About a month ago the fine folks at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media released an update to Zotero, their fabulous research management and citation software. The update broke Zotero free from the confines of the Firefox web browser and gave it the ability to stand as it own application. That change was big news for folks who prefer Chrome, Internet Explorer, or one of the many other browsers out there to Firefox. I’m actually a Firefox user so I wondered if the release would have much to offer for me beyond saving the step of opening Zotero in a separate browser window to make it seem like its own program. Did it ever!
The new standalone version rolled out a number of tweaks and upgrades to the previous iteration of the software, including a very useful duplicate detection and management system. But, for me, the most significant improvement over the old system came in the form of a wonderful new interface for adding citations to Microsoft Word and OpenOffice. In the new system, activating the “Insert Citation” action for the Zotero add-in brings up an elegantly simple search bar. To add an item you simply begin typing the author’s name or part of the title. As you type the system brings up a menu of options meeting the search criteria. It even moves items that you’ve previously cited in this file up to the top of the list for faster access. Once you see the source you’re looking for you can click on it or use the arrow keys to select it.
Adding additional information to the item such as page numbers or prefix or suffix text is as easy as pressing Ctrl and the down arrow. That command brings up a separate menu for the item where you can add those details. Overall it is a snap to use and makes it much easier to add citations to your text. And with a few tweaks to your word processor’s hotkey settings, you can improve your workflow even more.
Not to long ago I read a post over at Lifehacker suggesting that changing the font of a document improves your ability to edit it. The logic being that a new font will give you a fresh look at the document. Having just wrapped up a 60-page dissertation chapter, I thought I’d give it a shot.
Typically when I’ve finished a piece of writing I do an onscreen edit and then a printed edit. Finally, after taking a day or so away from the document if possible, I do another printed edit. Usually there are many more steps in that process, but that is the very simplified version. With the chapter I just finished I changed the font for that final printed edit from Times New Roman to Comic Sans MS because it was different enough from the original without being hard to read.
And I have to say that the change in font seemed to help. Obviously I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have caught the errors that I did using the original font. But it certainly seemed like some types of problems stood out more clearly because I wasn’t simply running my eyes over text they had seen many times over.
The technique seemed most helpful for the types of errors that hide in plain sight. I caught misplaced or missing apostrophes, words that were supposed to be deleted at some point but managed to hang around, and words left in the wrong order after some earlier edit changed the flow of the sentence.
Most of all, I think the font change highlighted problems with the little ubiquitous words that our brains take for granted. The third sentence of my very first paragraph began with the phrase, “According to President Jefferson’s specific instructions….” In none of my previous edits had I noticed that the sentence actually read, “According President Jefferson’s specific instructions….” In all previous readings, some of which were done out-loud, my mind simply assumed that a “to” was where it needed to be.
In the end, I’m thankful that I caught the mistakes and I’m happy to recommend this little piece of advice. Happy editing!
Autohotkey (AHK) is very powerful software. And it is exactly the type of tool that we want to highlight here at DIY Ivory Tower. At the most basic level, AHK allows you to create your own keyboard shortcuts in Windows. [Mac users should check out this post from Profhacker describing Mac software called TextExpander. It also mentions a few other Mac and Windows text expanders that can accomplish at least some of what AHK can do.] I started using AHK for very simple tasks like having my computer type my phone number when I press a certain combination of keys. I’ve got other hotkeys set for my name, a complex part (but not all) of my email password, my address, and my email address. These shortcuts come in very handy when filling out forms online or sending simple emails. Once you start using the software and reading through its user guide, however, you’ll quickly see that it is capable of very much more. Continue reading →