3 Digital Tools I Used to Write my Master’s Thesis

In April, after more than six months of work, I submitted the thesis I wrote for my master’s in business and economics journalism.

At more than 11,000 words and 41 pages long, it was the longest story I’d ever written.

I interviewed dozens of people, analyzed hundreds of pages of court documents, submitted and tracked multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, read several books on my topic, and composed perhaps twenty drafts of what became the final piece.

I’ll tell you more about the story itself in the weeks and months ahead, I’m sure. For now, though, I wanted to share the top three digital tools I used to organize my writing and research.

1. For writing: Scrivener

2013 04 24 scrivener

I’ve been using the Writing app Scrivener since 2007. It’s less a word processor than a tool for organizing all sorts of digital materials and creating an environment where you can more easily produce text.

I made ample use, for example, of the folders shown on the top left corner of the image above. These folders allowed me to organize various snippets of text; keep running lists of items to investigate; maintain outlines and timelines; and more. I could always keep my main draft open and navigate, with just a click, to another item — as opposed to having to open several Word files and toggle between them.

When conducting interviews, I also relied on Scrivener’s split screen function. I kept my questions in the top pane and typed my sources’ answers in the bottom pane as we chatted. Scrivener also has an excellent full screen mode, which is helpful when you simply want to focus on the text.

The Mac version of Scrivener is $45. For more information on the app, here’s a detailed review of the app’s many features. And here’s a post about using Scrivener for dissertation writing.

2. For organizing data: Excel

2013 07 27 excel mac

Excel? You better believe it. I used spreadsheets to keep track of:

  • Court materials — I listed dates of various documents, their titles, a description of contents, URLs if they were online, and even the files’ location on my hard drive.
  • Sources — I kept track of names, job titles, contact information, and more.
  • Timeline — My story spans several years, so I used a simple timeline to keep track of the chronology of events. This was helpful when it came time to construct my narrative.

Excel is part of Office for Mac. Microsoft’s home and student version is $139.99.

For more, see this overview of Excel for journalists.

3. For bookmarking: Pinboard

2013 07 28 pinboard

I bookmarked hundreds of items online while researching my story, and Pinboard was a huge help. The Web-based bookmarking site is a kind of “antisocial social bookmarking” service.

That is, Pinboard offers all the benefits of social bookmarking, like the ability to access your saved sites from any browser or computer. But unlike many such services, Pinboard allows you to keep your bookmarks private.

You can also assign your bookmarks tags, so they’re easily sorted by keyword, and use a browser bookmarklet to quickly save a site and apply a label like “read later.” So as I came across various news accounts, books, interviews, and other materials online, I simply added a bookmark in Pinboard and could later go back and filter the sites by keyword.

Pinboard is bare-bones, fast, and easy to use. It was approximately $9 when I signed up last year, I seem to recall, and now costs $10.16. This is a one-time fee that rises as more people join the site.

So those were my top three digital tools: Scrivener, Excel, and Pinboard.

What about you? Have some favorite apps for writing or data organization? Let me know on Twitter or leave a comment below.

What I’ve been reading

Some links that have caught my eye of late:

2008 Year-End Google Zeitgeist (Via Steve Rubel on Twitter)1

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to look at the big events, memorable moments and emerging trends that captivated us in 2008. As it happens, studying the aggregation of the billions of search queries that people type into the Google search box gives us a glimpse into the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times. We’ve compiled some of the highlights from Google searches around the globe and hope you enjoy looking back as much as we do.

WSJ: “Asia’s Tourism: Boon and Bane: Low-Cost Countries With Popular Spots Better Off Than Others2

Recession in major economies around the world has hit Southeast Asia’s pivotal tourism industry, but increased domestic and regional travel by cash-squeezed travelers based in Asia means some countries will be hurt less than others.

Governments around the region are cutting forecasts for income as both long-haul tourists and business travelers get increasingly cost-conscious. That is a problem because tourism accounts for a hefty 6% or more of most economies in Southeast Asia.

Still, some low-cost countries with attractive tourist spots and large homegrown populations should lose out less.

Daily Routines: How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days. Sample entry: Truman Capote3

INTERVIEWER
What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?

CAPOTE
I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Foreign Policy: The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2008. They are:

1. The Surge in Afghanistan Starts Early
2. Colombian Coca Production Increases
3. The Next Darfur Heats Up
4. The United States Helps India Build a Missile Shield
5. Russia Makes a Play for Africa
6. Greenhouse Gas Comes from Solar Panels
7. Shanghai Steel Fails Basic Safety Tests
8. Aid to Georgia Finances Luxury Hotel in Tbilisi
9. For the First Time, U.S. Citizen Convicted of Torture Abroad
10. American Company Sells ‘Sonic Blasters’ to China

– An interesting motorcycle story from the New York Times’s Handlebars section: “To Attract New Riders, Motorcycles Go Shiftless“: 4

Car sales, already in a deep funk, would probably be slower yet if automakers decided to offer no alternative to manual transmissions.

Makers of street motorcycles have largely painted themselves into that corner. And with the effects of stalled credit markets flattening out a 14-year streak of steady growth — despite the allure of good gas mileage in a wobbly economy — it’s no surprise that manufacturers are mounting an effort to introduce more rider-friendly bikes.

Makers as big as Honda, the world’s largest, and as specialized as Aprilia, a style-centric Italian brand, are working to eliminate the perceived obstacles of shifting gears and mastering a clutch with new models that let riders simply gas it and go.

New York Times: “Holiday Books: Travel

– And last but not least, a wonderful collection of book scans on Flickr: “Nostalgia for the Scholastic Book Club, circa ’60′s & ’70′s

  1. Related: “StateStats: Analyzing Google search patterns“ []
  2. There’s this about Thailand, which should come as no surprise: “Tourism in Thailand, which in 2007 had 14.8 million visitors, naturally is getting seriously impacted by political unrest that for the past week severed Bangkok’s busy air links with the world. While the city’s two airports are now expected to be functioning normally by Friday, the way hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded or inconvenienced by the shutdowns will have a lingering impact on tourist numbers. Dozens of countries have issued warnings to avoid traveling to Thailand.” []
  3. One of my favorite Capote passages, from The Grass Harp: “Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the season: go see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.” []
  4. A thought: does the barrier to entry presented by the fact that large motorcycles require their operators to understand how to use a clutch and shift gears keep unqualified/unsafe drivers off the road? []

Michael Crichton, Master Storyteller, Dead at 66

Michael Crichton has died of cancer at the age of 66. His most popular books, of course, included “Jurassic Park,” “The Andromeda Strain,” and “Timeline.” And while I’ve read many of his thrillers — most recently “Next,” about genetic engineering — my favorite of his books was “Travels,” which I liked for its compelling stories told in a spare, direct style. (Most people don’t realize that Crichton penned a travel book.)

Some snippets in which Crichton is remembered:

LA Times: Michael Crichton dies at 66; bestselling author of ‘Jurassic Park’ and other thrillers

Wired: The Rich, Mixed Legacy of Michael Crichton

New York Times: Builder of Windup Realms That Thrillingly Run Amok

I also enjoyed reading what James Fallows has to say about Crichton. A thought for Michael Crichton

…Crichton had his enemies, especially after his recent anti-global-warming book (which I chose not to read). That he was married five times suggests that his personal life was not entirely tranquil. And he was hyper, hyper aware that in America he was regarded as a “genre” writer whereas in Italy, for example, he would be listed among the big names of Quality Lit.

But I was honored to have met him 20 years age, when I was living in Japan, and to have been a friend since then. He seemed unassuming, funny, charming in every way — the unusual famous person who was genuinely considerate of one’s spouse and kids. Very earnest about his political causes, including a very prescient argument fifteen years ago about the impending decline of the “Mediasaurus,” now known as MSM. And, there is no way around it, incredibly talented. At one point in the 1990s, he was responsible for the #1-rated TV show (ER), the #1 box office movie (Jurassic Park), and the #1 best selling-novel — and I’m not even sure now which of his novels it was. He must have been the only person in history to have paid his way through medical school by writing successful novels.

I loved hearing from him about oddball “practical” matters. For instance, height: he appeared to be nearly 7 feet tall, and explained to me (6’2″) that up until 6’6″ height was an advantage, but after that it was a big inconvenience — door frames, beds, airplane seats. Or, getting ready for book writing bursts: He said he removed complications from his life while writing by having exactly the same food at every meal, so he never had to waste time deciding what to eat. He was a tech enthusiast, and the most passionate Mac advocate1 I have encountered.

  1. For more on the Mac angle, see this touching note in Macworld: “Remembering Michael Crichton“ []

Elmore Leonard on Writing — and New Yorker Stories

Elmore Leonard [image via Salon.com]

A snippet from what Elmore Leonard had to say at the New Yorker festival:

“I don’t write New Yorker stories. I mean, my stories are easy to understand. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

Leonard — aka the Dickens of Detroit — is one of my favorite writers.

Related: his 10 rules for writing. The central guideline: “If it sounds like writing, re-write.”

Gary Shteyngart on Travel Writing

Gary Shteyngart on Travel Writing

Rolf Potts recently posted a Q&A on travel writing with author and essayist Gary Shteyngart. Here’re a few snippets I like:

How did you get started writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a kid in Russia. My grandma paid me in little pieces of cheese for every page I wrote. That’s how you create a writer. By paying him or her with something edible.

What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?

I usually don’t find this part very challenging, unless the language is very difficult (see: Thai) and the address system of the place I’m writing about is very strange (see: Seoul).

Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?

Well, I’m primarily a novelist. That’s my main bread and butter. But the travel writing is very important to me, because it gets me out of the house. I still believe that writers need to see the world to understand their own place in it.

What is the biggest reward of life as a traveler and writer?

Life is short and our planet is finite. What can be more important than seeing the totality of the human condition in this awful and wonderful world of ours?

Thaksin, Manchester City, and Football in Thailand

Thailand's Ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra

What does ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s recent return to Thailand mean for Manchester City, the English Premier League team he purchased during his exile? What does his return mean for football (soccer) in Thailand?

That was the subject of an AFP story that I wrote last week.

You can find it on Yahoo News here: “Thaksin return raises hopes of Thai fans.”

Scrivener in the New York Times Magazine

Remember Scrivener, the excellent OS X writing application that I mentioned back in July? Virginia Heffernan, in a recent New York Times Magazine story about Mac OS X alternatives to Microsoft Word, gives Scrivener an excellent review:

Our redeemer is Scrivener, the independently produced word-processing program of the aspiring novelist Keith Blount, a Londoner who taught himself code and graphic design and marketing, just to create a software that jibes with the way writers think. As its name makes plain, Scrivener takes our side; it roots for the writer and not for the final product — the stubborn Word. The happy, broad-minded, process-friendly Scrivener software encourages note-taking and outlining and restructuring and promises all the exhilaration of a productive desk: “a ring-binder, a scrapbook, a corkboard, an outliner and text editor all rolled into one.”

(Via 43 Folders.)

Excellent OS X Writing and Project Management App

Scrivener is a remarkably useful Mac-only project management and writing application. I started using it a few months ago, and it’s quickly become a must-have.

First off: if you mostly write memos or simple documents that require strict formatting, then you should stick with Word. But if you’re a Mac user looking for something to help you manage complex writing projects — a novel, a screenplay, a book, or simply a long article — then you should take a look at this application.

For me, Scrivener’s best features, as I go about assembling my writing projects, are: 1) the ability to import and reference multiple documents and Web pages from within the main window; and 2) the split screen feature that allows me to consult two documents at once within that window.

No more toggling between multiple drafts in separate Word documents. No more consulting various Web sites and PDFs and then returning to Word. Everything now lives in one place, and all of my drafts and other materials are organized by folder.

I also really like Scrivener’s look and feel. It’s an OS X application designed and developed by a writer. And the community of users is also lively and passionate.

Here’s a recent Macworld review. And here’s what Merlin at 43 Folders says about Scrivener.

It’s free to download and use for a trial period; 35 smackers and it’s yours for life.

(Cartoon via.)

My Short Item in The Magazine

Bangkok Post's The Magazine

The current issue of The Magazine (pictured above), a bi-monthly glossy published by the Bangkok Post, contains a very brief item I wrote about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. (You’ve heard me mention Wilco before, no doubt.) In each issue, various folks are asked to weigh in on their favorite album, book, or movie. The item isn’t online, sadly, but interested Bangkokians can find my thoughts on page eight.