Commenting on Comments

My poor, almost four-year-old laptop is on the brink of collapse. She moans and churns and thinks really hard about loading webpages now. Awakening her from digital slumber takes a few pushes and prods at her buttons. It’s not her fault; this is exactly what’s supposed to happen.

So, I’ve started the overwhelming task of researching new laptops, tempted by the possibilities of sleek and fast Chromebooks in particular. 90% of the work I do on my computer is online anyway, and rarely do I use any of the clunky software I impulsively buy for various “productive” uses that quickly fall by the wayside. I’ve thought about switching to a Mac too, but I can’t bring myself to invest in a product that requires consumers to buy individual and unique cords for basically every function (I take pride in being able to plug overhead projectors directly into my computer without having to use the limp-necked, insultingly-named “dongle”).

Yet there’s one Microsoft tool that I just can’t quit: Microsoft Word commenting and Track Changes. OK, OK, I know that Track Changes is prescriptive and ugly and red, but when it comes to my own writing especially, I love that I can see the changes I make dynamically, visibly, and quickly.

I’ve become especially fond of commenting on my own writing as I’m writing. Comments are what I use when I have something more I want to say about a particular idea, but am not yet sure how to incorporate it into the prose. My comments include everything from venting about how clunky my phrasing is to wondering whether a particular idea makes sense to expanding upon my prose more with ideas that I know must fit somewhere, but I’m not quite sure where.

I’ve even found myself writing things in comments like, “Well, what I really want to say is more about… but I’m not sure it’s relevant to put this thought here…” In other words, comments free me from my desire to have every thought of my writing placed in a linear and particular order. For better or for worse, I often feel obligated to constrict my writing in particular ways, to only write things in the order that I know I’ll finally want them. That’s totally silly, of course; I should know as a writing instructor that the space of a page, the space of a word processing document never ever has to be written in a “final” order and, in fact, words and paragraphs should be moved around. A lot! But there’s a part of my personality that resists a desire to move things (at least until I have every idea down). It’s not a convenient impulse.

So, what do I do instead? I write myself comments. I often wind up moving the comments too and they feel wonderfully liberating. They allow me to see just how messy and insane my writing is. And that’s a good thing.

Every day, writing is hard and I work to psyche myself out and convince myself that it’s not. One way that I’m making sure it feels less hard is by allowing myself to comment and comment freely. I don’t think I’ll wind up buying a Chromebook – I’m still exploring my options – because I think that using a Word interface comforts me, gives me infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, allows me the freedom to see my messy thoughts and mistakes. Believe me, I’m still working away from Microsoft applications for other purposes (See “Citation Woes”), but for initial drafting at least, the comforts of my good ol’ software applications still give me the space I need for the most important thing: my ideas.

Citation Woes

I sheepishly admitted something  embarrassing to a member of my dissertation committee yesterday: I still use Microsoft Word to take notes and keep track of citations.

“Jenaaaaae,” he groaned. “Seriously? It’s time to get with the twenty-first century.”

For those of you new to the citation software game, Microsoft Word is not twenty-first century. It’s kind of like the AOL of citation management; if you’re still using it, it means you’re old or incompetent.

For those of you skeptics wondering, “Why should it matter where citations get stored? Can’t they just be copied and pasted from document to document? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

The resounding answer to that is: “No. No no no. Why would you do that to yourself? No.”

Why is the resounding answer a series of emphatic “no’s?” Well, because it takes way longer to hunt down various citations from random files in random places on one’s computer. Copying and pasting citations from various documents (rather than storing them in one place) is kind of like putting your clothing in a bedroom closet, in a bathroom medicine cabinet, and in the refrigerator. Why would you ever do that? You wouldn’t.

And I know this. I’ve known this. I downloaded EndNote, a citation management program that our library lets students download for free, when I first started graduate school. I felt very pious about it and I quickly learned the basics. It wasn’t hard to use, but it felt cumbersome, like an additional step in the already-long and concentrated process of writing up research.

Here and there, I’d halfheartedly enter in some citations for papers I was working on, telling myself, “You’ll thank yourself for this later.” The problem was that I never got into a habit of it, and I found that for my seminar papers and my prospectus, I was often working against deadlines that made the simple task of entering the citation into EndNote feel like an enormous chore. Though I recognized the looming, long-term disadvantage of copying and pasting citations for the rest of my being, the short-term incentive to finish up writing to do anything else sounded better.

It also doesn’t help that I’ve found great soothing comfort in a Word document. It is, after all, the only word processor I’ve ever known, and it’s pretty much done everything I’ve ever needed it to do (except crash on me on several occasions; it never, never had to do that).

So the thought of abandoning the warm familiarity of a long, blank scrolling page (ha, who’d have thought I’d ever describe a blank page as “warm?”) has just made me want to cuddle up in all of its mainstream, moneyed glory even more. In other words: old habits die hard.

But indeed, it is time to get with it, this twenty-first century business, and actually manage my citations in a reasonable, organized, deliberate, and totally un-crazy way.

During this meeting, my committee member showed me Zotero, and while it is in many ways similar to EndNote, I think it may actually suit my working style a whole lot better (and one can only hope) actually motivate me to store my citations in a reasonable and systematic way.

The biggest advantage to Zotero for me is the fact that I can save readings I’ve accessed from my browser and store them immediately to Zotero. With the version of EndNote I got from the library, this isn’t possible (though perhaps newer versions of EndNote do this?).

Another huge advantage is that Zotero includes a note-taking tab along with the citations stored that allows me to write endlessly in a vertical view along with the citation. In EndNote, the “notes” section is a single bar that also scrolls endlessly, but it scrolls horizontally rather than vertically. This might seem like a totally nit-picky thing, but as a reader, it is much less cumbersome to read down than across.

Zotero also features a dynamic tagging view that will allow me to sort my articles and books by tags that I determine. Again, EndNote does this too, but with Zotero, the tags look a lot more like ones I’d seen on a blog.

In the scheme of things, these might seem like some small differences, but learning and becoming attached to new tools is part of becoming a better researcher. The more flexible I can become in how I write and store information, the better!

Tips-in-Progress for Working Independently

The greatest treat in the world for me is getting up and working in my pajamas. To roll straight from bed to computer and dig into a project is a fantastic luxury for me and it is one of the prevailing parts of an academic (and I suppose freelance) lifestyle that appeals to me.

Yet I’ve never had a moment in my life where I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in this luxury every morning until now. This summer, my days are completely unstructured. I am not teaching a single class. I have only occasional research meetings to attend for my various summer jobs (I’m juggling three different research and editing gigs this summer). Otherwise, all of the work I have to do is on my laptop at home. And I can do this work whenever I want, wherever I want.

It’s glorious and it’s harder than I thought it was going to be.

I’ve always been relatively disciplined; I hate having tasks hanging over my head. Yet the complete independence to finish work with minimal supervision requires an even more intense level of discipline than I’ve had before. I’m used to working with externally-imposed deadlines and frequent face-to-face interactions with people who can keep me on top of my game. While I’m still working and meeting with advisers, I know there’s a new expectation that I will enact enough discipline to make good choices and get work done.

Perhaps the larger challenge to being disciplined, however, is simply breaking up the length of the days. Without anyone to meet with or any places I have to go to, the days and hours stretch longer than they did before. So, there’s a monotony of routine I’m forced to shake off; I refuse to let my days feel “boring,” for the moment that I feel stuck in a rut is the moment that all of my reading, writing, and research splatters. Mightily.

So, in the spirit of the blogosphere and listicles, I offer a preliminary list of ways I’ve managed so far to keep my independent working time interesting and exciting for me. I’m still experimenting and I’m still not sure what exactly works best for me, but the preliminary “tricks” I’ve developed may hopefully be useful to someone else getting up in the morning and working in their PJs:

  • Set small goals. I feel much more motivated when I have clear concrete tasks I know I have to accomplish at each portion of the day. I typically try to set goals for my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. The most important thing I’ve noticed is to keep these goals manageable. So, I won’t try to convince myself that I’ll be able to finish a 200-page book in a morning, but I will assure myself that I can read and annotate at least two chapters of some dense theory. Another goal may be to spend two hours of my afternoon writing, but I’ll break that afternoon writing goal into manageable chunks. I like to use the Pomodoro technique for this; I’ll write and revise an article I’m drafting for 25 minutes without stopping. After the 25 minute stretch has passed, I can take a five minute break to do whatever I want. So, these small and manageable goals make me feel like I’m doing a lot and the time passes by much more quickly when I know that I’m constantly ticking items off of my list.
  • Alternate between tasks. I try not to do any one task for too long. If I feel myself getting stuck or find my mind wandering to what’s in my pantry to snack on, it’s usually a sign to myself that I need to take a step back and try doing something else. Of course, I try not to change tasks every five minutes, but I find that after an hour of doing any one thing, I’m ready to try something else for another hour. Switching up tasks at every hour and alternating between reading, writing, note-taking, and editing (my main tasks these days) help each task to feel fresh and exciting.
  • Stand and stretch frequently. This kind of advice is popular in our world of standing/walking/fetal-position desksbut I find that I’m quickly refreshed by making sure that I glance away from my computer or stand up from where I’m seated for even just a couple of minutes. I’m trying to be more mindful of my back and neck health, so I’ve been stretching my back and neck as frequently as I can to make sure I’m not building up too much tension. Again, finding ways to refresh and re-engage with the material I’m working on is key to making sure the days feel like they’re moving along and that I’m in the spirit to work.
  • Switch up working spaces. I’m lucky enough to have several spaces beyond my apartment where I can work. Typically, at a mid-point in my day, I try to switch my working spot. That sometimes means a move as small as taking my laptop from my desk to my kitchen table. Other times, that means walking across town to a coffee shop or going on campus to work in my office. Having a change of scenery really helps me to think about my work differently and it puts me in a frame of mind to work again and feel productive.
  • Take a moment and think about how awesome it is to work on stuff I like to do. Work doesn’t have to be fun, but I like to remind myself that I chose the work I’m doing. It’s a privilege to have choice. Period. I’m working towards a goal to be a writer/editor/scholar-person (I feel I can only label my work in multiple ways these days) and here I am doing it! Woo!

It’s my hope that I can avoid putting on real pants in the morning for the rest of the summer. Wish me luck.