On leaving MS Word for cleaner pastures

My mini-rant against Microsoft Word prompted reader Sasha to suggest looking into Scrivener. Now wouldn’t you know it, Virginia Heffernen has a nice article on cheesey little website about her move away from the Redmond empire.  It links to a nice essay by Steven Poole on the same topic.

The upshot of both: the process of creative, synthetic writing is largely divorced from the process of formatting mass-produced documents. Our job as academic scientists is not to write memos, but manuscripts. Why not find software that gently removes the distractions, and lets you, and your words, flow? 

So, now with the grant proposal off my desk, its time to clean out my action items and prepare for a short jaunt to Panama. But in the meantime, I’m going to give Scrivener a shot.

Does anybody else find themselves bolting from the confines of MS Word?  Any defenders of this software?  And while we’re at it, what is your software “writing suite”?  For me, it’s

DevonThink Pro as my second-brain software, for organizing and searching my documents

Omni-Outliner to keep lists

Apple’s Pages to write and format documents, and

Endnote for my science bibliography

Note these are listed by order of my affection.  I’m especially open to suggestions as to new writing and bibliography software.   Have at it.


16 Responses to On leaving MS Word for cleaner pastures

  1. dj says:

    (all these are apple os x programs)

    for (non-technical) writing I like writeroom — a clean, simple full screen writing environment.

    for technical writing I like texshop, an excellent latex implementation for the mac

    for bibliography management I like bibdesk, a bibtex frontend that works pretty well for non bibtex users.

  2. prill says:

    How do you integrate Endnote with Pages? I think I would miss the “cite while you write” capability.

  3. André says:

    I am fond of Scrivener. One of its neatest features is its support for Fletcher Penney’s Multiple-Markdown which allows for easy conversion to LaTeX documents directly from Scrivener.

    I’m bolting from Word as my writing preparation tool because I prefer the compatibility that .txt. and .rtf provide us. I don’t know until the very end whether I will produce my text in Word, Mellel, Pages, or LaTeX. That is to say I distinguish writing tools from typesetting tools.

    I too use Omni Outliner for lists; I’m devoted to DevonThink Pro; I mind map with comapping.com; and JoesGoals.com keeps me honest.

  4. Mike says:

    Prill–Cite while you write is snazzy, but a huge memory hog. Turns out, you don’t really need it. I have taken to dragging Endnote’s placemarkers into the Pages MS. When I’m ready to submit the manuscript I export it as an Word file (rtf splits out any inserted images), cross my fingers, and have Endnote/Word format the bibliography. On the grant, this can take 10-15 minutes on a fast MacBook Pro! Then I import it back into Pages and clean it up a bit.

  5. prill says:

    Oh, good. I didn’t even realize you could do that. I guess that’s part of the Microsoft brainwashing. (I just tried it and it worked).

  6. Mike says:

    I’m going to be the unpopular one here and say I still use Word. I have Pages, but I don’t see the advantages. And since my work often includes graphs/charts/tables/pictures/etc. a text-oriented application can be frustrating. I like Word (and Pages, Mellel, and other WYSIWYG software) because that is the way my memory works. I remember where things are on something that looks like a published page and this makes it easier to go back and edit. And I like the idea that something looks finished even when it is not.

    I just made the switch from EndNote to BookEnds (which has Cite-While-You-Write functionality. I like the fact that it is cheaper (both initial and upgrade costs) and I like that the document preview is right there. The one thing I wish is that that I could annotate the documents in the preview window. You can, however, take notes in a note field next to the preview window. Sente is another good alternative worth the try. I just had trouble importing my EndNotes files into its library (which is probably my fault).

    Devonthink Pro is another tool in my arsenal. You can link it to BookEnds, which is nice.

    I use NoteTaker for many other notes. Still perfecting its integration into my workflow.

    Skim is a last piece. I just love the ability to annotate my pdfs!

  7. protoscholar says:

    When they produce Scrivner for a PC I’ll consider switching. Unfortunately Word/Google Docs/OpenOffice are all versions of the same lousy interface without the focus you mention on writing so for the time being I appear stuck.

    (I am considering switching to Mac but the investment I have in PC based technology makes that unlikely until something breaks, and even then i won’t have the time before graduation….)

  8. Arman Abrahamian says:

    If a writing is challenging and needs to be brainstormed and thought out, I use MindManager on PC. I use vertical panel, called Notes, on the right of the screen to write, while the document outline, as a mind map, remains on the left of the screen in front of my eyes. Right after finishing the brainstorming and having fair bit of text covering each topic, I export the whole file as MS Word 2007 (or earlier) file. This way, the branches of my mind map are converted into headings (with proper MS Word styles) and my text goes under each heading. In a second, my mind map gets converted into a proper text file with headings. Then I use MS Word 2007, configured to have minimalist interface, to revise and format the document.
    I use EndNote X for referencing and organising my PDF library. The latest version of EndNote though is much better as it allows to group references. Will have to wait until my Uni gets the license for it.

  9. dnf says:

    I gave Mellel a try, but it’s still lacking a few things — no versioning and/or version comparisons being the deal killer for me. I do like the Styles-heavy interface (I use styles extensively in Word, and wish more people would). They also need better figure support.

    I use DevonThink Pro to organize my papers, thought I’m thinking of integrating Papers (http://mekentosj.com/papers/) – however, I don’t think that the application is featureful enough for what I need just yet. The developers seem pretty responsive — more responsive that the DTP developers, who seem to simply not get and therefore not be particularly interested in how people want to use their product. They can’t see beyond how they think it should be used.

    I think the recent version of Pages has a lot of potential, but not being able to use Endnote (or any other citation software, AFAIK) is also a deal killer.

    All-in-all, I’d really love to see some tighter integration between these programs. I like that Mellel and Bookends developers work together, and I’d love to see Papers and DTP included in that group — there’s a lot of potential for synergies, and I know a lot of people are using all of these apps at the same time.

    As it is today, I’m writing in Word, then doing final layout in InDesign – it’s just so much easier to manage figures in InDesign than it is in Word — ditto styles.

  10. Ryan says:

    The mellel/bookends combo has me hooked. Even better, mellel imports omnioulinter outlines to allow for a smooth move between my outline and writing.

    I tried using devonthink pro, but I never could get the hang of it.

  11. Mark says:

    What I would really like to hear from the respondents and others is how well your particular strategy works with collaborating Windows users. Almost all of my grant/paper writing is collaborative right now, and almost all of my collaborators (and all of my students!) are Windows users = Word & Endnote. After several disasters last year using the traveling library in Endnote/Word, and the ridiculous upgrade tax of Endnote, I really want to break away from this. However, until I can find something that works great on my Mac AND transfers seamlessly to the Windows user, I’m stuck in software purgatory.

  12. Mike says:

    I am still working out solutions to the collaboration across multiple platforms, but the solution has a couple of components

    1) I never format citations, saving that as the last step (along with associated formatting) before the paper goes out the door. Endnote placeholders, as simple bits of text, can be dragged into any word processing software.

    2) I minimally format as well in Pages, and export as a Word file if a colleagues insists on using Word. All Mac software I have checked out, by necessity, has to be able to work with word.

    3) I avoid tracking changes when I go cross platform, due to the performance issues it raises when I bring it back to the Mac. Instead, I ask colleagues to go ahead and make simple stylistic changes, but any content suggestions should be explained in a separate text file.

    4) When it comes time to create the Endnote bibliography, I use it’s feature that allows you to format RTF documents.

    Not perfect, but workable.

  13. Jason Lake says:

    Zotero is an excellent (and free) reference manager… allows you to suck citations from Google scholar and PubMed, capture screenshots of websites, attach files and add tags. You can use a either the cite as you write (Word) or drag and drop (Word, Google docs) method to create your bibliography.
    Very handy bit of kit.

    That been said, I’ve found treepad plus to be an absolute godsend in helping me organise and write my PhD thesis. Simple and to the point bit of kit.

  14. Why users still use to read news papers when in this technological world everything is accessible on net?

  15. AWS  says:


    On leaving MS Word for cleaner pastures | Survive and Thrive in Grad School

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