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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; however, 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.

  1. 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:

  2. 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.

  3. 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. Word 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.

  4. 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 topic or theme) on the web, so that others can get the benefit of your view of the world.

  5. Your Bookshelf: Despite the wonders of the Web, there are still 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.

  6. 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.]

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Last Modified: 26 February 2002