July 10, 2008

If you'd like to take the road less traveled, you could look at LyX.

From the wikipedia page:
LyX is a document processor following the self-coined "what you see is what you mean" paradigm (WYSIWYM), as opposed to the WYSIWYG ideas used by word processors. This means that the user only has to care about the structure and content of the text, while the formatting is done by LaTeX, an advanced typesetting system. LyX is designed for authors who want professional output with a minimum of effort and without becoming specialists in typesetting. The job of typesetting is done mostly by the computer, following a predefined set of rules called a style, and not by the author.
Although LyX is popular among technical authors and scientists for its advanced mathematical modes, it is increasingly used by social scientists and humanists for its excellent bibliographic database integration and ability to manage multiple files.
You won't have compatibility with standard word processing users if you use this solution of course.

Native OS X download available. Like Abiword mentioned above, LyX is also Free Software.

posted by Sitegeist at 8:17 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Errata to my comment on Abiword.

The download link I provided was for PPC Macs. I would expect there are binaries for Intel Macs as well.

And after doing a bit of googling it appears that Abiword supports the track changes feature.

posted by Sitegeist at 8:24 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding ROU_Xenophobe (and speaking from experience!); while you can use any word processor you want to take notes or work on other projects, I can assure you you'll run into major problems at some point in your dissertation if you do not use Word. It's just the way it is. You'll want to email sections to your comittee, you may have to use a style template from your dept or university (that will probably be a .doc), profs will want to put comments and revisions... It's just not worth it! A couple of weeks before submitting your dissertation, the last thing you'll want to deal with is a complete re-formatting of your document because some conversion did not work.

What I've done though is to use my favorite software to compose (I really enjoy Writeroom, although Word's full page feature is fine too), copy and paste into Word, and do the appropriate formatting.
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:32 PM on July 10, 2008

I know I'm going to sound like a dork but I wrote my dissertation using LaTeX, editing the document in Emacs and managing the bibliography in BibTeX. It made a lot of sense for me, because it meant I spent most of my time just writing without the distraction of dancing paperclips, "styles" (which Microsoft still hasn't gotten right), and other little distractions. It also meant I could edit my document anywhere I wanted to, without worrying about whether it was the right version, my document would get pooched for random reason, etc.

There's definitely a learning curve especially if you want to make it do things that aren't part of the default stylesheet. But once you learn to set the formatting just the way you like it, there are some increasing returns.

The drawback is working collaboratively can be a pain, since most normal people don't understand what to do with a raw text file anymore. They open it in Word, see the TeX formatting commands, and assume you've emailed them a virus or something.
posted by drmarcj at 8:56 PM on July 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seriously, why aren't you using iWork? Pages is incredibly streamlined and has drag and drop integration with Numbers and Keynote. Plus it's only $71 with your student discount.

(Full disclosure: I work for Apple, but I really do think it's a kick ass program)
posted by Roman Graves at 9:06 PM on July 10, 2008

Another alternative is to take half a day and learn Word in you're not entirely familiar with it (this is not an endorsement of the application). You can customize it quite a bit to eliminate what you have no need for and make prevalent what you do need. If you're going to have to use it, it may be be a good approach. Default installs are a bit general and may well be perceived as bloated, but this is true of many applications. With such a diverse user base many applications can be fine tuned with just a little time. You can also set up documents for ease of use in the future.

It's true that many applications are intuitive and we can just use them, but to get to the good stuff that does specific things to help you in complex tasks, you still have to learn the application a bit more. The "intuitive" assistance offered by many applications can be incredibly annoying, but most often, incredibly easy to disable.

A good starting point is the Options under Tools (though this is with 2003).

I personally use text editors and InDesign (and I always thought that PageMaker would've made for an excellent word processor given a decent interface) but I often find I have to prepare documents in Word for interoperability with corporate, educational, and independent clients. Knowing a bit more of it by exploring it has helped tremendously. It does some things very well.
posted by juiceCake at 9:12 PM on July 10, 2008

I've used Office 2008 on a colleague's Mac and it was nice and fast, definitely not "bloated" when compared with OO.o. I am mostly pretty happy with Pages myself but don't tend to write very long documents these days.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:15 PM on July 10, 2008

Pages can barely spell MLA, let alone handle a dissertation.

Seriously, my answer to this is word 2007 for Windows, which is hands-down the best word processor I have ever used, on any platform, ever (and my posting history will show that I'm as much a Mac and LaTeX fanboi as thebest of them, so this is really saying something.)

I actually bought a little thinkpad on eBay purely to run it for all my academic writing, and the combination of it and OneNote are something I've been totally unable to replicate on the Mac.
posted by bonaldi at 9:19 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention that this in stark contrast to word for mac, which is nowadays a blubbery mess, you're right.
posted by bonaldi at 9:21 PM on July 10, 2008

Anyone try Pages?
posted by ChickenringNYC at 9:29 PM on July 10, 2008

Do you want to be the trailblazer (when your job is to get a good dissertation) forcing everyone else (friends, committees etc) to spend time on working out HOW TO READ YOUR FILES instead of proofreading them? Guaranteed to leave a bad taste in mouth of people you're asking a favor from.

Ditto stylesheets, endnote, potential journal articles from etc.. Alas, MS Word is the way to go.
posted by lalochezia at 9:35 PM on July 10, 2008

Learn LaTeX. It will repay itself during the period of hell at the end, when it rattles off that bibliography and churns out consistent notes. And use whatever text editor you like: on the Mac, that could be TextMate or TeXShop or iTeXMac or Emacs or whatever. Or even Scrivener or Ulysses with something like DevonThink for research organisation.

The professors who use Word's 'Track Changes' aren't helping you: they are pushing a nasty drug. Give them printed copies or PDFs that they can annotate in Acrobat. Word will either eat your dissertation or do its best to eat it just when you least need the hassle. It will distract you with formatting nonsense when you need to concentrate on content. If it's 'trailblazing' to adopt an approach that doesn't mean you're at the mercy of a program that is shite for long, structured documents, then so be it.
posted by holgate at 10:59 PM on July 10, 2008

Nisus Writer Express (you might prefer their Pro version) bills itself as a word processor for writers. You won't be able to do advanced graphing, but what you do get is the features you actually want if you work with words. You can also save in its native .rtf format, as .pdf, or as Word .doc format, so you're good to go in terms of interacting with Word users (I found out about it searching for something that would open my old .wpd files--this program makes me not miss WordPerfect so much as I used to). It also specializes in being able to handle multiple language and character sets, if that's useful to you. I believe they've just added some new Comments features, but you'll have to investigate yourself re: track changes and so forth. Plus, I also find their newsletter kinda funny (funny enough to read it, instead of unsubscribing), so, you know, there's that.
posted by roombythelake at 11:08 PM on July 10, 2008

As much as you might not like it, I do think Word is the best word processor for academic writing.

I wrote my PhD thesis (complete with sizable Endnote library) using Word 2007. The interface update is really quite intuitive, and much easier to use than in previous versions.

Everyone I know who has had a rush of blood to the head and tried OO or Abiword has usually come back to Word. I am certainly no Microsoft apologist, but from a practical point of view it really isn't worth the extra effort of troubling yourself with using a different piece of software to everyone else.

I second one of the above comments, take the time to learn what you can do with Word (style sheets especially).
posted by TheOtherGuy at 12:42 AM on July 11, 2008

Everything has features you won't use. For instance, I wouldn't expect you to use mail merge, but every full-featured word processor has it. Only worry about bloat when it gets in the way of the features you do use.

If you do wind up going with Word, I've heard a number of people suggest, when working with large documents like theses, that you keep each chapter or section as a separate file, and only combine them together at the end. Evidently this makes things a lot faster and more stable.

And whatever software you use, make regular backups (maybe to Amazon's S3 storage?).
posted by aubilenon at 12:43 AM on July 11, 2008

I wrote my master's thesis in Word on my Mac ('04 I think?), and I hated it. If I would have had Pages 08 at the time, I would have used that.

My thesis was 80 pages long, but I had each chapter saved as its own file, so I think Pages definitely could have handled it. Plus, I had lots of graphics in my thesis, and Pages would have been waaaay better for formatting for me.

As a word processor, I think Pages works just fine with all the basic functions that I've ever needed in Word. As someone else pointed out above, Pages is very reasonably priced, including Numbers and Keynote (and I love Numbers so much better than Excel too).
posted by at 5:41 AM on July 11, 2008

Seconding ROU_Xenophobe (and speaking from experience!); while you can use any word processor you want to take notes or work on other projects, I can assure you you'll run into major problems at some point in your dissertation if you do not use Word.

I was suggesting LaTeX!

Do you want to be the trailblazer (when your job is to get a good dissertation) forcing everyone else (friends, committees etc) to spend time on working out HOW TO READ YOUR FILES instead of proofreading them?

They can't open a pdf?

Guaranteed to leave a bad taste in mouth of people you're asking a favor from.

If that's true in your experience, you know some truly horrible people as profs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:45 AM on July 11, 2008

Abiword. Open Office is even more bloaty than Office.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:30 AM on July 11, 2008

I just switched to Mellel/Bookends for my dissertation and I am very happy with it so far. Mellel's stability is superior to Word and it is extremely fast even with very long documents. It does take about a half day of playing around and configuring styles/autotitles/etc to get going, but once you have done the initial setup it is a great tool. For communicating with my advisor, I can either print directly to PDF or use the export to Word document function, which has worked fine on my (admittedly simple--i.e., no pictures or equations) dissertation.

I tried LaTeX for a year and found that it was simply too much effort to make it work correctly. Trying to do what I thought were simple things--such as making block quotes single-spaced while leaving the body text double-spaced--sent me Googling for a long time, forced me to download addition packages from CTAN, etc. Plus, it's an entirely different way of constructing a document than Word, so exporting it to a Word doc for my advisor to look at was an extremely difficult process. If you had to use extensive figures or equations, it's layout capabilities might be worth it, but since you aren't I don't think it's worth the effort.
posted by philosophygeek at 11:06 AM on July 11, 2008

I don't have anything constructive to contribute (I finally gave up and went back to word on finding no satisfactory alternatives), but I just wanted to second the condemnation of Open Office. It's really a total bloatware.
posted by paultopia at 11:10 AM on July 11, 2008

seconding google or zoho docs
othewise abi word or neo office (mac) or open office (customizable).
posted by radsqd at 1:09 PM on July 11, 2008

Only about seven months late to this discussion, but in case somebody stumbles upon this, here's my experience writing a humanities (history) dissertation on a Mac. When the doc got very long, with varied formatting, and many footnotes, any time I attempted doc-wide formatting changes (margins, paragraph or character styles, spacing, footnote formatting, etc.) then MS Word 2008 would hang then crash, and believe it or not Nisus Writer Pro, which was otherwise terrific, did exactly the same thing. I monitor my RAM and that's not the issue (I've got 4 gigs, and the hangs/crashes would happen with 2 gigs free). Mellel is good, quicker and more stable than Word or Nisus, though aesthetics need work and it needs a more intuitive interface. It does integrate well with Sente and Bookmarks (bibliographic software), and its footnotes behave themselves.

Tried learning LaTex, including with various GUI's, such as Lyx, but I found myself spending too much time hunting forums for explanations on how to do simple formatting things (an experience I have had enough of as a web developer). The functionality of LaTex's components took a hit with OS X Leopard, and folks are still coming up with creative workarounds.

However, again believe it or not, I am now finishing the dissertation in iWork Pages '08. I haven't yet stumbled upon anything important to me that it can't do, especially now that Sente interfaces well with it (though not as streamlined as with Mellel). It's more intuitive than Mellel.

So my vote for humanities dissertation work is either Mellel or iWork Pages, using Sente with either one of those. They have both handled long, complex docs, using German, French and Greek in addition to English, and doing so with speed and ease. I give a slight edge to Pages -- more intuitive, more pleasant to look at when you're staring at the screen for days on end, etc.
posted by ruledbyfaith at 1:09 AM on February 21, 2009

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