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Tools for Writing Documents
Writing Notes: Tools for Writing Documents
You're likely to write a lot of documents in your life. Sometimes
the tools you use will be dictated by your local environment;
many good tools are available widely these days, so it pays to develop
your toolkit and your skills in using that toolkit early.
This page lists some tools you should consider adopting if you don't
use them already.
- A Good Word Processor. Word is so widespread that there
really isn't much else worth considering these days, so put your
anti-Microsoft sentiment away and recognise that -- despite still
having the occasional bug -- Word has some excellent features:
- Use the inbuilt grammar checker. It doesn't always get things
but it does so more often than you might imagine. It's moderately
customisable if you are willing to invest a little effort, so you
don't need to put up with it complaining about passive sentences all
the time. [But then, you might question why you are using passive
sentences in the first place.]
- Outline mode is a great feature for getting you to think about the
structure of your document, and is especially useful in the early
stages of document planning and organisation.
- If you find yourself hitting the Enter key twice to put a space
between paragraphs, stop. You might want to learn about styles, which
can significantly improve the consistency and quality of your document
- A Good Editor: For some things, a word processor is not
appropriate. This is true, for example, if you are writing code, but
it's also true if you are using a batch formatter such as LaTeX (see below).
NotePad is fine for simple editing tasks, but consider moving up to a
real text editor like Emacs. You'll never look back, and it really
pays to read the manual to learn about the full functionality of such
tools: you can do just about anything with one of these power tools,
including programmatically extending it do the things
you want. But be aware that serious users are religious about editors.
- A Good Batch Formatter. The most widely available
batch formatter these days is LaTeX, with good reason. If you are
writing a long document (say, more than 20 pages), the benefits of a
formatting package like LaTeX will quickly become apparent.
processors are, generally speaking, better suited to shorter
documents. As documents get longer, maintaining consistency in
a word processor becomes
more difficult, even if you use Word's styles. LaTeX also gives better
control over the placement of figures and tables, and, if you care
about such things, is far more intelligent about where to put line
breaks and page breaks.
- Bibliographic Tools:
If you see your future in research, be aware that two of your most
valuable resources will be your collection of research papers, and
your bibliographic resources. Most things you write will contain
references to the literature. Managing the bibliography in a document
by hand very quickly gets to be painful: did you include an item in
the reference list for every citation in the text? Is everything in
the reference list cited in the text? Is the reference list in the
right order? Tools like BibTeX (for LaTeX) and EndNote or ProCite
(for Word) can ease the pain significantly (Steve Cassidy informs me
that the University has a site licence for EndNote).
And think about putting
your bibliography, in some suitably organised fashion (typically by
or theme) on the web, so that others can get the benefit of your view
of the world.
- Your Bookshelf: Despite the wonders of the Web, there are
some resources which work best on paper, either because they are
easier to browse or because the electronic versions are impoverished
due to the lack of a workable business model. Some things to
have, in order of priority:
- A good desk dictionary: the big Macquarie is pretty good,
but anything that is about the weight of a brick is a decent bet.
- A thesaurus: Word's 'Shift+F7' only goes so far. On paper,
Roget's is still
the standard here.
- Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Style'. It's been around
since the 1920s, but, to slip into cliché, it has stood the test
of time. Sufficiently short to be worth rereading once a year,
so that you can reflect on how much your writing has degraded during the
last 12 months. Read it on December 31st and adopt some New Year's resolutions.
- A book on stylistic usage: Pam Peter's 'Australian English Style
Guide' is fairly comprehensive.
- The Chicago Manual of Style: now we're getting technical. If you
want good advice
on the minutae of publishable writing, this is the place to go.
- A Decent Filing System: This goes for both your electronic
filing space and your paper filing space. Get organised early and
you'll reap the rewards later. A filing cabinet is well worth the
investment, as is a decent backup mechanism for your PC.
[Did you find this page useful? Did it miss out
something on the topic you
thought was important? Is some part of it wrong? Mail
me and let me know.]
Please send comments or queries about this web site to Robert.Dale@mq.edu.au
26 February 2002