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Academic writing workflow: how to read lots as efficiently as possible (2020 edition)

·5 mins

Did you just land on this site for the first time? 👋 After this you might like to read the other posts in this series on processes and workflows. Last updated December 2020.

Here’s my academic writing workflow: it allows me to quickly pull together information from dozens of articles into a structured format that allows new ideas and connections to form. It won’t work for everyone, although there is plenty of scope for customisation.

1. Pulling everything together #

I won’t go into great detail here, but I collect all my research materials together first. For me, this is PDFs of articles, reports, and book chapters. In the past I used version 3 of Papers for Mac, but I have recently switched to Zotero, a powerful open source, cross-platform alternative. I group everything by project into smart folders using tags. Google Scholar is invaluable for sourcing articles (Papers allows you to search Google Scholar and import articles from within the application; Zotero has browser integrations to allow one-click importing).


Example screenshot of Papers for Mac: note the highlighted PDF

2. Highlighting and commenting #

I now read through everything in rough order of how important I think the article will be. This means later articles can be skim read (when concentration levels are lower) to pick up additional insight or nuance. Whilst reading I highlight relevant paragraphs or sentences – as less is better try to avoid highlighting entire pages – and I add comments with any thoughts or ideas. Papers has this function built in; applications like Skim (open source for Mac) and Highlights (a commercial alternative for Mac and iOS) can also do this, and both play nicely with Zotfile (a Zotero PDF management plugin – great if you’re a fan of keeping everything open source).

Want a speedier version of this workflow? 💨 Check out how to do quick and dirty literature surveys

3. Exporting and tagging notes #

All highlights are now exported as plain text files – one per article or report, or a single file with all highlights across all readings. The beauty of highlighting in an application like Skim or Papers is the automatic inclusion of page numbers and other bibliographic information in the exported file.

Depending on the complexity of the project, I may just export all the notes as one giant text file, print this, and start writing. However, in more advanced literature reviews, an extra step is helpful. In this case, I export each reading as an individual file and import these into TAMS Analyzer, an excellent open-source Mac application for qualitative text analysis. Effective use of TAMS Analyzer is a post in itself, but the documentation is fairly solid.

I then work through my imported highlights, and tag them. Usually this will be within 4-5 headings that will naturally emerge from the initial reading: for a recent review of universities and cities, for example, I had the headings ‘leadership’, ‘international’, ‘regional’, ‘urban’ and ‘conclusions’. Finally, with a couple of clicks, TAMS Analyzer can generate a table with headings at the top, and all of the highlights below – one box per highlight. The source name – drawn from the plain text export of your initial highlights – is appended (usually Author-Year).

The great benefit of this extra step is a single file that can easily contain insight and analysis from twenty or thirty articles (or more). Instead of thirty print outs, you have one – admittedly quite big – file with several thematic groupings, each with a mixture of authors and sources. This makes writing much, much easier.

tams output

HTML output from TAMS Analyzer: you can reformat so it’s easier to print (and read) 

4. Writing #

Again, I won’t go into this too much, as most people have their own tools and preferred way of working. I use the fantastic Ulysses for Mac for nearly all of my writing. Citations are easily managed via your research manager, which sorts all the references and bibliographic information once the final text is exported into Word (or LibraOffice). Ulysses integrates well with Papers (more here) by using the Magic Citations tool to insert references as you write (the source name, Author-Year, is in your table from step three). The process can be replicated very smoothly using open source plugins for Zotero by following this excellent workflow.

I work through the table of notes as I write, often sequentially by thematic heading. This has two main benefits: you’re drawing on notes ordered by theme not author, so you naturally avoid paragraphs with multiple citations from just one source. Second, with excerpts from many sources sitting next to each other in the table, you make new connections between different authors and ideas. Any notes or comments you made on the initial read through are also included.

magic citations

Papers’ Magic Citations tool used in Ulysses

Concluding comments #

This workflow mimics a paper method I used years ago, which took a lot more time (and used a lot more paper). Some may prefer to read from paper copies – I tend to print just the most important articles. Others prefer to write as they read.

For those working outside the social sciences this workflow may not work so well – but I’d be interested to test this. It doesn’t work so well with books unless you have a PDF version, although these are often cumbersome. I tend to take separate notes on books in a plain text file to be used in step three.

Lastly, the flow in workflow is important. If you wait too long between the first few stages and stage four (writing) you begin to lose the connections you form when you make the initial highlights. The wider context of selected sentences is lost, and you forget why you highlighted certain sections in the first place.

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