Apps for Academic Writing

Discussion in 'Mac Apps and Mac App Store' started by wilflare, May 27, 2014.

  1. wilflare macrumors member

    Sep 3, 2010
    My final semester of my undergraduate life begins in August where I have to complete a thesis (of about 15K words). I am a History Major so there would be a need for plenty of citations/references, etc. After four years of academic writing, I do have issues focusing. Usually my OCD will act up trying to write the perfect essay (which simply ends with me having a writer's block). I have tried a few apps (OmniWriter, etc) only to end up with the Focus screen on Microsoft Word.

    Hope to have some suggestions from the community on what apps I can use to help manage writing this thesis-monster (citations are a chore :/). I did some research on my own and found some of the following names coming up quite often
    - Scrivener (how compatible is it with MS Word?)
    - Bookend
    - iA Writer (really interested in this for some kind of distraction-free writing)
    - Zotero
    - EndNote
    - Google Doc, Evernote, Dropbox (from friends. haha I welcome ideas to ensure my draft doesn't disappear if my MBP crashes.. the SSD just died... so yea)

    There are some things I do need though. Like preferably, it should be compatible with MS Word (easier to send my supervisor etc)

    Really hope to hear from you. Since there are still some months away, I figured it'll be a good time for me to learn some new tricks to manage academic writing if needed.


    On a side note, I think I kinda want to get into free writing/journaling again. Hoping to be a videogames/tech blogger or something like that. Any suggestions on how to get back into writing? I've read a number of sites recommending
    - Day One (I kinda like how it looks, may give it a go. But I just hope it allows me to keep separate journals, like one for Life, one for Games, etc)

    Thought of just writing to Tumblr/Wordpress but I don't think I get anywhere with those. Would much prefer to type my entry elsewhere and just publish to those platforms later (if needed)

    Thank you!
  2. monokakata macrumors 68000


    May 8, 2008
    Hilo, Hawai'i
    It's been years since I wrote anything with citations (I was a co-author not long ago, but the other guy handled the citations).

    I'll speak only to Scrivener. The answer to your question about compatibility is yes. With Scrivener, when you're finished (or at any time you need one), you tell Scrivener to write out a Word document for you. I've never had any problems handing a Scrivener-generated Word document over to people to read and mark up in Word. So don't worry about that.

    I'm a Scrivener fan and I can tell you exactly why -- and it might be a reason for you to explore it (free trial).

    If you're the kind of writer who prefers to work in small chunks and then rearrange those chunks in different ways, depending on how you're thinking about organization, and changing that organization often -- Scrivener will be a great tool for you. Revising and rearranging is very easy with Scrivener.

    But if you're the kind of writer who likes to begin and then plow through to the end, Scrivener has nothing in particular to offer you over Word, let's say, or any other standard sort of word processor.

    I'm not one to yell at posters for not having done a search . . . but I'd mount a search of this site if I were you. There was a very long thread, full of interesting and useful material, maybe two years ago. It pops up again from time to time.

  3. exegete77 macrumors 6502a

    Feb 12, 2008
    Scrivener would be my top choice. I use it for separate projects: entire curriculum for our seminary, blogs, and book reviews. Works like a charm. If you are serious about Scrivener it is well worth the time to take the LearnScrivenerFast course ($150). You will be writing using the full power of Scrivener.

    If I didn’t use Scrivener, I would use Mellel (limitation is integration with Word). It handles multiple independent footnotes/endnotes, powerful auto-titles, and great style sheets.

    If that were not available, then Nisus Writer Pro is my choice. Everything is .rtf formatted, so be careful how you save to Word format. One way works the other runs into glitches.

    I use all three programs, Mellel for use with Hebrew, and Nisus for every day writing (but it is still powerful as well).

    I use Bookends as my citation manager and it works with all three programs.
  4. Jessica Lares macrumors G3

    Jessica Lares

    Oct 31, 2009
    Near Dallas, Texas, USA
    Scrivener has "Composition Mode" which is customizable and will let you write in full screen without anything but the background and text.

    I save/work on my projects from the OneDrive folder. You could have a similar setup with Dropbox, etc too.
  5. wilflare thread starter macrumors member

    Sep 3, 2010
    thanks! I'll definitely check out the thread you have given.
    think it's gonna take some time to go thru everything.

    the situation you've mentioned describes my case perfectly. I can't write in a structured manner (my ideas are all over the place, in chunks, etc that I end up putting together at the last stages).

    has anyone used things like iA Writer or "Day One" or are they totally different apps for different purposes
  6. monokakata macrumors 68000


    May 8, 2008
    Hilo, Hawai'i
    Sounds like Scrivener will work well for you.

    Get the free trial and start experimenting.

    It doesn't matter what you call a "chapter" or a "chunk" or a "passage" -- you only have to understand that it's a defined section of text. There's no lower or upper limit, although in practice you're probably not going to create a chunk that's smaller than a few paragraphs. But hey . . . if you want to, you can.

    You do this by creating "new text," and then naming that text. Type in whatever. When you have what you want, create another "new text," name it, and so on.

    When you want to move them around -- change order -- you can just drag them. You can make sections with text chunks in the sections.

    And so on. I'd recommend spending time making dummy text sections and practicing with them.

    Also be sure to explore the "corkboard." What it can display might be really useful to you.
  7. MCAsan macrumors 601


    Jul 9, 2012
    One think I did not catch....what are the technical requirements? Having used Word for long contract documents with citations, references, and all manner of things.....I can't think of something you may need that it does not do.
  8. Jessica Lares macrumors G3

    Jessica Lares

    Oct 31, 2009
    Near Dallas, Texas, USA
    Day One doesn't allow you to have multiple journals (it has tagging though, which can help). But it's a great app.

    I have iA's new Writer Pro (the upgrade from their original iA Writer), it's very good. However, I wouldn't recommend it in your situation because you have to rely on references and are not so much free writing. These distraction-free apps are great for writers that want a blank canvas to work on blissfully, but not so much for students writing essays based on material they found on the internet and ebooks.

    You didn't like Ommwriter, so it's very likely you won't find iA Writer any better.

    You'd benefit more from Scrivener's split panels, binder, notecards, and it'll help you bring in your citations from Zotero easily. It even has its own reference system.

    And it still feels like a typical word processor.
  9. AndyK macrumors 65816


    Jan 10, 2008
    I wrote my 13k dissertation on Word for Mac, it did the job pretty well.
  10. aaronvan Suspended


    Dec 21, 2011
    República Cascadia
  11. wilflare thread starter macrumors member

    Sep 3, 2010
    hmm. I need to go thru the format requirements doc sent out by the Faculty again. they seem to have changed some bits of it (from what I've been used to the past four years... been using Chicago mostly)

    no multiple journals on Day One is a bummer. but I'm thinking of using it to start me on journaling (about my life.. and whatever else)

    hmm. sorry I wasn't clear on this! what would you recommend for free/casual writing (think blog posts, articles, reviews, etc for gaming/tech sites) - Would iA Writer or Day One help in this? - this is totally separate from my academic writing discussion :X

    I've survived my past four years too... but the past two years been quite a struggle with Word... constant writer's block, etc (maybe it's just me)

    will definitely give it a go once I get my MBP back up!
  12. Jessica Lares macrumors G3

    Jessica Lares

    Oct 31, 2009
    Near Dallas, Texas, USA
    Still couldn't go wrong with just Scrivener. :D

    Scrivener as a complete Blogging System

    iA Writer would work just as well though. ;)
  13. Cassady macrumors 6502a


    Jul 7, 2012
    Another vote for Scrivener.

    Absolutely nothing wrong with Word. It does what it needs to, and does it well.
    With this being said - it forces you in a particular direction, possibly as a result of what we ourselves bring to the table: i.e. we all have a very rigid idea of what Word does, and how one is to use it. This inevitably results in a very particular way of working with it - and when you're in the writing/creation stage of things, this is not necessarily a good thing [of course it could be, but that will largely depend on you as a person!].

    Scrivener is a clean slate. I converted 6 chapters of my dissertation into RTF form, and threw them into Scrivener. Converted the former footnotes to inline footnotes, and for the first time, was able to get the "flow" of my arguments [it previously being split between the main text and the footnotes at the bottom]. I divided lengthy chapters into small little chunks, in a matter of minutes - and then strange things started happening. I started seeing things/patterns/links that were formerly obscured. I moved sections around, and then moved them again. I dragged and dropped, and then started hammering and writing...

    I have a long way to go still - but it was quite scary (for me at least) to see how much change was brought about, simply by my walking away from the only word processor I had ever used, by suddenly really "seeing" my words again, as opposed to me simply skimming over what had been there for months already, inside a straight-jacketed Word document...

    Each to their own -- but that's what made Scrivener so powerful for me. It broke my own assumptions about my own work, and replaced it with something different. It's not necessarily a case of how Scrivener does things differently, but what it can cause you to do differently...

    I will still use Word to format everything before sending it off. So it will still the final link in the chain. But as mentioned before, if you are planning on creating whilst writing, Scrivener should be a no-brainer, imo. If you're likely to do all your research and reading in advance, before sitting down for a full month or so, and simply hammering away from start to finish, then Word will no doubt do the job. Just as it has for millions of people before, and millions still to come. I will say it again - there is absolutely nothing wrong with Word - it just depends on what you want to get out of it....

    Last thing -- invest in a proper Reference Manager. I never knew how much I needed one, until I started using one. I use Bookends. It has a steep learning curve - but Support is second to none. But have a look around, there are no doubt very good ones out there [with the exception of EndNote on the Mac! :rolleyes: ].... I cannot begin to explain the difference between a 25 page bibliography being manually typed and edited/updated -- and one done automatically, by a reference manager, based on the citations you have used in your dissertation -- in a few seconds, before your very eyes... :D

    Oh wait -- last, last thing. If you plan on writing your dissertation, and then leaving things there for a start in your chosen profession - then all good. But if you're planning on getting into the Academic world, and hope to make it and research your future career, then get a database manager sooner, rather than later. OR pick a reference manager that can offer you most of those features. I would advise against waiting like I did, before trying to wrestle control back over a 3000+/- PDF database of journal articles... :eek:

    If you're thinking of a database manager -- my vote goes to DevonThink Pro Office. Pricey -- but paid itself back already, a gazillion times over.... ;)

    Good luck!
  14. wilflare thread starter macrumors member

    Sep 3, 2010
    this is awesome! lol guess I may not have to buy Day One or iA Writer afterall.
    but I may just buy them to see how they go with daily/casual writing. heh.

    thanks! I think I really need to get a database/reference manager - the management of that is hell and I often make mistakes since I always do them last.... Many friends recommend Zotero so I'm kinda inclined towards that! Hope it plays well with Scrivener
  15. wilflare thread starter macrumors member

    Sep 3, 2010
    not sure if it is the place to continue the discussion
    but for those of you who use Scrivener - how do you continue your work on the PC (Windows)

    I use a Desktop when I'm at home and with the bigger screen and all it's easier to manage multiple documents/readings
  16. Janichsan macrumors 65816


    Oct 23, 2006
    There's a Windows version of Scrivener.
  17. blipmusic, Jun 1, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2014

    blipmusic macrumors regular

    Feb 4, 2011
    May I suggest a writing workflow that ends with latex (which is not exactly an app but a typesetting system with academia as its biggest target group)?

    I realize not everyone like to work this way and want a what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface (there is LyX, Texpad and Latexian for that, but I haven't them it myself). Take this post as a heads up for anyone interested in long form plain text writing (iA Writer and Byword are both plain text apps, using (multi)markdown - the Byword people have a nice guide and syntax overview), rather than a "use this or perish!" kind of post.

    Some want an all-in-one app that treats e.g. a phd thesis like a project with all notes, figures etc bundled together. I will personally never go back to a "container" format for long form writing and I do all my writing in plain text nowadays. Cross references, citations, glossing sentences etc all work like a charm and examples are auto-numbered and changes automatically when compiling, should you need to rearrange sections etc (I have colleagues who manually number examples and use tabbing and the spacebar to get word by word translations lined up with the original language in Word - complete waste of time).

    Formatting is a different process than content creation (that is, writing) and this system keeps them separate. Using plain text means any computer using any OS can retrieve the content of the file(s) should anything go wrong - you can't really "break" the file. Even if a person doesn't have latex installed, the file will open just fine since it's just a plain text file with some extra markup (kind of like html in concept, in that you tag portions of your text, e.g. a second level heading might look like \subsection{TITLE GOES HERE}, italics look like \emph{WORDS GO HERE}).

    The markup used is usually what stop people from trying it since it might look like some sort of light weight programming. A good text editor usually helps out here though by highlighting the markup part, together with good shortcuts and auto-completion.

    Before I get too long-winded here's what's needed:

    A latex installation (free): Use MacTex. (these are all the macros that create a very pretty document from your markup plain text file).

    A text editor that talks to your latex installation. This is your "interface". MacTeX comes with TeXShop, which is a free text editor made for use with latex. I use sublime text - the latexing plugin has support for Mendeley etc (all I use is bibtex as a plain text file, currently). There's also TextMate 2 that became open source not too long ago (i.e. it's free). Both have latex support.

    A pdf viewer, since pdf will usually be your distribution format. I use Skim, rather than, due to being latex aware.

    One way to go about the actual writing is to write using the latex syntax directly (most of your text will just be paragraphs of text with very little in terms of markup anyway).

    Or you can do simpler portions of the text in Markdown which is a very simple and human readable markup language by John Gruber (this is what e.g. iA Writer uses), that has since been extended into Multimarkdown that has better support for some academic purposes (you could try Multimarkdown Composer but any/most plain text editor/s has support for markdown these days). Multimarkdown Composer exports to latex as well (I hear Ulysses III will get latex export "soon” as well). And pandoc can handle converting into e.g. .doc or .docx if you absolutely need a Word document (I hope you won't but the argument for using Word nowadays is circular anyway - "We use Word because it's what others use").

    In fact I suggest that if you handle text based data of any kind I'd learn to use a plain text editor anyway since they can be extremely powerful tools when it comes to handling plain text with a few simple regex patterns (search and replace etc) even if you do not code outside of using latex (I currently don't...).

    There is a bit of a learning process but once you pop...

    Sorry, might have confused more than helped. Anyway just a suggestion. Lots of people use it since it's very powerful and creates pretty documents. I suggest using xelatex when typesetting for better utf8 support together with the fontspec package (included in the huge MacTex distribution linked above) so that you can use your system fonts as-is (I need both IPA and Japanese and this simplifies things for me).

    As for traditional word processors there's LibreOffice (using the OpenDocument format) and Mellel as well.

    Confused yet? That's ok. We all were at some point. Some stayed with latex for life and some went back to wysiwyg word processing, mostly for worse (I am biased, though...).
  18. Janichsan macrumors 65816


    Oct 23, 2006
    LaTeX is great. I wrote both my diploma thesis and my PhD thesis with it. There's quite a learning curve, though.
  19. ranmyaku macrumors newbie

    Jun 20, 2012
    LaTeX is great, I agree; however, I think it depends on whether you do collaborative writing.

    For collaborative projects, you need a format that is universal, so word wins out in my opinion.

    I use LaTeX for my CV and Word +/- Scrivener for other projects (in the sciences).
  20. roadbloc macrumors G3


    Aug 24, 2009
    Microsoft Word is my first choice. It has gotten me through my education and writing career so far without a hitch. These other specialist word processors often have too many distracting and kinda useless features for me and also lack the compatibility needed for the rest of the Microsoft Office using world.

    There is a reason why Word is the most popular word processor. It's because it is the best (in my humble opinion).
  21. swiftaw macrumors 603


    Jan 31, 2005
    Omaha, NE, USA
    I respectfully disagree, LaTeX is more universal than Word, especially if you collaborate with people who run Linux systems. I can see making an argument for using Word for collaboration due to things like Track Changes, but in the end, in my opinion the equation handling and formatting abilities of LaTeX make it the winner.

    I usually use TexShop as my LaTeX front end, with BibDesk to handily my bibliography/references.
  22. blipmusic, Jun 2, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2014

    blipmusic macrumors regular

    Feb 4, 2011
    Sorry, but that's Word in a nutshell to me, compared to what I use. There are few things less distracting than a plain text editor (preferably with a dark-ish theme).

    Learning to efficiently use a plain text editor can in itself be incredibly productive and time saving for anyone dealing with text, but that's more of a side effect. Again, I realize not everyone wants that kind of interface when writing. I absolutely love it, however.

    Writing in plain text has actually helped my writing process a lot, whether using latex, markdown or no markup what so ever (content first, formatting later - I can still very easily semantically markup portions of the the text with e.g. markdown).

    The "because everyone else is using it" hardly speaks for using it if it's not a good solution for the kind of writing you do. That is, you come off as if you are using it for the wrong reasons. It certainly wasn't the right solution for me, for lots of reasons. It seems it is for you (and that's fine).

    Word is at times not even fully compatible with itself (document format changes over the years seems to have made sure of that). Any old computer can open a .txt file.

    The project I currently work in is currently looking into good workflows just to retrieve data from legacy proprietary word processor formats that are no longer supported or documented (Word and other old applications). What makes it even more fun was the lack of unicode in those days, meaning we'll have to find custom fonts to save the data - that's hardly Word's fault, of course, but plain text would have helped us immensely.

    Let's agree not to agree. I'm glad you are happy with your tools, however (not being sarcastic).
  23. monokakata macrumors 68000


    May 8, 2008
    Hilo, Hawai'i
    I agree, except about how Word enters the mix because everybody is using it. In the world where you have to share documents, there's no longer any real choice, which is a pity. When I was a professor I was often annoyed by students who turned in their work in odd formats, because that made extra work for me. I took it anyway, of course, and tried not to get down on the content. But in the world of sending things out to publishers, editors, readers -- if you don't send precisely what they want, which is my experience is Word, Word, always Word, it's pretty much over.

    I too like to work in a simple editor -- I cut my computing teeth with DEC's text editors KED and EDT -- but I wouldn't dare send a .txt file out, and not .rtf and probably not Open Office, either. It's not right, but that's the way it is.

    That's why I like Scrivener. I can work in a simple environment, but at the end when I have no choice but to produce a Word document, I can.

    Your project seems fascinating to me (hey, I taught archaeology for years). I still have some of those old EDT files. Usually I open them with Bean, because to me that's the cleanest text editor. Eventually they go into Word because . . . well, I already said why.

    Is your project public in any way? Website? I'd like to know more about it.
  24. Angra-mainju macrumors regular

    Mar 18, 2009
    Dissertation and Mac

    Hey man,

    I just did my 10.6k finance dissertation in Pages. It was a bit of pain in the neck especially with graphs and equations but you are history, you should be fine. Re references, just do simple bulletpoints.
  25. blipmusic macrumors regular

    Feb 4, 2011
    Well, what you are actually saying is that you *can* use the tool you are the most comfortable with, Scrivener in this case, and still produce a document that will be accepted. I believe Scrivener actually has pretty good latex export as well if you want to get your hands dirty later on. ;)

    What I am trying to get at is that the end format that will be saved/archived should be considered more carefully nowadays when we both create and produce the end product in the digital space or data might actually become unrecoverable in the future. Scrivener, just as plain text with latex markup, are working formats (this is where we choose what tools to use). A pdf is a distribution format. Is it ok if I call a Word document somewhere in between those two? As long as unicode stays, a simple plain text document saved in utf8 will cover many, many languages' writing systems and probably always be future safe, whereas other formats might struggle in this regard. So even if you hand in a Word document in the end, try to save a copy in a way that will ensure future recoverability.

    A markup language in a plain text format helps in this case as you have both saved the formatting and the content. Even if the system that ensures the formatting displays correctly completely disappears, the file - as it's just a plain text file - will still be viewable on any computer and the content is easily retrievable.

    Sorry, I realize I might come off as condemning some tools and people using these tools here. That was not my intent. It's just that I've experienced first hand what it can lead to and the only way of break the "everyone uses Word" line of thinking is to look elsewhere. The upshot is that some people might actually find tools they like better by doing so (it doesn't in any way ensure that everyone will pick tools that use non-proprietary formats of course...).

    I actually bought Scrivener but always come back to plain text due to its simplicity, universality and my choice of app to write in (personal preference). Some publishers accept latex files nowadays (at least that was the experience of a friend of mine) but I imagine that's only in the academic field and still very uncommon.

    We're dealing with a group of minority languages in South-East Asia that aren't very well documented. A lot of data was collected during the 70s-90s so digitizing, organizing and contextualizing data that previously existed only in legacy formats (physical - open reels! - and digital) in order to make it available for current and future researchers is a large part of what we do.

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