Posts filed under Writing

In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man Is an Alien

Workflows and Collaborators


Whenever I find a product or a workflow that allows me greater concentration, I find reverting back to the old ways especially painful. A great example of this is my TextExpander: I can’t type on someone else’s computer, because I have so many snippets that have worked into my writing (I have even caught myself writing a snippet when writing something in long-hand). Adjusting to the workflows of others can be especially daunting, especially when they tend to do things in ways that are tragically inefficient. I had this experience with my dissertation.

The Problem

I guess my readers have observed that I am a big fan of Scrivener. I don’t know of a better writing tool. And while many use Scrivener for creative writing, I have discovered that it essential for academic writing. Almost everything I write starts out in Scrivener, unless it starts in Ulysses. If I have to open a MSWord document, I feel a tiny pang of disappointment and malaise.

So you can imagine my horror at having to write my dissertation in Word. My committee members wanted to track changes and see revisions throughout the process. I deeply appreciated all of the feedback (and they gave me LOTS to be appreciative of), but I couldn’t functionally use Scrivener for my dissertation and maintain a lot of the tracking that was being done. If you’ve seen the APA template for Scrivener, it is SO awesome. I had edited the compile menu for my institution’s unique requirements, but I rarely had to do any formatting work. There are ways to collaborate with others not using Scrivener; but in the end, I just decided to use Word and keep moving.

This happens in other situations as well. I’m on a research team where everyone wants to do everything on a Google doc. I spent hours trying to convince a colleague to use Trello, only to discover that I’d spent more time in the persuasion than the work would actually take. I created an OmniPlan project for a huge disability compliance project, only to find that the rest of the team just wanted to use a spreadsheet. I’m not the most powerful power-user, but among some that I am fated to work with, I am often advocating for tools and methods that present insurmountable barriers to those I’m working with.

The Solution

I have found that there are several questions that need to be explored in doing collaborative work, and particularly in terms of what tools or methods will be employed in the collaboration. While some of these questions may seem obvious, I’ve discovered that I actually have to be intentional about asking them.

  1. Does the choice of tool/method slow me down, or the entire team? I am learning that I tend to assume that if I am slowed, the entire team is slowed; call it the illusion of validity cognitive bias. It is entirely possible that the net-effect of using spreadsheets to track the progress of a project is faster for the team, even if it takes more time for me individually.
  2. Does the choice of tool/method really result in different outcomes? Is a presentation in Powerpoint any less effective than a presentation in Google Slides or Keynote? Shouldn’t I get similar statistics from Stata, R, SPSS, and Excel? Does Dedoose or NVivo really provide any better observations of qualitative data than notecards spread out on the floor? If the tool or method does result in different outcomes, then I am more comfortable in advocating for the right tool - but I think it’s a question that must be answered.
  3. What is the ROI of training/investment regarding a tool or method? If, as a team, it takes 20 person-hours of training to use a tool that saves 2 person-hours, is that a useful tradeoff? Sometimes the benefit is not in hours saved, but in accuracy. In the example of the disability compliance project, the stakes of missing a deadline with the Office of Civil Rights are potentially quite high. I decided to fight for a system that would allow us to see deadlines and contingencies throughout the reporting process. In other instances, I find that low stakes or minimal return on investments of time, resources, or finances in training an ad hoc team to use the right tool may justify a hearty shoulder-shrug.
  4. What is my real investment in this tool/method? In the example of my dissertation, I so very much looked forward to the elegance, efficiency, and delight of my beloved writing tool. It has served me so well in all of my other writing; why should I not use it in my magnum opus??? I had to come to terms with the realization that I probably could go through the collaborative process with my committee in Word just fine - I just didn’t want to. It boiled down to an emotional investment. I might be willing to fight for an emotional investment; but I at least want to deliberate about the fight before throwing down the gauntlet.

When You DO Decide to Fight

I think it’s fair to assert that sometimes my tools/methods are better than those that others. I may have given more time, energy, and development in my approach. Others may have defaulted to the familiar, or chosen tools and methods that lead to poorer outcomes. In situations where I’ve decided to the adoption of my tools and methods, I’m learning that I need to evaluate my own mindset. Here are some tips…

  1. Be Prepared to Train! This is deeper than the obvious “Show them how to do it.” I had a staff-member who wasn’t keeping her part of a project updated in Trello. As it happens, she had lost the password, and the password recovery emails were going to her spam folder. So the training became “how to find emails in the Google spam folder.” One would assume that practitioners in higher education would think about how we train one another, but I am constantly discovering ways in which I fail to think about how learning happens for colleagues.
  2. Be Prepared to be Patient! Maybe it’s just me; but I act like “Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy” more often than I’d care to admit, even if it’s in my own head. You know what? I’ve been working on my task-management system since September of 1992. I spent hours learning how to use OmniPlan on I don’t remember my password for Trello either: it’s just that Dashlane remembers it for me.
  3. Be Prepared to Be Responsible! If I assert my own tool or method with a team, it’s probably only fair to assume that I should be responsible for that approach. For example, when I did decide that our compliance team was using OmniPlan, I had to assume that I would be the one building the project with that tool. If Larry wants to use his dang spreadsheet to manage the project, I’m sure we can argue whether Larry should be in charge of building the spreadsheet. But I’m learning that when I advocate for “a better way,” that likely means that I’ll be the one responsible for that choice.
  4. Be Prepared to Learn from Others! It may not appear obvious to this point in the post, but there is an assumption that underlies the entire theme: that I know best how things ought to be done, that I am the one-eyed man among the blind. My assistant started using Trello because I asked her to; but I realized soon after that I needed her to train me on all of the ninja things she’s learned to do with it. Remember when I mentioned the research team wanting to use Google Docs? Turns out, it was a GREAT way to do that project.

I’ll write more about some collaboration tools and methods that I think can be very effective for research and teaching; but I think that it is imperative to ask important questions about the value of those tools before assuming that there is a “better way.” And in those instances where a fella believes he has the better tool, he’d better check himSelf before he wrecks himSelf.

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Posted on February 9, 2018 and filed under General, Writing, Task Management.

Zotero for Literature Reviews

If you've ever tried working with several different PDFs simultaneously, you may have discovered a significant frustration. Even on a relatively large screen, one can only look at a couple of PDFs at a time. This can make comparing information in disparate journal articles somewhat frustrating.  More than once, I have found myself reverting to printing the articles I want to compare, and then spreading the papers out on my desk.

If that's what I need to do, I'll still do it. But I've discovered a quick and easy way to make that a little less necessary. I found that one of the reasons I print PDFs is because I need to keep track of which article is written by whom. When capturing journal articles from EBSCO, for example, the filename for the PDF can be nonsensical.

This is one of the many places where Zotero can bring a lot of sanity into the process. I've discovered that Zotero is especially useful in managing annotations, keeping track of PDF names, and making life a little easier in the analysis of journal articles.


I've mentioned this before, but I've grown quite fond of collecting my annotations for sources in Zotero. I keep these in the "Notes" section of each source. I find that I prefer to arrange my notations in the following order...

  1. Copy and pasted quotations - I really dislike opening a PDF just to see if I can find a highlighted quote. If I am going to highlight something on a PDF, it makes just as much sense to copy and past the quotation into the Notes section of the annotation. I follow each paste with the page number from the source.
  2. Summary - I tend to write a paragraph listing the primary thesis, methodology, and findings for each source I'm evaluating. I find that this summary annotation makes sifting through lots of PDFs a little more efficient, since I don't need to open each one to remember what was in the article.
  3. Reflection - These are notes I write to myself, usually in the form of observations, evaluations, or questions I have of the source. Sometimes a scholar will use a methodology that I want more clarity about. Other times, I'll note limitations to a study that are not clear in the article. Very often, when I am reflecting on the source, I will add a final line of how this source fits with my own research question.

Here's an example of an annotated source for a project I worked on this last summer. Note that the reflection is really specific to the thesis of the literature review and research question of the project I was working on.

Renaming PDFs

When I capture PDFs from EBSCO, the file names are often different from the bibliographic information. This can make it difficult to sort through various PDFs when several are open at the same time (they have names like EBSCO134561). I choose to rename the PDFs from the metadata, which can be a pretty easy task if the metadata is already in Zotero. Here's an example...

The PDF name for this source is "untitled - EJ966132.pdf" When it is open with other PDFs, it can be very difficult to remember which source is which.

By right clicking the PDF, and choosing "Rename File from Parent Metadata," the file is renamed to match the source...

As long as the metadata is available in Zotero, this renaming is extremely easy, and makes searching the desktop for the open file a bit easier as well...

Tags and Folders

Zotero allows the user to organize sources into folders, which can be useful for smaller projects. When the project is much larger, these sources can be difficult to navigate. Consider using tags attached to sources for faster sorting. Zotero assigns the publisher's key-words as tags in the metadata, but you are free to add additional tags as well.

When searching for sources, list the tags that are preferred in the search tool. This kind of search can narrow the field significantly, and allow you to work from a subset of sources with relative ease.

I've found that keeping things centralized in Zotero not only makes reviewing scholarly literature more manageable in the electronic format, it has become preferable to printing the literature off and spreading it out over my desk. Even though reading on the screen can be limiting, a few tweaks makes the process more productive than the old-fashioned methods I used to use.

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Posted on September 13, 2015 and filed under Writing, General.

OmniOutliner and Scrivener

I write just about everything longer than two pages in Scrivener.  It's stability, powerful "compiler", and organizational structure makes writing longer pieces of literature a real pleasure. Additionally, as mentioned previously, I can focus on content rather than formatting.

But before I get to the actual writing stage, I really like to organize my thoughts in broad terms. In the old days, I used to make index cards that carried different themes, and then arrange them on my desk until I was happy with the flow of my work. As long as no one sneezed around my desk, it worked o.k.

Nowadays, I work on the organization of a project in OmniOutliner before I ever open Scrivener. In fact, if I am planning to write anything (again, more than a couple of pages), my first step is to go to OmniOutliner. The workflow I'll illustrate below exports an OmniOutliner outline in OPML format, and then imports the OPML file into Scrivener. This workflow has become so useful and effective, I can't imagine writing without it.


As I work through and organize my ideas in OmniOutliner, I find that I am clearly able to see the flow of the writing. I am also able to edit the headings of a work so that they are consistent in grammar and voice. 

One of the key advantages to using OmniOutliner is the ability to collapse subordinate information to see the larger flow of the writing. I find this very useful when I want to reorganize the work for better argumentation.

Once the outline is complete, it is ready for export. Choose File: Export and give the work a title. On "File Format:", choose "OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language). Scrivener will read this OPML file with ease.


The file is now ready to import into Scrivener. Open a new Project in Scrivener, and choose File: Import: Files.

Select the OPML file that you exported in OmniOutliner, and click "Import"

Now look at the Scrivener project - the entire outline has been drafted into Scrivener, and has the parent-child relationships you established in the outline...

If you are a fan of Scrivener, and you have OmniOutliner, I highly recommend this workflow for writing. There are some key advantages that I find are confirmed every time I use it.

  • Moving these sections around in OmniOutliner is MUCH easier and faster
  • Editing the names of the sections takes a lot more time in Scrivener
  • The speed and ease of use in OmniOutliner proves effective in editing the sections for grammar, voice, consistency, and agreement.

Additional OPML Note

David Sparks has commented on the Mac Power Users podcast that he uses mind-mapping software to organize his ideas. The OPML format is useful for folks who use mind-maps as well - they can be exported into OmniOutliner, and then to Scrivener. One could also export directly from a visual-map to Scrivener, though I really like to see the flow of my plan sequentially, since the final product will be linear.  

Image Credits: OmniOutliner Image -; Scrivener Image -; Happy Face -

Posted on May 25, 2015 and filed under Writing, General.

Scrivener for Grant Writing

The Problem

I write a lot of grants.  These range from short, 3-page summaries to larger TRiO grants (as many as 65 pages).  Historically, I used Microsoft Word to write these, but have always spend WAY more time formatting than actual writing.  Most recently, I have used Scrivener to write my grants, and have been especially pleased with the results.  I spent almost all of my time writing, and very little on formatting.

Word processing programs like Microsoft Word and iWork’s Pages have their place in the writing world - but the WYSIWYG format requires a great deal of attention throughout the writing process.  When one is writing a grant (and other kinds of academic writing as well), ideas need to be presented logically and clearly.  I have often found that the formatting distracts the writer from attending to the writing.

This became especially clear to me when I was tutoring a student in one of my classes.  She was attempting to fix her paper with my support - but to be honest, she spent more time fixing the formatting and “decor” of the document than she did on the actual content.  I asked her to close her computer, and we went to pen and paper - where she was much better able to focus upon her writing.

At the time, I was working on a grant myself.  I returned to my computer to resume my writing, and spent waaaay too much time trying to fix a formatting problem when it hit me - I was having the very same problem that my student had.

The Solution

I stumbled upon Scrivener after I had already looked into Markdown-type writing apps.  I have used other apps like Ulysses to write grants, but I’ve had difficulty in learning how to create CSS files that give me the output I was looking for.  Scrivener has become the place for me to do grant writing (it looks like it is going to be the place to do my academic writing as well, but the jury remains out at this point).

A tool like Scrivener will provide the author with kind of structure that can be exported when it’s time to compile a document.  Consider the screenshot below - all of the sections of this grant are outlined in Scrivener’s organizational structure - and all of these elements can be compiled when the writing is complete.

Additionally, Scrivener took first place for me as a grant-writing application because it provides the ability to track the progress of individual sections.  It always seems that I have some sections complete, while others need to be modified or improved.  The tracking section (see the far right column labeled "Status" on the image below) provides the author with a way to track the completion of each section.  When my drafts have been completed, and reviewed by an outside reader, and re-edited, I mark them “Done.”  When each section is finally “Done,” I’ll export the file using Scrivener’s compiler tool.

Scrivener allows the writer absolute control over the output of the product.  To be honest, this takes some time to learn - but I have discovered that it take SIGNIFICANTLY less time to learn than it does to obsessively cull through an 65-page grant application to ensure that the typeface and margins for each section are consistent.  Plus, if the author wants to modify the way a section looks in the exported file, one only needs to make the change in the compiler tool.  I have found this especially valuable, for example, when my application narratives go a little long, and I need to edit the way titles are displayed to make up some space.

As I mentioned above, I have recently started using Scrivener for academic writing.  I need to see whether it will continue to serve my needs in that context, but so far, it seems to handle the work very well.

Tips and Tricks

  • Support: I would recommend watching videos on youtube to learn to use Scrivener.  I played with it for months before getting some additional help, and discovered that there were solutions that would have saved me a great deal of time.
  • Use RFP as Organization: If you are writing a grant, I recommend organizing your folders and text files into the arrangement of the RFP.  This allows an author to efficiently track what each section needs to complete the application.
  • Import Text: For even less distraction, one could use nValt or some other .txt editor, and import the text into Scrivener.  I have found that this is not often helpful for grant-writing, as authors often need to be able to draw charts and tables as well.
  • Use Word when it Works: Speaking of tables, I actually export my files to MSWord or Pages, and then edit the tables to get the shading I want on them.  There may be a way to do that in Scrivener, but I haven’t learned it if there is.  
Posted on March 13, 2015 and filed under General, Writing.