The workflow

by scotslawstudent

University is pretty much an industrialised way to exchange essays for potentially higher earnings in the future. There’s really not much more critical to the orthodox university experience than handing your essays in.

I imagine the general way people do this is they open a new document in Microsoft Word before alternately staring at it, typing words into it and checking the word count. They then sort their footnotes and bibliography, run it through TurnItIn or similar and then either print it out or submit it electronically. That way works but there’s so many other ways to do it.

I think Word is an amazing program, it gets a hard time but it basically does everything to text that you, and pretty much anyone else, could ever want to do to text. It’s such a substantial program there are many, many courses and books purely on the various intricacies of it. I do encourage everyone to do these, it helps to know how Word works. It’s so much more than it seems at first glance.

If you want to go beyond just writing all your stuff in Word the workflow you’ll come up with is one of the most individual decisions you’ll make. You’ll probably use a collection of various things.

My favourite tools for writing are:

  1. Plain text
  2. Text expansion,
  3. Templates,
  4. Backup and,
  5. Word

Plain text

I don’t think I really need Word to write my essays. I type just about everything I write into Mousepad, (even things on blogs in case my browser crashes). It’s a lightweight plain text editor – just like Notepad. You type your words into it and nothing else. The biggest change is that I’ve started to use the Harvard citing model because Mousepad doesn’t support footnotes. I check my spelling with Aspell and check word counts with wc.

Text expansion

Is a surprising feature I never thought I needed. I first came across the concept through Low End Mac, where one of the principal writers has serious joint problems which make typing uncomfortable. He uses text expansion to let him minimise the amount of typing he needs to on health grounds. I use it for various things, I have some commonly typed terms arranged to expand – for example “pomo” becomes “postmodernism”- but the big thing I use it for is dynamic scripts. One of the big ones is that it will change $date into the current date and time which makes it a lot easier to type the date for record keeping purposes. I use Autokey for this. It’s Linux only but it’s the spirtual successor of AutoHotKey which runs on Windows.


One of the better features of many operating systems is that you can create new documents of various types by right clicking in the file browser. Ubuntu takes this as far as I’ve seen and lets you create a new copy of anything in your ~/Templates/ directory. For example I use a template for blog posts that looks a lot like this:

Word count:


This gives me all the details I need for a blog post in one file and the fingerprint I use to track when/where my posts get scraped because I keep forgetting to put it in. Having it there gives me a checklist to work through. I just do “right click > create document > blog post” and fill in the fields so they’re there for WordPress when I come to post it. I also have another for essays which includes things like the deadline, the question, the word limit and so on. The idea is to make a checklist for things I need to remember.


Backup is utterly essential, you just can’t afford to lose your work at any point and it’s really easily done. I’ve found that Flashbake is good for both backup and versioning. The creator explains it is,

seamless source control tool for ordinary people. Automated backup is nice unless you have files for which you want to view an incremental history. Source control is great for that history but most tools expect the author to manually commit their changes along the way. A seamless source control solution combines the convenience of automated back up with the power of source version control.

I’ve set it to save the changes I’ve made to my files every 15 minutes and these backups are copied to my Dropbox account. It’s a bit like the Time Machine backup system in new editions of Mac OS X in that it’s both backup and versioning, and it’s smart enough to check if the file actually has changed before it backs it up. You probably don’t need versioning but it’s the sort of feature that you are not going to regret having if you later find out you need it.


I have a copy of Word 2007 installed on this computer which I run using WINE. I’ve never really got it to work brilliantly well but I don’t need to do very much in Word. After I’ve written the text in Mousepad I copy and paste it into a Word document and convert the Harvard citations into footnotes. I can then submit it like everyone else.