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Digital Research and Writing Tool Reviews

5

March 23, 2015 by chuber1

 

Over the course of this semester I have used four different digital tools to augment my usual writing and research.  Two of these tools I have used previously, while I used two for the first time this semester.  Each tool helped with a different part of my writing and research process.  The tools I looked used and will be briefly reviewing are Zotero, Coggle, Scrivener, and Evernote.  I found varying success with each of these tools as I employed them.  Each tool is being reviewed on ease of use, functionality in writing or research and whether or not I feel that it has become an effective tool in my digital toolbox.

Zotero

I have been using zotero for several years now and could not imagine doing my work without using it.  Zotero has been a massive game changer for me in terms of my research and writing process.  In the past I was not always as diligent about writing down all the information I needed to cite my sources, and inevitably would find myself wasting time at the end of my writing process in looking up what I had neglected to write down.  The ability to extract citations from library card catalogs, websites and via ISBN numbers has saved me a great deal of time.  It has also encouraged me to cross reference sources since I already have the citations saved. In addition as acting as an excellent database to store information about sources the Microsoft Word plugin made Zotero indispensable.  The ability to click and generate citations has made the writing of papers so much easier.  What used to be one of the most onerous tasks, entering citations, is now one of the easiest parts of writing a paper.

The initial basic learning curve for Zotero was such that after a preliminary poking about I felt comfortable with using it. It has only been in the last several months that found out how to use the tags and magic wand features. The magic wand’s ability to enter citation data from ISBNs and DOI has been extremely useful.   I am still working out how best to use the tag feature to organize information to allow for new avenues of research and to find links between sources that do not seem to be similar at first glance.  Since it seems like you cannot have a source listed in more than one folder at a time, tagging could create an alternate way to organize sources.  The magic wand tool has made the entering of books an even quicker process.

This is a tool that I will continue to use in my research and writing processes.  The fact that I have a cloud based database of all of the source material I have consulted in the last several years has made it so I cannot imagine doing serious research work without this resource.  The ease of use combined with amount of information this program stores has made it a welcome addition to my digital toolbox.

Coggle

This mind mapping software has been a very useful addition to my research and writing process.  I found Coggle when I was struggling with how to organize my capstone project which functions like an exhibit based app.  Initially I tried to organize the information I wanted to include in the app like would a paper via an outline.  This proved to be problematic since I wanted the information to be organized along non-linear lines, and an outline provides a way to organize information in a linear fashion.  While I could have drawn out a mind map on paper, I wanted to be able to include as much information as I wanted without worrying about space, and I wanted my information to have some elegance in the way it was laid out.

I went on to google to look up free mind mapping software.  Of those that I looked at Coggle seemed to have the most elegant and simple layout.  I am a firm believer that elegant simplicity is hard thing to do and that when it is done in design it reflects a thoughtfulness that tends to carry out over the entirely of a tool.  I was proven right with Coggle.  Each Coggle starts with a central node, from which you can build as many branches and sub branches as you want.  The color coding of the branches allows various ways in which to organize material, which I found useful when building two Coggles for my app.  One Coggle had the textual information, the other had the images, by matching the color schemes, I was able to track what image went with what text.  I also like how easy it is to share information.  Since Coggles live in the cloud, they can be shared via email, or published publically.  The ability to share Coggles would be most useful in a collaborative project as it can allow collaborators in distant locations to easily communicate with each other.

Coggle will defiantly be a digital tool that I continue to use for as long as it is available.  While it would not be useful in helping to design or organize projects that use a linear narrative for projects that are inherently centered on audience choice, I feel this site will continue to be useful.

Scrivener

The third digital tool that I experimented with this semester was Scrivener.  This tool was mentioned in “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive” by William Turkel, Kevin Kee, and Spencer Roberts in History in the Digital Age  and it intrigued me.  Scrivener is supposed to be a word processing software that specializes in getting a manuscript or project from idea to rough draft.  I was attracted to this program as it looked like an interesting interface through which to organize research and begin to construct ideas.  Upon downloading the free trial, unlike the other programs I am reviewing Scrivener is behind a paywall, I began the tutorial.  It was then that I discovered that I would not have the time to learn this new program and keep up with my work. The learning curve was extremely steep.  I have been using word processors in various formats since around 1994, and have little problem transitioning between various word processing software.  This software made me feel like I was encountering a word processing program for the first time, and not in a good way.  In their attempt to be different from Microsoft Word, Open Office, or any other word processing software, Scrivener felt clunky and counterintuitive.  In addition, Zoetero did not have a plug-in to this program and since I like the ability to automatically generate citations, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  There was no way that I was going back to manually entering citations after several years of not having to.  After several sessions of trying to work through the tutorial, I threw this program out of my digital toolbox.

Evernote

The fourth and final digital tool that I played with for the first part of this semester was Evernote.  While this is primarily a note taking software, I tend to use for its checklist feature.  This is primarily because I struggle with typing notes.  When I write out notes I am fine with incomplete sentences and misspellings.  Since I am used to writing when I type I have found that I try to take dictation when taking notes on a digital device. This ends up being detrimental to the whole point of taking notes so I tend to avoid it.  However the checklist feature allows me to organize and prioritize the tasks I have to accomplish for that day, week, month or class.  In using the checklist feature on this app I am able to organize my workload which I find especially helpful as it keeps me on track and from being overwhelmed.  I also like that Evernote syncs across my devices provided I am signed into the same account.  This way I always have my to do list accessible wherever I am.  This is a tool I will continue to use as a way to organize projects and my life.


5 comments »

  1. Adina Langer says:

    Chris,

    I particularly appreciate your reviews of Coggle and Scrivener. it seems that Coggle provides a valuable service through its unique interface. It benefits from the lack of spacial limitations inherent to digital environments. Many traditional word processing tools, such as Microsoft Word, very closely mimic the paper environment. It sounds like Scrivener will have to move forward in its cross-compatibility in order to be truly useful.

  2. nsakas1 says:

    Chris it goes without saying that I agree with the usefulness of Zotero, as it was you who initially got me started on the program. Thanks again by the way. Coggle does sound like an interesting program for a non-linear project approach. I like the way you were able to have multiple Coggles allowing you to place text in one and photos in another, all the while keeping them linked by color coding. I can see how this program would be valuable. Perhaps I will have a chance to benefit from it in the future. I also appreciate your comments on Scrivener. I also like ease of use, and get frustrated when things are made more complicated than they need to be.

  3. rjordan10 says:

    I definitely agree with you about Coggle; that site/tool is awesome! Before you mentioned it in class a couple weeks ago, I had never heard of it, but now I am so glad that you enlightened us! It really has been incredibly helpful in all of my classes, but especially with my Capstone project. In the past, I tended to just try to dive right into big projects, which, as expected, could get pretty overwhelming. Not, I usually just start mapping them out in Coggle, and it is a bit less stressful.
    I have heard a lot about Evernote, and it was even suggested to me a while back as an organization-type app, since it is also an iPhone app. I had downloaded it briefly, but found that I was never really able to get into it, and deleted it. However, the fact that it has a checklist makes it sound kind of intriguing (I’m one of those people who always like to check things of a list when I finish them.) I had been using the ‘Reminders’ app for iPhone, which is really just a to-do list app, but in the future, I might re-visit Evernote.

  4. acoleman34 says:

    So Scrivener sounds really cool. A tool like that would certainly help me write. The organization of thoughts is equally as important as the organization of resources. Like you, many times i find myself struggling to organize ideas with resources for projects and papers (including the one for this class I might add) and Scrivener seems like a good solution. Couple it with Coggle and a few drinks and you have yourself the perfect remedy for writers block. I have not used Evernote but, as a man who enjoys making lists of things to do, it seems right up my alley-at least the checklist function that is. It seems like another great organizational tool for school and life in general and lord knows I need it for both.

  5. jjackson39 says:

    Coggle is a really interesting tool and seems to be perfect for both individual brainstorming and tossing ideas around with a group. After you mentioned it I already started brainstorming some structural ideas for projects and I also want to see if it will help me organize some personal thoughts and ideas as well.
    I imagine that if Scrivener is as difficult to deal with as you described that I will probably stay away from it for the time being. The actual act of writing itself is not too difficult for me and the headaches may not be worth it.

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