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Looking for PIM / Thesis Writing Software for the PC

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Posted by Lucas
Oct 6, 2009 at 07:33 PM


Hi Peter,

As a fellow PhD student (although not yet at dissertation stage), I can relate to your quandary. I also know that, for myself, the software search can become a big distraction (a situation amplified by the fact that I have both an inherited Powerbook and a PC). So, I’ve tried them all (almost).

First off, I would point out that the current beta version of Zotero offers much of the same functionality as Evernote. Zotero gives you (something like) 300 MB of free storage, although I set up Zotero to use a WebDAV account through my university so that I can have more storage room. PDF’s are automatically indexed (so long as they have text information—-Zotero does not do OCR like Evernote). Zotero has rich-text notes and tagging as well. In the same vein, Mendeley offers much of the same functionality as Zotero, and they say they will support OCR soon.

However, neither of the products mentioned above serves very well as a serious writing/drafting environment, in my opinion. For me, the killer feature of Scrivener is the ability to view one’s assembled chunks of text as an integrated draft and to edit that draft. So one can switch back and forth between working on the document as a whole and working on just one isolated section. I haven’t found other programs that offer this. Whizfolders, for instance, has a combined *view*, but you can’t edit in that view. Biblioscape tries to offer something similar but I found it still primitive and not really usable. IdeaMason isn’t bad, but I find it frustrating that one can’t just write directly in a draft (or “composition”)—one must take the time to create a new “Idea” first, which I find interrupts my ideational flow. I have not worked much with Ultra Recall or Zoot, so perhaps I should still give them another look. I just checked out StoryBox, and it’s definitely not at a point where I’d use it yet, but it’s a promising start.

Even though I have an (aging) Mac, I have not settled on Scrivener as a writing environment. It tries to be a combination of outliner and word processor, but I find that I can do my outlining much better in an actual outliner (I love OmniOutliner on the Mac; the free Ecco Pro is great on the PC, although I wish it could export OPML—-InfoQube may do that). As for writing and drafting, I do some of it in the outliner and the rest in a word processor.

The moral of the story for me (although I don’t profess to have cracked this particular nut) is that in the long run it makes more sense to use a combination of dedicated tools rather than a single integrated application. So, I use Zotero for references, notes, and PDFs; I use OmniOutliner (or Ecco Pro), as well as Cmap Tools for outlining and brainstorming and some drafting; and then I use a word processor for the final stage. (Another moral of the story for me is to stick as much as possible to tools that don’t lock my data in a proprietary format.)

That said, I am still searching for software that would actually facilitate my writing process. What I would like is a program that would have an “Outline View” in which one could do one’s writing in single-pane outliner mode, and a “Draft View” in which one could see the same text in regular page layout (including footnotes). I would like to be able to switch back and forth between seeing my text as it will actually look when I submit my paper, and seeing it in a hierarchical organization (which is how I actually conceive of it). Actually, good old Microsoft Word comes closest to this, if one converts all the heading styles to regular unformatted text, but since it’s not designed to be used this way, it gets awkward. (Plus I want cloning and flexible text folding!) But now I’m veering off topic…

Good luck,