Finding sources to cite is easy5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money)5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money)For a lot of people academic journals are hard to get hold of. They are also expensive. But with the right tools, you can get your hands on any academic journals you want.Read More. Planning a paper is easy. Sitting down and writing the thing? Much harder, and though there’s no shortage of word processors, not all are well-suited to academic writing.
As someone currently working on my dissertation, I know this problem all too well. So I found five popular Mac applications commonly used for academic writing and reviewed each in order to see which excelled the most when it comes to writing college papers and dissertations.
Here’s what I found.
At just short of $45, Ulysses is one of the more expensive applications in this rundown. I reviewed version 2.0, which runs exclusively on 64-bit Macs running Yosemite. There’s also an iPad version ($19.99), which Bakari reviewed recentlyUlysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPadUlysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPadWe're no strangers to the Mac versions of Pages and Ulysses or the earlier version of Write for iOS, but which is of these apps is best for writing on your iPad?Read More.
Ulysses is, like Desk and iA Writer, a markdown-oriented text editor. Markdown allows you to format text using a special syntax, rather than pressing a button in an application. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t break your workflow, and text written in MarkDown can be copied between applications without losing formatting.
Another advantage of Markdown is that it’s incredibly easy to learn, not just because we published a guideLearning Markdown: Write For The Web, FasterLearning Markdown: Write For The Web, FasterMarkdown is the best way to write in plain text but still create complex documents. Unlike HTML or LaTex, for example, Markdown is simple to learn.Read More to it last year. Ulysses is different from other markdown editors in a number of ways that distinguish it from the pack.
Firstly, it allows you to separate texts into individual sections, each within their own writing space. This is handy if your university project is effectively an anthology of texts, as most dissertations are.
Secondly, Ulysses allows you to change the theme from a bright one, to a more subdued night-mode version which looks great when working in the dark. It also comes with a command palette that feels oddly reminiscent of Sublime Text 2Try Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing NeedsTry Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing NeedsSublime Text 2 is a cross-platform code editor I only recently heard about, and I have to say I'm really impressed despite the beta label. You can download the full app without paying a penny...Read More, which allows you to navigate your document without endlessly scrolling, just like VimThe Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A ChanceThe Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A ChanceFor years, I've tried one text editor after another. You name it, I tried it. I used each and every one of these editors for over two months as my primary day-to-day editor. Somehow, I...Read More.
Ulysses also makes it easy to set goals, which is handy when you’re unmotivated and trudging through the tedium of a literature review. Unfortunately it doesn’t natively support any major reference managers, such as EndNote and ZoteroTake The Stress Out Of Referencing With ZoteroTake The Stress Out Of Referencing With ZoteroEssays are dry. They're time consuming. They're dull. And the worst part of it? Referencing. Thankfully, there's an app out there making referencing less frustrating.Read More, and it doesn’t allow you to embed images or graphics.
Despite these limitations, it’s a perfectly adequate markdown editor, and one that lends itself favorably to academic applications.
iA Writer Pro ($20)
I’m a fan of iA Writer. We reviewed the non-proiA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never UsediA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never UsedBe it a school paper or a blog post, all of us at some point find ourselves in the position of having to dump a bunch of characters into a text file. While cell phone...Read More version of it back in 2013 and it immediately became my writing application of choice. Why?
The app is markdown-based, so you can add formatting as you write without getting distracted or having your writing pane filled with superfluous toolbars and ribbons. It also allows you to focus on the writing, as it puts the text in the center of your screen and a simple, readable typeface contrasts with the austere, white background.
That’s the cheaper, non-pro version. I’ve since moved on to the professional version, and I’m convinced it too is an excellent choice for markdown aficionados tasked with academic writing.
iA Writer Pro comes all the same features of the cheaper version that allow you to focus on the writing, but brings with it a ‘night mode’ theme, which is great for late night work.
It also allows you to drill-down on your text and identify parts of your writing you can remove and refactor, such as adverbs, verbs, and prepositions. Given academic writing strongly emphasizes conciseness and precision, this is really helpful.
But iA Writer Pro is lacking some features that are helpful when it comes to academic writing. It doesn’t support third-party plugins, which makes it hard to import your citations in from Zotero, or any other reference manager. It also only lets you to work one document at a time, unlike Ulysses’s multi-sheet approach to document editing.
Despite those drawbacks, it’s only $20 and makes it easy to be focused and productive, and is therefore worth a consider.
Scrivener 2 ($45)
Scrivener is an inexpensive application with an excruciatingly steep learning curve. It’s commonly used by people working in the creative industries, and has found a niche as a tool for writing screenplays and scripts. But despite this pedigree, it is also worth considering for your next academic paper.
Scrivener, like Ulysses, lets you break your document into manageable chunks, and tackle them one at a time. Editing is done through a graphical interface, with formatting added through the application, rather than using Markdown syntax.
But perhaps the killer feature of Scrivener is its ‘cork board’. This allows you to manage, collect, and collate resources you might want to use in your paper, such as images, notes and references.
Scrivener supports a handful of popular third-party bibliography applications, which means you don’t have to adjust your system of managing citations and references. It also allows you to create snapshots – or versions – of your text, and revert back to them when you want to return to an earlier form of your work. This is similar to how Git worksWhat Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a DeveloperWhat Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a DeveloperAs web developers, a lot of the time we tend to work on local development sites then just upload everything when we’re done. This is fine when it’s just you and the changes are small,...Read More, which is a version control system used by programmers.
However, Scrivener lacks the sleek, distraction-free aesthetics of iA Writer and Ulysses, which makes it less than ideal for long writing sprints where your focus might wander. It’s also rather expensive, and takes a few hours (and a lot of reading) to fully get to grips with.
Microsoft Word 2016 Preview Edition (Free)
It’s hard not to talk about word processors, and not mention Microsoft Word. It’s the incumbent, and has been for a couple of decades now. Go to any university, and you’ll find Microsoft Word is the de-facto word processor. This due to that fact that it’s well understood, supported by Microsoft, and works well with other the packages in the Microsoft Office family.
Microsoft recently released the preview version of Word 2016, and is currently available as a free download before being publicly released.
This latest version represents the biggest change to Microsoft Word on OS X for almost 5 years. It comes with a sleek new aesthetic that makes it feel like the modern, premium word processor it is. For once, you’re going to want to write with Word.
But as a tool for writing Academic papers, how does it stand up? Well, it’s not a distraction-free editor like iA Writer is, but that’s fine. It makes up for that by being well-rounded and complete, boasting all the features any university student or academic could possibly need.
One of the most compelling features for any student is its built-in citation manager, which offers many of the features of Zotero, and can produce references in APA, MLM and Chicago style.
Unlike iA Writer Pro and Ulysses, Word allows you to insert and embed figures and graphics, and create charts that underscore the points you make.
This makes it one of the more compelling packages for academic writing. The only problem is that when it exits the beta phase, it will ultimately cost a good chunk of change. This free version will eventually cease to work, so you’ll have to purchase Word as part of the Office 2016 release if you want to keep the functionality you’ve gotten used to. In the Apple Store, Office 2011 costs $139.95, so expect Office 2016 to cost something approaching that.
It’s also worth noting that beta applications can ship with bugs that might end up destroying all your hard work. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to make regular backups if you decide to use it.
Pages is part of iWork, Apple’s flagship productivity suite. Apple made it available free of charge to anyone who purchased Mac on or after October 1, 2013. Everyone else can purchase it for $19.99 on the Mac App Store, which is pretty good for a fully-fledged word processor.
As a tool for getting words on a page, it’s solid. It comes with a number of templates for academic writing. However, these overwhelmingly are geared towards a style of academic writing that’s more common in the American university system, than in the British and Antipodean ones. That said, it’s easy enough to tweak a template, and formatting text in Pages is simple enough for this not to be too much of a barrier.
Pages also supports academic citations through EndNote, a perfectly competent though expensive reference manager, with a license costing around $250. The closest free alternative, Zotero, hasn’t released a plugin for iWork and given the niche status of Apple’s iWork when it comes to productivity software, I doubt they ever will.
Pages can also produce incredible graphics and charts with a button’s press. This makes it ideal for those writing papers with a somewhat data-driven emphasis.
For those on a tight budget, it remains the best option, and poses a serious challenge to the likes of Scrivener and Ulysses.
No Surprises Here
It should come as absolutely no surprise that the two packages I’m ultimately going to recommend are ones made by Microsoft and Apple; both giants in what they do. Pages and Word are just too complete and functional to not recommend, and offer the most value for money (at least while Word is free).
As a close second, I’d also recommend iA Writer Pro, which despite lacking a number of killer features like EndNote integration and bibliography management, offers the best writing experience of any application listed in my opinion.
What do you use to write your academic papers? Leave me a comment below and we’ll chat.
Image Credits: student with laptop Via Shutterstock
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The “Office Desk: 2012” post precipitated a rash of e-mails from writers wondering how I like the Mac Air as a writing tool. Well, I’ve had the thing now for about five months, which is a sufficiently long time to live with a computer, and I’ve also written quite a lot on it by this point. So here are my thoughts on it as a machine for creativity.
First, I think in a general sense the Mac Air is probably the best single computer that I’ve ever owned. This not the same as the “most powerful” or “best featured” — in either case it’s not, although for writing and for most of the things I do with a computer, it does perfectly well. It’s the best computer I’ve owned because everything works both extremely well, and largely intuitively. What this means is that the computer itself gets out of my way so I can do the things I want to do with the computer.
I realize that for some (not all) Apple fans this is almost anathema — part of the reason to have a Mac Air is to be seen having the Mac Air — but honestly, I could not give the first shit about that. I want the thing to work for me, because I have work I need to do. The Mac Air, simply put, lets me do that.
A very good example of this is the computer’s trackpad. One of the two major reasons that I have been resistant to having a laptop be a primary computer is that I generally don’t consider trackpads to be an adequate replacement for a mouse; they’re clunky and obnoxious and even the later generations of multitouch trackpads were just a pain in the ass. Every time I use a trackpad I am aware I’m using a trackpad — which means that I’m thrown out of the creative flow I’m in to deal with the machine I’m using.
I don’t have that problem with the Mac trackpad, and indeed I’ve found it so functional that for the large majority of tasks, I find it easier to use than a mouse. I was fully expecting to use one my USB mice with the Mac Air when I got it; after a day of using the trackpad I never thought of attaching a mouse again. When I use a laptop other than the Mac Air now I am reminded how aggravating trackpads generally are. It shouldn’t be that difficult for every other computer maker in the world to make a good trackpad. I’m not sure why there’s still a problem.
Beyond that other aspects of the form factor work for me. The screen (I have the 13-inch version) is sufficiently large/high enough resolution that I don’t feel visually cramped, but at the same time the whole package is sufficiently small and light that I don’t have to think about whether or not I should take it into another room (or house, or country) with me. Both of these things also encourage work. The keyboard is fine; not my absolute favorite of all time, but fine, and more to the point not distracting. I do love that it is backlit. Also, I do recommend remembering to take frequent breaks to let your wrists rest. Its battery lasts sufficiently long that when I’m at the airport I don’t feel I have to embark on a Quest for Outlets.
Software-wise the Mac has a plethora of writing options which range from extremely simple (including TextEdit) to insanely complicated (Microsoft Word and, in a different way, current writer darling Scrivener). For me, the vast majority of my writing gets done on three word processors: Word (I use almost none of the bells and whistles), Google Docs and WordPress. To be honest my favorite is WordPress, when I have it on the tool on full screen, on a browser that is also on full screen; I get a white screen with a perfectly proportioned column of text down the middle, and it’s easy to write and not get distracted. Google Docs offers a similar option. Both of these do have a problem in that if you’re offline, you’re kind of screwed when it comes to saving work. Word for Mac offers a full screen option but I find it esthetically unpleasing, which is unfortunate because I otherwise like it just fine. Other writers swear by their own particular favorites (as noted, Scrivener has a particularly fervent fan base; I find the software thoroughly perplexing myself) but the point is you have options.
My Mac Air has the current iteration of the Mac OS (OSX Lion) and one thing I very much like about it is the ability to expand programs into full screen in their own space, so you can focus on that one program, and then “swipe” to get other programs or back to the main desktop. This option helps me from being distracted, which is key because I am easily distracted. There are other things I like less about Lion, but this may be more about me being used to Windows than anything else.
One major issue for writers is that the Mac Air is not cheap, especially relative to other laptops you can get, many of which have more power and features, if in a slightly chunkier package. You’ll have to ask yourself whether the form factor, et cetera is worth the price premium. And it may not be — it wasn’t an issue for me until recently. My previous laptops were from Toshiba and Asus, and I found them to be perfectly fine in a general sense. I don’t advise putting yourself into a financial vise to pay for a laptop. That’s silly.
That said, in the “ultrabook” category (i.e., thin, light computers with solid state hard drives), the Mac Airs are not outrageously priced relative to other computers in the category. If you’re going to look at ultrabooks, I’m going to go ahead and say that the Mac Air is probably where you should establish your baseline before you look at other models.
So, in sum: the Mac Air is a fine and useful computer, which is easy and mostly pleasurable to write on. I highly recommend it for writers.