There are four categories of software for thesis writing: (1) project organizing; (2) word-processing; (3) bibliographic organization; and (4) specialty software. Here are some of the best programs, along with those I find essential to my PhD thesis and scholarly writing workflow.
[UPDATED 10 November 2017 – And I have successfully completed the PhD! Hooray!]
Now I’ll be using a macbook pro for the task, but many of the software programs I mentioned can run on mac or pc (though some run better on one or the other).
Project organizing/note taking.
Some might use a word-processing program for this while others might find a specialized program instead. I’ve heard of many people using Evernote, a free program I also have and like okay but use very little. (If you use Evernote, you must consider Brett Kelly’s guide, Evernote Essentials!) There’s also MS OneNote, Simplenote, and Springpad (see a review of these here).
I’ve decided on a more complicated yet powerful program, Scrivener. It’s difficult to describe what this program does in few words. It is similar to a word-processor–it in fact has a streamlined word processor as a main feature. But it is much more. It allows you to compose, organize and edit a complicated project (like a dissertation, book, or screenplay), its various chapters (or documents), notes and relevant documents (pdfs of articles, summary notes or quotes, etc.), among other things. Learning the program takes an initial investment in time (perhaps a Saturday morning), but the tutorial document walks you through the program’s main features quite nicely. I think this might be the single most powerful program I’ve been using in writing my thesis. In fact, I now have dozens of projects in Scrivener, from academic projects to business ventures. I love it.
So why use this and a word processor? For me, Scrivener’s real power is in the research/note-taking, initial composition and organization–especially organization!–phase of thesis work. While using Scrivener will add a step to the process (as opposed to using Word from the start), I Scrivener saves me time in the long run.
Scrivener is very affordable and they offer great customer support. Here are your four options for when you’re ready to purchase (education licenses are discounted):
Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X (Education Licence) 38.25
Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X (Regular Licence) $45
Scrivener for Windows (Education Licence) $35
Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence) $40
For how the program can be used by students writing in the area of Theology/Religion, see the video below.
Though I’ve not used it, the Dummies guide for Scrivener has excellent reviews for those wanting more help.
While more a ‘service’ than ‘software’, consider a plan for backing up the files you create with all this software! I recommend a physical home back up solution that you perform at least monthly (preferably more often) in addition to a cloud backup of your most important files. For the latter, DropBoxis my choice–sign up for free!
One must, after all, be able to compose, format, and publish the thesis. Some use Scrivener for this (see above), and that is an option. Other opt for Microsoft Word (amzn). While Pages for Mac has some nice features, OpenOffice is capable, too, and I’ve heard a few, mostly those working with the Hebrew language extensively, recommend Mellel (amzn) I have years of experience on Word and it is very widely used. Further, the University of Michigan Library has published a pdf online entitled “Using Microsoft Word 2011 (Mac) for Your Dissertation” to help! If you’re using Word for Mac for academic writing, it’s a must-read.
Yes. WordPress. Starting a blog and writing consistently can not only have a positive impact on your thesis, but it can help you develop professionally and even advance your career. I am convinced my blog contributed to a committee’s decision to award one of Edinburgh’s most competitive scholarships, worth around $65,000 over three years. I have a whole article on just this subject called Start an Academic Blog.
Various programs on the market today specialize in organizing bibliographic data and integrating this data easily into word-processing documents. The top two I’ve heard people using are EndNote (amzn), and Zotero (one might add Nota Bene or Sente). I’ve only used Zotero, but its powerful, efficient, easy to learn/use, and costs nothing! I won’t be looking elsewhere. It also powerfully integrates into Word (for Windows or PC). I can also use it with Scrivener, my organizational and initial composition program. For a video on the power of Zotero for a theological library, see Andy Naselli’s helpful blog post here.
A lot of research goes into thesis writing. Let me introduce you to a web tool I’ve created to help: reSearch Engine. Just enter a search term, press enter, and presto.
Many disciplines have powerful niche programs suitable for research in a particular area. For me, the ability to powerfully search and collate data regarding an ancient language is enhanced and streamlined with the aid of one of the handful of such programs available today. The top three programs in this regard are Accordance, Logos, and BibleWorks, all now running on both Mac and PC.
I have and use all three and each has its pros and cons. I will likely use Accordance for my “quick and dirty” searching and copy-pasting of ancient languages. Of course, its a powerful program that can do intense searches, and I will likely use it for this when such searches are needed. Logos is my go to program for secondary resources, especially exegetical commentaries and quick referencing church fathers or other ancient sources. Logos has not just saved me money on print books, it has saved me from needing multiple book shelves!
I find myself using BibleWorks less and less, but this is primarily because using it requires me to boot up Windows with my virtualization software (Parallels for Mac is great, by the way)–though this is changing–and Accordance can do virtually everything BibleWorks can. I am a bit more comfortable doing complicated searches in BibleWorks vs. Accordance, but that may reflect my own inexperience with Accordance. Logos is also capable of original language searching, but I have not used it for this. I suppose I ought to invest some time in each of these programs and check back in with what I find.
I’d be happy to hear what others are using and find helpful.
Finding sources to cite is easy5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money)5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money)For a lot of people academic journals are hard to get hold of. They are also expensive. But with the right tools, you can get your hands on any academic journals you want.Read More. Planning a paper is easy. Sitting down and writing the thing? Much harder, and though there’s no shortage of word processors, not all are well-suited to academic writing.
As someone currently working on my dissertation, I know this problem all too well. So I found five popular Mac applications commonly used for academic writing and reviewed each in order to see which excelled the most when it comes to writing college papers and dissertations.
Here’s what I found.
At just short of $45, Ulysses is one of the more expensive applications in this rundown. I reviewed version 2.0, which runs exclusively on 64-bit Macs running Yosemite. There’s also an iPad version ($19.99), which Bakari reviewed recentlyUlysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPadUlysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPadWe're no strangers to the Mac versions of Pages and Ulysses or the earlier version of Write for iOS, but which is of these apps is best for writing on your iPad?Read More.
Ulysses is, like Desk and iA Writer, a markdown-oriented text editor. Markdown allows you to format text using a special syntax, rather than pressing a button in an application. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t break your workflow, and text written in MarkDown can be copied between applications without losing formatting.
Another advantage of Markdown is that it’s incredibly easy to learn, not just because we published a guideLearning Markdown: Write For The Web, FasterLearning Markdown: Write For The Web, FasterMarkdown is the best way to write in plain text but still create complex documents. Unlike HTML or LaTex, for example, Markdown is simple to learn.Read More to it last year. Ulysses is different from other markdown editors in a number of ways that distinguish it from the pack.
Firstly, it allows you to separate texts into individual sections, each within their own writing space. This is handy if your university project is effectively an anthology of texts, as most dissertations are.
Secondly, Ulysses allows you to change the theme from a bright one, to a more subdued night-mode version which looks great when working in the dark. It also comes with a command palette that feels oddly reminiscent of Sublime Text 2Try Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing NeedsTry Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing NeedsSublime Text 2 is a cross-platform code editor I only recently heard about, and I have to say I'm really impressed despite the beta label. You can download the full app without paying a penny...Read More, which allows you to navigate your document without endlessly scrolling, just like VimThe Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A ChanceThe Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A ChanceFor years, I've tried one text editor after another. You name it, I tried it. I used each and every one of these editors for over two months as my primary day-to-day editor. Somehow, I...Read More.
Ulysses also makes it easy to set goals, which is handy when you’re unmotivated and trudging through the tedium of a literature review. Unfortunately it doesn’t natively support any major reference managers, such as EndNote and ZoteroTake The Stress Out Of Referencing With ZoteroTake The Stress Out Of Referencing With ZoteroEssays are dry. They're time consuming. They're dull. And the worst part of it? Referencing. Thankfully, there's an app out there making referencing less frustrating.Read More, and it doesn’t allow you to embed images or graphics.
Despite these limitations, it’s a perfectly adequate markdown editor, and one that lends itself favorably to academic applications.
iA Writer Pro ($20)
I’m a fan of iA Writer. We reviewed the non-proiA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never UsediA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never UsedBe it a school paper or a blog post, all of us at some point find ourselves in the position of having to dump a bunch of characters into a text file. While cell phone...Read More version of it back in 2013 and it immediately became my writing application of choice. Why?
The app is markdown-based, so you can add formatting as you write without getting distracted or having your writing pane filled with superfluous toolbars and ribbons. It also allows you to focus on the writing, as it puts the text in the center of your screen and a simple, readable typeface contrasts with the austere, white background.
That’s the cheaper, non-pro version. I’ve since moved on to the professional version, and I’m convinced it too is an excellent choice for markdown aficionados tasked with academic writing.
iA Writer Pro comes all the same features of the cheaper version that allow you to focus on the writing, but brings with it a ‘night mode’ theme, which is great for late night work.
It also allows you to drill-down on your text and identify parts of your writing you can remove and refactor, such as adverbs, verbs, and prepositions. Given academic writing strongly emphasizes conciseness and precision, this is really helpful.
But iA Writer Pro is lacking some features that are helpful when it comes to academic writing. It doesn’t support third-party plugins, which makes it hard to import your citations in from Zotero, or any other reference manager. It also only lets you to work one document at a time, unlike Ulysses’s multi-sheet approach to document editing.
Despite those drawbacks, it’s only $20 and makes it easy to be focused and productive, and is therefore worth a consider.
Scrivener 2 ($45)
Scrivener is an inexpensive application with an excruciatingly steep learning curve. It’s commonly used by people working in the creative industries, and has found a niche as a tool for writing screenplays and scripts. But despite this pedigree, it is also worth considering for your next academic paper.
Scrivener, like Ulysses, lets you break your document into manageable chunks, and tackle them one at a time. Editing is done through a graphical interface, with formatting added through the application, rather than using Markdown syntax.
But perhaps the killer feature of Scrivener is its ‘cork board’. This allows you to manage, collect, and collate resources you might want to use in your paper, such as images, notes and references.
Scrivener supports a handful of popular third-party bibliography applications, which means you don’t have to adjust your system of managing citations and references. It also allows you to create snapshots – or versions – of your text, and revert back to them when you want to return to an earlier form of your work. This is similar to how Git worksWhat Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a DeveloperWhat Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a DeveloperAs web developers, a lot of the time we tend to work on local development sites then just upload everything when we’re done. This is fine when it’s just you and the changes are small,...Read More, which is a version control system used by programmers.
However, Scrivener lacks the sleek, distraction-free aesthetics of iA Writer and Ulysses, which makes it less than ideal for long writing sprints where your focus might wander. It’s also rather expensive, and takes a few hours (and a lot of reading) to fully get to grips with.
Microsoft Word 2016 Preview Edition (Free)
It’s hard not to talk about word processors, and not mention Microsoft Word. It’s the incumbent, and has been for a couple of decades now. Go to any university, and you’ll find Microsoft Word is the de-facto word processor. This due to that fact that it’s well understood, supported by Microsoft, and works well with other the packages in the Microsoft Office family.
Microsoft recently released the preview version of Word 2016, and is currently available as a free download before being publicly released.
This latest version represents the biggest change to Microsoft Word on OS X for almost 5 years. It comes with a sleek new aesthetic that makes it feel like the modern, premium word processor it is. For once, you’re going to want to write with Word.
But as a tool for writing Academic papers, how does it stand up? Well, it’s not a distraction-free editor like iA Writer is, but that’s fine. It makes up for that by being well-rounded and complete, boasting all the features any university student or academic could possibly need.
One of the most compelling features for any student is its built-in citation manager, which offers many of the features of Zotero, and can produce references in APA, MLM and Chicago style.
Unlike iA Writer Pro and Ulysses, Word allows you to insert and embed figures and graphics, and create charts that underscore the points you make.
This makes it one of the more compelling packages for academic writing. The only problem is that when it exits the beta phase, it will ultimately cost a good chunk of change. This free version will eventually cease to work, so you’ll have to purchase Word as part of the Office 2016 release if you want to keep the functionality you’ve gotten used to. In the Apple Store, Office 2011 costs $139.95, so expect Office 2016 to cost something approaching that.
It’s also worth noting that beta applications can ship with bugs that might end up destroying all your hard work. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to make regular backups if you decide to use it.
Pages is part of iWork, Apple’s flagship productivity suite. Apple made it available free of charge to anyone who purchased Mac on or after October 1, 2013. Everyone else can purchase it for $19.99 on the Mac App Store, which is pretty good for a fully-fledged word processor.
As a tool for getting words on a page, it’s solid. It comes with a number of templates for academic writing. However, these overwhelmingly are geared towards a style of academic writing that’s more common in the American university system, than in the British and Antipodean ones. That said, it’s easy enough to tweak a template, and formatting text in Pages is simple enough for this not to be too much of a barrier.
Pages also supports academic citations through EndNote, a perfectly competent though expensive reference manager, with a license costing around $250. The closest free alternative, Zotero, hasn’t released a plugin for iWork and given the niche status of Apple’s iWork when it comes to productivity software, I doubt they ever will.
Pages can also produce incredible graphics and charts with a button’s press. This makes it ideal for those writing papers with a somewhat data-driven emphasis.
For those on a tight budget, it remains the best option, and poses a serious challenge to the likes of Scrivener and Ulysses.
No Surprises Here
It should come as absolutely no surprise that the two packages I’m ultimately going to recommend are ones made by Microsoft and Apple; both giants in what they do. Pages and Word are just too complete and functional to not recommend, and offer the most value for money (at least while Word is free).
As a close second, I’d also recommend iA Writer Pro, which despite lacking a number of killer features like EndNote integration and bibliography management, offers the best writing experience of any application listed in my opinion.
What do you use to write your academic papers? Leave me a comment below and we’ll chat.
Image Credits: student with laptop Via Shutterstock
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