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Academic research- what are the best tools and workflow techniques?

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Posted by Dr Andus
Nov 16, 2011 at 01:12 PM



I’d challenge the assumptions in your question: 1) that there are “best tools and workflow techniques” that one could just adopt one-for-one, and 2) that one single integrated tool would be better than a carefully assembled arrangement of them.

Re 1) I suppose it’s possible to copy someone else’s behaviour and setup but I doubt it would lead to the most optimal (creative etc.) outcome. I think that each writing situation requires its own particular set of tools and workflow, which need to be discovered through experimentation. Although one may eventually be able to develop some kind of a stable setup and routine (I haven’t achieved that level yet).

Re 2), I agree with Bill that there are benefits to be derived from using multiple tools. See this earlier discussion about reflexivity resulting from using multiple outliners:

I’m finding that it is difficult to predict what the writing process will be for a particular writing project, hence experimentation is needed to find the optimal set-up. With a complex writing project like a PhD dissertation, I’m finding that there are a lot more interim steps between going from analysed data to final outline than I thought. At the moment I have 3 outliners (Natara, Noteliner, and Scrivener) open (and even an Excel spreadsheet to plan word count per section) and several VUE concept maps to model not only my argument but also my workflow. I’m finding the multiplicity of tools a positive thing, as it allows me to keep refining and distilling the argument as I use the various tools as mirrors, to some extent. What is essential though is having at least two monitors (one widescreen), so at least 3 software windows can be seen simultaneously (when necessary).

I also think it’s important to separate some distinct phases of the writing project, such as overall structure planning (for which I use Storybook, Scrivener and VUE), developing a topic outline (Natara Bonsai), developing a sentence outline (Noteliner), actual writing (Scrivener), and final editing (Word). Even these can be broken down further. Trying to do all those things in one software may slow things down because opportunities for reflection and improving things in smaller bits are lost. Also, the outlining and writing process is a continuation of the research process. I used NVivo for coding but it’s in the actual writing process that I’m figuring out what is important in the end and what it is exactly that I’m saying.

To summarise, my advice is to

1) experiment with a number of software to find an optimal arrangement of several software;
2) have 2 monitors to be able to construct a reflexive process using various software;
3) separate distinct writing phases and use dedicated tools for them (e.g. I’m glad referencing in Scrivener is awkward, as it forces me to focus on the writing process first, and then I can make the references pretty in Word, after I’m finished with the writing);
4) use ad hoc tools to bridge gaps where links between software are missing (I use Excel or PowerPoint for interim steps, or even an A3 size sketch pad. E.g. I found that rather than using the report tools in NVivo to extract findings it was just easier and simpler to take some screenshots of NVivo and review them in PowerPoint);
5) model the conceptual structure and record the workflow in a concept map (e.g. VUE).