Grant-Writing Diary: an old school productivity app

There are a million apps out there to help keep you motivated and on track. To-do list managers like Wunderlist, Any.do and Trello to visualize what you need to do, and note-takers like Evernote and Google Keep so you can actually do it in an easy and organized way. And I like that kind of junk, but when I’m actually struggling, organizing myself with electronics really doesn’t help. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but those tools often make me feel more isolated or like I’m wearing blinders and that just doesn’t help me work.photo of Sam Grace's Grant Writing Journal

What does help, at least 85% of the time, is keeping a grant-writing diary. I started this back in comps. Every day, I’d start by writing the date (not just the date-date, but also the grant-date*), then write a little about how I was feeling (e.g. tired, annoyed, ridiculously animated), then eventually my goals for the day. Then, as the day continued, I would check in with my journal. Tell it what time it was, how well I’d been working, how the goals were shaping up (or not), how much longer I planned on working. Basically, a bunch of crap that is wayyyy too boring for an actual diary.

And throughout the day, whenever my inspiration flagged, I’d keep looking over at my day’s entry and know that I wasn’t working alone. It’s like the main conceit in Inkheart, that written things come to life in the writing, taking on identity and backstory. That self I put into the journal was there with me, feeling my pain. Added bonus: every time I look at that blank page filled with my ideas and goals, I feel productive.

So if you find that the apps aren’t doing it for you, maybe it’s time to take it back to a bulkier technology. Any other recs for getting from “to do” to “done”?


* in my dorky head, this is like the Stardate in the Captain’s Log. I write “Grantdate: Day 8 (NSF)” and occasionally I’ll add “T-3 days” or whatever it is until my most significant deadline.

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Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

Note Taker HD in school and the field

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the third of many.
Sam with iPad and dog
Like many of us with the privilege to be in school, I take a lot of notes. For years, I have debated the merits of paper notetaking and computer notetaking with myself. Despite my love of tech solutions, I got a tactual pleasure out of writing by hand and appreciated the superior flexibility and organization of a blank sheet of paper. Sadly, once the semester was over, my notes formed indistinguishable piles where nothing could ever hope to be found again. So, by my second year, I had transitioned to taking all my notes on my computer, first in Journler then in Evernote (because Evernote syncs between devices). Magically, amazingly, I could find all my notes! I could search them! I could use tags to navigate them! It was wonderful!

But I missed handwritten notes.

notes taken in Note Taker HD

notes taken in Note Taker HD

This came to a head when I returned from some scoping work in Ecuador with a pile of notebooks and the boring task of transcribing them somewhere I could search through them (and maybe code them later). Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could just take the notes electronically? Typing on a tablet seemed like a good route*, but the fact of its tablet-ness made drawing on the screen a more logical option.

Then the spectacular Tracie Mayfield introduced me to Note Taker HD for iPad. It had the best of my worlds: 1) handwritten notes organized like my brain and 2) PDFs I can sync between devices (via Dropbox or Evernote). It’s not perfect – I wish it automatically synced my handwritten notes as tagged PDFs rather than the intermediary step of Dropbox. And, of course, real paper doesn’t have a battery that needs charging. But its folder organization works well within the program and tagging it again on my computer is, for me, a small price to pay. One of the best unlooked for (in my case) features is the ability to annotate PDFs by drawing on them – something that I would continue to use even if I ultimately decided I like typing my notes better after all.

* And I’m still looking into this, I’ll let you know if I find something awesome

Opal is for Outlining

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the second of many.

Opal is an outlining program for Macs and one of the programs I rely heavily on in grad school. It costs $32, but has a free 30 day trial that is exactly the same as the full version. If you outline, but you get overwhelmed at all the writing you have on the page, this is a really good program.

Opal screenshot

It’s good at a very short list of things. Pretty much just writing and editing outlines. But if that’s part of your writing process (and how could it NOT be if you are a grad student or academic?), this is a huge step up from just writing in a text file or a word document.

VUE mindmapping

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the first of many.

VUE stands for Visual Understanding Environment and is an Open Source mindmapping program from Tufts University*. They say, “VUE provides a flexible visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information.” Basically, it gives you a blank screen and a very limited number of buttons, and lets you make pretty boxes and circles with words or pictures in them and then draw lines between them. It’s what you probably learned to do with paper and crayons in the lesson on Brainstorming in elementary school. But you can keep it on your computer for future reference in your notes (as a static .jpg or .pdf or editable .vue file).

a sample VUE mindmap from my first year of grad school

Like most mindmapping tools, you can use it to share information (to create a flowchart for a publication for example), but I think it’s at it’s best in the thinking process. In the example above I was using it to prepare for a presentation on gendered discourses in sex education at the Society for Medical Anthropology conference in 2009.

In conclusion, I highly recommend it!

*Seriously, Tufts has the best free stuff – as an ancient Greek major in college the Perseus Project was my best friend.

Notetaking Rubric for Comps and Everything Else

In my second year of grad school, I took a class with the estimable Eithne Luibheid. In addition to teaching an excellent course on Gender, Sexuality, and Transnational Migration, she also provided us with a notetaking rubric she expected us to use while preparing our presentations on the readings. It was excellent, although I only used it on and off while I was writing my Master’s thesis. Now, immersed in the mind-numbing sea of reading for my comprehensive exams, I rely on that rubric (forked for my purposes) like a fisherman relies on her nets. So, here it is, that you too might find some use for it.

[begin with a complete citation of the book or article you read, obviously in your field’s preferred format]

THESIS, SUBARGUMENTS
[both the first and the last note I take; key if you, like me, totally forget stuff like this eventually]
KEYTERMS
[make sure to note the page number]
ARGUMENT EVALUATION (& REMEDIES)
[I only write this one in if I have a strong opinion about it, but keeping it separate helps the rest of my notes stay more on point]
RELATION TO MY RESEARCH
[an incredibly valuable reminder; noted throughout reading and after]
RELATION TO OTHER READINGS
[while Dr. Luibheid suggested making content notes here, I generally use this space to note important references listed in the reading so that I can follow up with them later]
USEFUL QUOTATIONS and GENERAL NOTES
[this should be self-explanatory]

It is also worth noting, since I’m talking about notetaking, that I use Evernote for all my notetaking. It’s a free program and it syncs between devices (in my case, I usually take notes on my computer, but when I travel I use my iPad, and when I’m stuck somewhere and thinking about my work I like to be able to access my notes on my smart phone – this makes that much easier).