“Tips From The Other Side” is my blog series where I talk about the boring-but-necessary specifics of writing long essays – turns out, there’s a lot of stuff besides just writing to think about. I last talked about citation and some things you can do to make it less painful, and a few months ago I mentioned a few tips on making the process of writing and revision as comfortable as possible. This week I’m focusing on where you write and save your notes and essays. There’s several options, and a couple of things you can do to access your work from anywhere.
I’m talking about Google Drive first because that’s where I write and store virtually everything, from my dissertation notes to my CV. I’m actually writing this post in Google Drive. I use Drive more out of habit than anything else – I made an account in high school and then got used to it. I’ve stuck with it for a couple of reasons. First, it’s extremely accessible – I can get to the actual document I’m working on from any computer in under a minute. Second, It saves documents automatically, so if your computer is fussy like my personal laptop you don’t need to worry about losing all your work because you didn’t save the document every five minutes. It comes with a ton of storage, I have a limit of 15 GB on my account and have used two GB in six years. Typically if I’m doing research for an essay I’ll read papers through Google Scholar and take notes in one document in Drive, then make a detailed plan in a separate document, then write the essay based on that plan. Any file can be shared either directly through Drive or with a link, so you can work with other people pretty easily. Special characters are very accessible in Google Docs, which saves a lot of time in Linguistics assignments. If you know what the symbol looks like, you can draw it or search for its characteristics. Also, Drive is free for anyone.
On the other hand, Google Drive is pretty minimal; it has options for documents, worksheets, presentations, and such (if you have any kind of administrative role in a society or something, Google Forms is super useful for quickly gathering survey information). Each of these is very stripped-down. It’s not the best for formatting the final product, especially if you need footnotes or other formatting specifications. It’s also not great for really long documents, since it doesn’t have very powerful search capacities and won’t display two pages at once. So for my dissertation, I wrote it in chunks (i.e., Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion) in Drive, then transferred it all to a Microsoft Word document to format the graphs, images, and references and to do my final editing. Also, Drive is based online – if you have patchy wifi or problems staying off the internet when you’re writing, this may not be the one for you.
If you don’t already have Office 365 downloaded on your personal computer, I highly recommend it. It’s free to students (at least in the UK); the link above directs you to more information on how to download it. The University of Edinburgh pretty much runs on Microsoft Outlook – your email account comes with the full Office package. Every university computer is equipped with it. This makes it a really useful (and kind of more universal) alternative to Google Drive. One of the reasons I moved my dissertation to Word is so that my supervisor could comment on it and discuss it more easily with me. There’s a streamlined version of Word available on your Outlook account. Word Online is great for making quick changes, notes, and sharing with other people, and makes documents easily accessible. You can also choose to edit the document with Word, which is nice if you need to format something or work offline. It’s more powerful than Word Online or Google Drive, so you have more control over the appearance of the final document. Also, a lot of employers require competence in Office software, so it’s good to get some practice using it.
However, Word does have some downsides. For me, Google Drive is quicker and easier to access. It takes more steps, and each step takes more time, to edit a document in Word. If you’re using Word Online, it will shut down if you ignore it for long enough. And once you’ve graduated, Office starts costing money again. Also, as far as I know (disclaimer: I haven’t tried very hard) Word doesn’t have very good search options for special characters. This may not seem like a big deal but it’s actually very incredibly irritating to sift through endless characters looking for “ø” or whatever. For my most basic writing, Word is too much; I prefer a minimalist word processor. On of the things I really like about Drive is that it doesn’t do anything automatically – it doesn’t correct “misspelled” words I get distracted from my actual writing deciding how to format graphs and such. If you like having all options at your fingertips from the start, go for Word. In the end, it’s pretty much down to personal preference.
There’s a lot of good options for word processors, so use the one you’re comfortable with. Personally, I prefer Drive and Word because I know how to use them and they automatically save online. I don’t trust myself to save my work regularly, and my laptop is temperamental and prone to shutting down randomly. Even if it only saves locally, please choose a package that will automatically save your work! Nothing sucks worse than getting up to go find some snacks, stopping for a chat with your flatmate, going back to your laptop and realising that it’s automatically restarted to install updates that you don’t even want, and has definitely not saved the essay you were, for whatever reason, writing in Sticky Notes. Not that that’s happened to me.