Outlining.

This weekend, my major accomplishment was to complete an outline of my dissertation, with overviews of each section and chapter, and how each part furthers the larger argument I’m making. This was a new thing for me: I’m not usually an outliner, and when I write I usually just sit down and start typing, figuring out what I’m saying as I go along.
After this exercise, I think I may be an outlining convert. There really is no other way to begin wrapping your head around such a large project as a dissertation or book. I now feel as though, for the first time ever, I know what I am trying to say, why I am trying to say it, and how I’m going to do so. If you had told me two weeks ago that I would feel as pumped and excited and confident about my dissertation as I do today, I would never have believed you.
I would also like to add that, despite the terror they induce, grant and fellowship application deadlines are amazing for getting you to do the big-picture things (like figuring out what the heck your dissertation is really about and why it’s important). They are even more helpful if, like me, you are doing your research and writing away from your home institution—an isolating prospect, as if the Ph.D. process weren’t isolating enough—and desperately need deadlines that you can stick to and other fire-under-the-rear motivational tools. If I can keep this up, well, heck. I might actually finish this thing.
By the way: a plug here for Scrivener, which, despite its obvious failures as a typesetting program (the big one: no bibliographic database integration), is an amazing tool for organizing large research projects. Definitely worth the $30 to get the non-trial version.
Next technical task (possibly not quite simple enough for me to do before the approaching deadline): get biblatex working properly, and learning how to use biblatex-historian. For some reason, despite my amazing Unix-ninja awesomeness last week and all command-line evidence that things are as they should be, my LaTeX engine cannot see that I do in fact have the latest version of biblatex installed. Any tips, anyone?

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3 thoughts on “Outlining.

  1. 1) What’re you using to update your latex packages? If you’re using MacTeX-2010 you should have the TeX Live updater, which transparently keeps packages up to date, handles dependencies, etc. That should keep everyone talking to everyone, and the MacTex bundle really is the easiest way to get all the TeX tech in one go. If you’re already doing so, is there some dist/local clash happening, some $PATH-order annoyance?
    2) Scrivener feels clunky to me, but folks do seem to like it. I outline in OmniOutliner, which is a super-smooth app – I know at least one grad student who wrote an entire thesis in the outliner, which is harder-core than I’m capable of even pretending to be. Other than integrating the outliner/index cards and editor, how does Scrivener beat straight-up (LaTeX-in-emacs) + (some outlining solution)?
    3) There’s an app called MindNode – ‘mind mapping’ software, gag me, I know, I know – that I’ve found invaluable for laying out ideas at an early stage. Mind mapping is a fetish, but there’s something about browsing a conceptual web that’s really liberating…That app plus DevonThink (a heavy-duty ‘everything box,’ expensive but totally worth it) plus the outliner plus Textmate (for LaTeX, lately) is how I lay out big writing projects. I comfortably recommend all those apps. Ethically-challenged types can acquire them all for free online, of course.

  2. The thing that’s great about Scrivener for me is that I can import all of my research right into the program. I take thousands of photographs when I go to the archives, and iPhoto is a terrible interface for sorting through them and taking notes. Scrivener is the closest thing I’ve found to a good solution to the taking-notes-on-and-organizing massive amounts of electronic documents—whether they’re jpegs of archival documents, pdfs of things I’ve scanned or articles I’ve downloaded, audio files of oral histories or old radio programs, or my own notes on a book or other source. It’s a great way to have all my primary and secondary sources immediately at hand, while also being able to write about them right there in the program. Until I started working in Scrivener, the task of going through my accumulated files from the archives was so daunting that I did very little of it; now, I can just export a bunch of stuff from iPhoto, do a little pdf magic, and drop it right into my research folder in Scrivener.
    The other great thing about organizing research in Scrivener is that it makes it easy to replicate the file structure of the archive, and to make notes at every level of how to cite the material I’ve working with. Archival sources are a huge pain in the ass this way, but with Scrivener I just pop the reference right onto the index card. This is nearly impossible to do in iPhoto in any way other than by taking a photograph of each box’s information, and each folder label as you move through a box. I end up doing this anyway just as a safeguard, but it wastes a huge amount of hard drive space to have photos that are essentially placeholders.
    For the purposes of this most pressing deadline, I’ve simply reverted to my old jurabib style, since I didn’t have time to wrangle with biblatex; but I’m working with TeXLive and am sure it’s some kind of path issue that I haven’t figured out yet. My TeX distribution folder is kind of a mess, so I’ll need to sort that out at some point… after Wednesday.
    Thanks for the tips! More to come.

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