This morning I’m pleased to join historians Ansley Erickson and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela on “Writing Educational History in the Digital Age: Crafting Your Research-to-Writing Workflow,” an invited Fireside Chat by the Division F graduate students at the American Educational Research Association 2015 conference in Chicago. We framed our session this way:

Historians place a high value on our writing, but we rarely share in public our processes for moving ideas across these key stages: research, composition, feedback, editing, and publication. This session will focus on ways of reflecting on and crafting your own scholarly workflow, with suggestions about digital tools to make your work more efficient and accessible to selected readers.

Ansley and Natalia and I will expand on ideas that they contributed to our recent volume, Writing History in the Digital Age (co-edited with Kristen Nawrotzki). Readers may purchase a print edition or freely read the book online from the University of Michigan Press (2013). The volume explores questions such as: Has the digital revolution transformed how we write about the past — or not? Have new technologies changed our essential work-craft as scholars, and the ways in which we think, teach, author, and publish? Does the digital age have broader implications for individual writing processes, or for the historical profession at large? We built this book on the web, with over twenty five contributors who shared their drafts for an open peer review by designated experts and general readers, who posted nearly one thousand substantive comments that shaped the final edition.

This AERA 2015 session was organized by Valencia Moses, who attended my AERA 2014 mentoring session on “Research Strategies for Historians in the Digital Age,” where I emphasized six guiding principles before digging into digital tools, which are worth repeating here:

  1. Figure out what works for you. My own digital strategies have been shaped by my specialization in 20th-century metropolitan history (with an overabundance of sources) and my need to publish visual evidence (such as interactive maps) to accompany my interpretative text.
  2. Consider adopting a new tool or strategy if it adds significant value to your scholarship and/or teaching, or else they may distract you from your goal.
  3. Favor tools that allow you to shift from doing research in isolation to collaboration, to help “bust the myth of the lone historian,” the subtitle of the division’s fireside chat this year.
  4. Never put your data into a tool unless you can easily get it back out and migrate to another platform.
  5. Capture your ideas, whether on paper, keyboard, or voice recorder, to sort out which ones are worth expanding and revising.
  6. The Internet is your best friend and your worst enemy. Learn to disconnect from the net (e.g. turn off wifi) in order to focus your scarce time and energy. Reward yourself after you’ve completed your writing.

For this 2015 session, Ansley, Natalia, and I each plan to deliver a 5-10 minute mini-presentation about some aspect of our “research-to-writing” process, to spark an informed discussion with the audience. For my portion, I’ll draw on my guiding principles above and demonstrate two key tools that shape my own workflow: Zotero (a bibliography manager tool) and Scrivener (a writing tool that allow me to zoom in and zoom out of book-length texts).

When speaking with groups of graduate students in reading-intensive fields, such as history, I ask for a show of hands on this question: How many of you use a bibliography manager tool to keep track of scholarship you’ve read so that you can easily cite it later in your writing? The last two times I did this, only half of the audience raised their hands (which continues to amaze me). When I probe further about the half who do use these types of tools, many confide that they don’t fully understand how to use them. So I deliver a three-minute demonstration on how these tools can improve their academic work lives. There are several different applications on the market, but my personal favorite is Zotero, a freely downloadable and open-source application from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. If you’ve never heard of Zotero, think of it as iTunes for books and articles (a slogan that seems to resonate with people), plus a whole lot more.

Update: After the session, I wrote another post, titled “Three Visual Reasons for Scholars to Use Free Zotero Bibliography Tool,” with animations of the key concepts.

To learn more beyond these Zotero basics, read their quick start guide or see two of my illustrated tutorials, which appear a brand-new open-access volume, Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (co-edited with Tennyson O’Donnell, University of Michigan Press, 2015). These extra tutorials appear in the Trinity College ePress edition, which readers may freely read online or download at

As for Scrivener, here’s my thoughts about why this application works for me. My advice is to find writing tools that fit your workflow, not vice versa. Last year, I switched from Microsoft Word to Scrivener for my scholarly book projects because its design matches how my brain approaches long-form writing.

When composing a book-length manuscript, my mind needs to engage with the text at both the macro and micro levels. At the beginning of my typical morning writing session I’ll start into 1,000-word section to be drafted that day, focusing my 1-2 hour bursts of writing energy on creating fresh text. Later I’ll step outward to revise the section to fit better with the 10,000-word chapter, or the 100,000-word book as a whole. By lunchtime, I will have zoomed back and forth between the micro and the macro levels several times, and revised the new section to match the broader arguments of the manuscript, or revised the organization of the manuscript to reflect what I’ve discovered while writing that particular section. Unless I get really hungry.

As an historian, I zoom back and forth between these micro and macro levels because my book manuscript is an analytical narrative. Its goal is to tell a story that guides the reader through a multi-faceted argument about change and continuity over time, while making a persuasive case with supporting evidence and a cumulative cast of historical actors, concepts, and structural forces. I need to zoom back and forth to make sure that the evidence fits the arguments, or vice versa, and to decide which parts of this complex story to introduce at the appropriate time. Without a doubt, writing would be easier if it fit neatly into those traditional social science journal section headings—abstract, literature review, source and methods, discussion—but it would be much more boring, not very insightful, and less frequently read. Attempting to fit historical writing into that cookie cutter framework would no longer make it history.

This post is not intended to advertise a specific software application. Instead, the broader message is to find writing tools that fit your particular way of thinking, researching, composing, and sharing your scholarship. Look for tools that match your workflow, rather than unnaturally forcing your workflow to match the tool.

Postscript: Some participants at the session asked for advice about photographing or scanning archival collections for historical research. As we discussed, the rules vary widely across institutions. Learn more about the process from these 2011 posts by Shane Landrum @cliotropic: Archival research photo Q&A and OCRing archival research photos.