I recently started writing my dissertation. Although it’s an exciting stage of my program, when I think of the daunting task ahead of me, I often think of Cowper’s “The Castaway.” We scholars are castaways ourselves, “wretches” writing and struggling alone, drowning in piles of papers and stacks of books.
One of the most daunting challenges so far has been figuring out the logistics of how to organize–and actually write–a research project of this scale. Since I imagine many of us are facing similar challenges organizing research and writing tasks, I’m outlining some strategies that I’ve found helpful so far.
One of my greatest frustrations has been trying to keep track of all my research materials and all the various components of the dissertation in all their different formats. I use books and articles in print and electronic formats. Although I’m happy that all of the texts I’m studying are out of copyright (one of the benefits of studying Romanticism!), many are also out of print, and available only through Internet Archive or Google Books. I like to write in my books and add longer notes on sticky notes, but I transcribe all my notes so they’re searchable and do my actual writing on my laptop. I need to be able to take notes quickly when inspiration strikes, whether it’s at 3 a.m. or during a stroll around a lake, in true Wordsworthian fashion.
After a bit of trial and error, I’ve found a system that seems to tame the chaos, and it involves two apps: Papers and Scrivener.
Papers is a research management app that allows you to find, store, and organize research materials. You can search for materials from within the app, which is especially handy if you set it up to search your institution’s library catalogue. The papers in your library are fully searchable, and can be organized into collections or searched using keywords.
You can read and mark up PDFs within the app, but because the markup tools are quite limited, I use Papers primarily as a bibliographic tool. My favourite feature is that Papers lets you insert citations—“magic citations”—into your documents written in other programs, such as Word or Scrivener. You can insert a fully formatted citation (from a list of standard styles, including APA and MLA) or a citekey, which is a little coded entry that Papers uses to create a Works Cited or References list in your finished document.
Papers isn’t perfect, however. The biggest glitch I’ve come across is that it doesn’t have the capacity to record formats in MLA style. If you use the search function in Papers to find an article, it assumes it’s a web document, even if you’re just using metadata for a book you have on your shelf. This format designation can’t be changed, and there’s also nowhere to record the date accessed. I’ve also found errors of italicization and punctuation in the Works Cited lists it produces, so these need to be copyedited carefully.
For my actual writing, I use Scrivener, a word processing app that helps structure long and complex documents more easily. You can have multiple writing projects on the go, in different “binders,” and it’s easy to rearrange all the bits and pieces to get the structure just right. My favourite feature of Scrivener so far is its split-window mode. This allows you to have an article or page of notes open in one window while you write in another.
Although Scrivener does not include PDF annotation tools, it does allow you to open PDFs that you’ve imported into your research binder in an external app, such as Preview or Acrobat. This seems clunky, but works surprisingly well.
Scrivener and Papers work fairly well together, but to create a final manuscript you need to export the file from Scrivener into Word, then format all the Papers citekeys. Thankfully, this is easy to do. The only catch is that once you’ve exported into Word, any last-minute changes do not appear in the Scrivener files, so there’s the potential for version mixups.
Although using Papers and Scrivener works for most of my writing, I use Evernote to capture notes on the fly. I love that it syncs on my laptop and my phone, and it’s easy to paste notes from Evernote into Scrivener.
So far, these tools have helped me keep my research and writing organized and accessible. With any luck, they will continue to take some of the stress out of writing my dissertation.