If you’ve been distracted by the showcase of technology over the last 15 weeks, now’s the time to get on with some work. Although many apps provide hours of work displacement activities, some are actually designed to help us. Yes, really. In this week’s Thing, we’ll look at tools to help you write by boosting your productivity and accuracy.
Save yourself some keystrokes with Phrase Express
Writing a thesis usually involves repeatedly typing very long words. And some of these words are so obscure, they’re not necessarily picked up by the spellchecker in your word processor. Wouldn’t life be easier if you could just type a shortcode that’s automatically transformed into the full word or term? Well, it’s possible with a tool like Phrase Express. This freemium software turns abbreviations into words and sentences, wherever you type. In this example, the user just needs to type 2mwpa and up pops ‘the Second Married Women’s Property Act’:
Here, Bronte is automatically corrected to Brontë. After all, who really knows how to add a diaeresis over the ‘e’?
If you can’t remember the word ‘diaeresis’, you could configure Phrase Express to substitute it for ‘umlaut thingy’:
There’s lots more functionality in Phrase Express, including the ability to create macros, but the text expansion features alone can save you lots of time and also improve consistency. It’s free for personal use, or there’s a one-off cost of $49.95 for commercial users.
Boost your productivity with Scrivener
If you’ve tried writing your thesis in MS Word, you’ll know that it really doesn’t like long documents. Organising your content is difficult, and it has a tendency to crash and present you with a version from three weeks ago. Fortunately, there are now viable alternatives. Arguably the best writing software is Scrivener, which is designed specifically for authors. It’s much more than a word processor, offering an environment in which you can manage all aspects of your project. You can keep your drafts, research, outlines and synopses all in one place, and then organise your workspace to access exactly what you need.
One of the key features of Scrivener is its ability to break your writing into smaller pieces, allowing you to easily concentrate on specific sections. With the Corkboard feature, you can create virtual index cards with a title and synopsis for each section and then click and drag them around till you’re happy with the sequence.
As you can see here, it’s also possible to add a status to each of your sections. This is completely customisable, so you can add your own.
Other benefits include the ability to roll back to previous versions of your sections and to set word targets for each section.
Once you’ve produced your draft, you can export it as a PDF, Word document, or in many other formats.
Scrivener is an incredibly powerful piece of software. As such, it can take a little while to get used to the interface and workflow. It’s worth dedicating a soggy weekend to working through the excellent built-in tutorial before you start your writing project. There’s a 30-day trial available, and the license costs just $38.25 with the education discount (this is a one-off cost, rather than an annual subscription). That’s a small price to pay for something that could transform your writing productivity.
Improve your accuracy with Grammarly
The English language is notoriously tricky, even for native speakers. While spellcheckers are fairly good at catching howlers, they’re not great with grammatical nuances. Grammarly is an impressive cloud-based app that detects potential grammar, spelling, punctuation, and stylistic errors in writing. It’s also available as a browser extension for Chrome, a mobile app for iOS and Android, as a Word plugin (Windows only).
The basic version is free and does a fine job, but they do pester you to upgrade. The premium version offers advanced checks, vocabulary enhancement, and a plagiarism detector that searches more than 16 billion web pages. Some of the style checks are very sophisticated, identifying the passive voice and making your writing more concise. Even experienced writers and editors can benefit hugely from Grammarly’s features.
Unfortunately, it’s quite expensive. The annual subscription is $139.95, and it’s nearly $30 if you want to pay monthly. However, this could save you lots of time on proofreading your work – which is never an appealing activity. There are occasional discounts available, too (try abandoning the purchase partway through, and you’re quite likely to see a coupon appear in your inbox). If that’s still too expensive, the free version will still improve your writing significantly.
Even if you won’t want to use the software described above, do have a think about your writing process. Is there anything that could be optimised? Writing is one of your core activities, so it’s worth devoting some time to considering the tools.
Here are the suggested activities for this week:
- Install the free version of Grammarly and see (with horror) how many errors it detects. If you’re thoroughly ashamed, consider upgrading to the premium version.
- Experiment with Phrase Express. Add any long words or phrases you use frequently and marvel when they automatically pop up on the screen.
- Give Scrivener a go if you’re willing to commit yourself to a moderate learning curve. It’s worth the effort, but not when you have a tight deadline.