Tools of the Trade

The Online Writing Center / Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

As a dissertator and the Coordinator of the Online Writing Center, when I’m not untangling late 16th-century poetry, updating the Writing Center’s website, or making sure our synchronous and asynchronous instruction runs smoothly I like to poke around the web to try and figure out how to make the many hours I spend in front of my computer more productive. Over the past few years I’ve run across a number of programs that have made my life a lot easier, and I’ve frequently wished I knew about many of them sooner. I thought I would take a few minutes and share some of the free tools that have saved me hours of frustration.

Easy automatic backups. I am often rather forgetful; if my dissertation doesn’t automagically back itself up without me having to do anything, then it doesn’t get backed up nearly as often as it should. Additionally, I do significant amounts of work from four different computers and hate having to make sure that I have the current working version on each one. Dropbox is a life saver. It’s a web-based application that synchronizes files across different computers automatically and almost simultaneously. A free account includes 2 gigs of server space so your files are always on all of your computers and on the Dropbox servers. All you have to do is sign up for an account, download the Dropbox application on each of your computers, and enter your sign-in information. It just works.

I should also add that Dropbox also has some awesome promotionals from time to time. Like poetry contests. I actually won a free 50 gig upgrade for life with the following limerick:

There was once a poor dissertator
Who quaked about losing her papers
She installed KDE
Using Dropbox indeed
Now lightning and storms do not scare her

No comments on the quality of the verse are allowed. Yes, I am a grad student. I am not proud when it comes to winning cool, free stuff.

Version control. Before I learned about version control systems my computer was littered with files called things like chapt1-draft1.tex, chapt1-draft1.5.tex, etc. I’ve edited the wrong version more than once using this system, and (perhaps even more frustratingly) found that my revisions weren’t an improvement over the draft I started with but was unable to go back. Dropbox does have some version control features, but it only stores old drafts for a month. I’m a packrat, so I like to have them forever. Enter git. Git was developed for teams of programmers working together on the same piece of software. It keeps track of changes in the files of a particular folder, so that you can compare across different revisions to see exactly what you’ve changed and if those changes are actual improvements. Even though git was designed for computer programming, it works perfectly on any kind of text file. This means that it isn’t the best option if you work with .docs all the time (.doc is a binary file format), but it is great for .html, .docx (which is an xml file format), or .tex.

Word processors. Since I do most of my writing in LaTex (which is an entire post to itself), I don’t use word processors on a daily basis. I would feel remiss, however, if I didn’t at least mention OpenOffice and LibreOffice. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both free office suites that are compatible with Microsoft Office file formats. They both can open .docx (although they only save in plain .doc), and can read and write Excel and PowerPoint files. I haven’t yet tried LibreOffice yet, but I’ve used OpenOffice for years with no problems. It’s stable, easy to use, and free.

That’s enough for now, but I’ll probably write about more free tools in the future. If you have any favorites you’d like to share, please use the comments to tell us about them.
courtesy of <a href="">smee.bruce</a>
N. B. This article is my personal assessment of these tools; neither the Writing Center nor the University endorses them in any way.