How I Work

I only read People magazine at my dentist’s office, but flipping through its pages, taking in the photos of celebrities walking their kids to school and toting around their Whole Foods bags, gives me a feeling that’s got something in common with that I get when I read Lifehacker’s How I Work series. Pleased by the glimpse, curious to see the minutiae.

How I work—and by that I mean reading and writing in preparation to teach and publish—has changed a good bit in the last few years. Some of my work habits were in need of a makeover. One example: I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my academic career copying passages from books and articles into notebooks. I did this partly to have a reference, and partly because it seemed, kinda, to help me process what I read. But all that copying long ago stopped feeling entirely productive.

My first work experiment began last year, when I started using Scrivener to organize my classes. Scrivener’s been a game-changer; it brought order to the messy and daunting process of planning classes, and last summer, in preparation for my research leave last quarter, I started organizing my research projects in Scrivener, too. Love it.

Another new tool in my work process is voice recognition software. Back in my dissertation days, I bought an early version of Dragon Naturally Speaking and read my handwritten field notes into Word files. This was not a perfect process, but I was so sick of typing that I was happy for any relief. Before my research leave, I bought a new version of Dragon, which has pretty much weaned me off of note-taking as I read. Now as I read a book, I make tiny pencil marks in the margins; after I’ve read a few chapters, I speak the annotated passages into a Scrivener project using Dragon. This gets me the same notes I used to get by hand-copying passages, but without typing. The process also lets me pay a different sort of attention while reading, because I’m not distracted by my own note-taking.

Another experiment, this one decidedly low-tech: drafting on index cards. I typically do a lot of drafting, much of it longhand: the last two articles I submitted for publication were a version 22 and a version 20. For the article that I wrote on research leave, I began as I usually do, moving back and forth between a college-ruled pad and my computer. Then, at about version 15 of the article, I bought a pack of 4×6 index cards and wrote a full draft on index cards, making a separate stack for each section of the article. I liked seeing the project in 2D space, rather than in the endless scroll of a computer file. The growing stacks of index cards also motivated me to finish sections, and helped me to see when sections were getting too long. When I was done with the full draft, I read it into Scrivener using Dragon.

Staring for long stretches of time at a Word file on a big bright screen, pushing around a mouse, and endlessly clicking though folders can make for a soul-killing workday. Hopefully, even now that the slower-paced days of my research leave are over, these new and better work habits will stick.

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