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Month: November 2012

The 2 reasons I have come to work extensively with Drupal

My quest

A few months ago, I was looking for a good way to help my customers keep track of some technical reports – you know those reports with long dry titles with multi-syllabic words.

Surely there was an easy way to present a customer with a few lists – you have seen this already, take a look at this, this is new and might interest you.

My journey

I started off looking at social media software and then I looked at some e-learning software.  And then . . . Drupal.

In all honesty, you don’t want to discover Drupal.  It is a time-sink of note. People politely refer to it as having a “steep learning curve”. Translate: the documentation sucks.

But, here we are with Drupal.

What does Drupal have that is so fascinating?

  • Firstly, Drupal is open source. It has a huge community of people who work on it and contribute modules.
  • Secondly, Drupal is modular.  You are limited only by your imagination (and of course the underlying code which – stomach turning to say – is poorly documented).

But these are both limitations really. They account for the time-sink.

What drew me to Drupal were two features:

  • First, its Search. I can Search through the inside of all my files as easily as using a Google search script.
  • Second, its Outlining.

Let me spell both features out a little more.

Search in Drupal

Think of working on a long project.  I open up a Word document and half-way through, I get called away. I save a draft.  When I come back to the project I look for the draft in Windows Explorer.

Oh, it sounds simple. The reality is different. I always seem to have half-finished drafts that I have half-forgotten about.

Now I try to find what I want. Yes, I can search by Folder and Date and File Type.  Yes, I can search by Title (slowly).  Yes, I could use tags and Google search.  But I’ve abandoned these over the years as not being particularly effective at keeping me organised.

Drupal files everything in one place

Filing and search in Drupal is so much easier.  Everything I write, no matter what it is about, goes into one folder, organised by Date.  Most content has tags similar to a blog post.

Drupal can search inside your files

When I am looking for material, I can still search by the date, the title, and the tags.  But Drupal will search inside my files too.  (Well actually, as long as they are more than three hours old as the cron job is set to run every three hours).

The advantages of Drupal is that I don’t have to move content into folders and when I want to find something, I have a powerful search function.

Outlining in Drupal

But, what if I want to group my files in a folder?

Well, you are not going to!  What you will do will be even better.

When you write a document that belongs in a collection, you simply add it to an Outline.  And, thereafter, whenever you want to add anything to that collection, you simply add it.

The file itself never moves.  All you are doing is adding a hyperlink.

If you want to add sub-folders, you simply add a Book Page and Child Pages to mark sub-folders.  If you want to move a Child Page to another sub-folder, you use  a drag ‘n drop.

Remember though the file itself never moves. So, you don’t have to rely on your memory to find it.  You only add hyperlinks to an Outline.   You also don’t have to type this Outline out. Or, refresh it with F9, or worry whether you added headings in the correct format.

Let’s use a practical example to show the sweetness of the outlining facility

My personal blog has thousands of posts.  To sort those out into the beginnings of a book (or two), I would copy them into Word and have thousands of files. I would have to open each post, decide where to put it, and then move it to a folder.

When I wanted to find that file, I would have to remember where I put it, and the search would begin again.

In Drupal, I leave all those posts in one running file in date order (the defining feature of a blog).  I still have to work through the posts one-by-one because I built  my blog in WordPress not Drupal, but if I have the material in Drupal now, then I can drop a hyper-link of my posts into a relevant “book” – say a book on Drupal, a book on poetry – and so on.

How do I see my whole collection?

When I have sorted everything out, then I can work on any section of any book. I simply go to the “top” of a section and use “Print friendly”. All the files in that section are collated. With CTRL-A and cut ‘n paste, I take the whole lot into Word and condense say five posts into one.

How do I bring a “chapter” back into Drupal?

When I am done condensing a series of posts into one, I simply cut ‘n paste back into Drupal and save the refinement of my work as a blog post or a Book Page.

Easy. Easy. Easy.

Drupal gives us capacity that Office does not.

How do we make Drupal work for us?

Of course, you build a Drupal website. If your work is not public, build a website on your local server.  We have built one for academics on a portable server so it moves around with us on a USB stick. We call it ScholarWriter.

Everything is put into the single Drupal website – a bibliography that is imported from Endnotes, notes, drafts, calendar and doodles.

All easily accessible.

All compatible with Endnote and Word. Portable.

And because the ‘whole bang shooting match’ resides in one folder, easy to back up with a .zip file and dead easy to restore.

Drupal is a time-sink but if the installation has been built already, it is a dream for writers. A dream.

So these are the 2 reasons why you want to look closely at Drupal: its Search and its Outlining. Search looks inside your files without opening them. Outlining allows you to build up an outline made up of hyperlinks. And when you need your material, collates all the relevant files without your having to open them. Pick a small section and you can edit by deleting, tighten up one paragraph. Finally, you simply copy that paragraph back into a page in ScholarWriter.

Drudgery goes down – dramatically.  Focus goes up – dramatically.  You can concentrate on writing not moving files around. And you get better work down faster – much faster.

What else have I written on Drupal?

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Introducing ScholarWriter

Making ScholarWriter portable and researcher-friendly

During the last few months, I have been packaging ScholarWriter into a portable version that comes on a USB stick.  Simply, take one USB stick holding ScholarWriter, start it up, make sure the Apache and MySQL servers are running, – and you can start work on a private website in your browser.

At the end of the day, log out, shut it all down, and backup using a simple .zip file.

If something goes wrong, take your backup and unzip it.  And, you get straight back to work without any angst.

Why ScholarWriter?

So ScholarWriter is portable, but “what is the aim” as Chris Hambly of Audana  and Cornwall said last night on Twitter (@audio).

Anyone who writes long reports – dissertations, theses and papers in academia and long management consulting reports – will be familiar with something not much talked about – research is physically exhausting.

We get relevant material

  • We look for relevant material in the Libraries of the world
  • We get the source material

We read and take notes

  • We track what we have read and what we haven’t read
  • We take notes and carefully put the full reference on the top and paginate our pages

We file and re-file notes (endlessly)

  • We file those notes somewhere
  • When we need our notes, we rely on memory to remember where they are
  • Then if we need them elsewhere we re-file them

We copy our notes again and again

  • Then we start writing and that means cutting and pasting notes from our notes file to our main writing file and carefully putting in the references

Ha!  Try doing that without losing something and having to go through file after file checking details or looking for something you lost.

Now you have the reason for ScholarWriter.  Keeping meticulous track of who said what is incredibly difficult as you move things around physically and your argument evolves as you learn about the subject.  It is not only difficult, it is exhausting. I think that is what we learn in academia and why most people give up and flee to commerce.

ScholarWriter: Software for academics

The key software for academics at the Library end will remain Endnote, or something similar – we want to find references and import them into Word.

And at the other end, the final draft stage, the key software remains Word – we want to layout out our dissertation or paper ready to send electronically to our supervisor or publisher.

ScholarWriter sits between the two ends.

We get relevant material

  • We can import and export our bibliography as single references or a list in .xml format (don’t worry – Endnote and ScholarWriter sort that out for you)
  • We can load .pdfs into the same system so they get backed up nightly with our notes and moved to other computers as one large package
  • We can keep links to online references bundled with the reference in case we need them

We read and take notes

  • We write our notes into something like a “blog post” that has an extra field – type a phrase from the title of the article and ScholarWriter cross-references to the reference (and moreover keeps a list with the reference of where the notes are!)
  • We can open the relevant .pdf file in another window (we can do that anyway but nothing is stopping us doing that)
  • If we come back to our notes and want to make a comment, we just use the normal comments section of a blog post – there is no need to open the file even

We file notes ONCE not endlessly

One large folder in date order

  • We save everything – references, notes, drafts, scribbles, entries into our calendar – in one running file by date order in one folder.

Searching thousands of files is easy

  • You can save everything in Windows too – you don’t need to make folders but this one central folder gets larger.  This is where Drupal, the CMS underlying ScholarWriter comes in.  Drupal has a powerful internal search function.  It searches the content of all your content, it searches by title, it searches by date, and it searches by tag.

Develop and maintain outlines of your dissertation or paper

But that is not all, as the advertisements say, the outlining feature of Drupal is very powerful.  Instead of physically moving files to a folder, you hyperlink them into the outline of a book.

  1. First you set up the cover page.
  2. Then you add child pages for each major section – Title Page, Introduction, Method, etc.
  3. And lastly, after you have saved some notes or a reference or some scribbles that popped into your head, you drop them into the right place in an outline.

You don’t physically move the file from its position in the giant running file – you simply tell an outline which files are relevant to that section.  And you can see the outline developing on the screen in front of you. It is not buried in Windows Explorer in another file.

Using Outlines to speed up your writing

I am always struck that US universities push outlining. This is how you use outlining in ScholarWriter.

When you want to develop a section, yourrepeat the general process.

  1. You break the section up into sub-sections and then you add a child page for each subsection.
  2. Then with a few clicks for each, you attach files to the sub-sections.
  3. The content never moves – but the outline develops.
  4. The outline develops with a few clicks – not opening and editing a file – simply because an outline is simply a “view” it is not a file that is saved anywhere.

Commit your Outline to writing

So if an Outline is never actually saved, how do we “commit it to writing”?

When you want to see everything you have for a section, you ask for “Print Friendly”.  If you have, say five files in that section, those five files will be collated in the order you have them, into one display in another Window in your browser.  Now you can see not only the headings but everything in the files as well.

To print out everything, simple print.  It is that easy.  Five files, say, printed one after another.  A huge saving in physical work.

How can you write up a section?

When you have all the “facts, figures and quotations” collected for a section, it is time to write.  Usually, you would open all five files and possibly physically print the notes on several articles.

Using Scholarwriter

  1. First you preview what you have using Outline and Print Friendly
  2. Then you sort your notes into order – using a drag ‘n drop system
  3. Then you check again with Outline and Print Friendly
  4. If you are ready to write, you use CTRL A and cut ‘n paste to take everything into Word
  5. And now you are ready to turn your notes into a compact paragraph, largely through deletion, and then be writing one tight, cogent, paragraph with references and page numbers.

 Building the text of your dissertation or paper

Now that you have written a powerful and complete paragraph, instead of saving in Word, you copy ‘n paste back into ScholarWriter, or to be more precise, onto the child page ‘holding’ that section.

You no longer need the links to the original notes, so you de-link them.  Each with four clicks, I believe.  You don’t lose your notes though. They sit snugly where they have always sat, in your giant running file, organized by data and fully searchable without any arduous opening and closing of files.

So at this point you have a paragraph written for your growing magnus ops saved as file and positioned correctly in your Outline. And your notes sitting where they always have been but no longer linked to the Outline because you have written that section up.

One paragraph down!  Next!

ScholarWriter fits the advice – little and often

The best feature of ScholarWriter is that it allow you to concentrate on one task at a time.  And to complete small tasks in the time that you  have.

If you only have 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, you can realistically turn the notes on five articles into one paragraph.  A paragraph a day does not sound like a lot, but it is a lot more than no paragraphs a day and a lot quicker than wasting the time you do have on trying to get over procrastination and get down to work when you have been away from your writing for some time.

Imagining the working day with ScholarWriter

Your working day with ScholarWriter amounts to

  1. Adding a reference
  2. Reading an academic article and making notes which you drop into an outline
  3. Structuring your outline getting down eventually to one child page per paragraph (think of an upside down tree)
  4. Writing a paragraph which you save as a file and keep linked to its position in the outline.

Do any one of those and you have made progress. Do four of those and you have made a lot of progress.

Security and ScholarWriter

We made ScholarWrite portable, partly to lower the IT knowledge needed to use it (slap it in and fire it up) but more so for security. When everything you need – your server, your WYSIWYG, your bibliography, your sources, your notes, your outline and your drafts – are in one folder, it’s dead simple to backup. Zip up the folder and send the .zip someone safe by email (start a special gmail account?).

Eveything is safe and can be recovered by unzipping the folder.   Fire up ScholarWriter and you are back in business within minutes.

Stay oriented with ScholarWriter

Even after three decades in this business, I still find the feeling of disorientation when I shift tasks most uncomfortable.

With everything in one place and Drupal’s powerful views, I have lists refreshing themselves to help me get my bearings.

  • When you add a reference, or a bunch of references, to your bibliography, your What I have yet to read list is automatically updated.
  • When you take notes on an article and cross-reference a reference, the reference drops off your What I have yet to read list and joins your What I have read list.
  • When you procrastinate in the morning – focus by looking at the five things you put in your To Do list the previous night using a simple a click of a flag
  • At the End the day, when you are feeling exhausted yet you are asking – What did I do all day? – Click the Ta Da flag as you go and admire your list grow.
  • Take off items from your To Do list and watch with pleasure as it shortens during the day!
  • And ScholarWriter has a full Calendar. Put in dates up to five years’ out (fits a part-time PhD or the publication of a research paper).  Put in recurring dates such as tutorials and include times and details like room numbers

That is ScholarWriter – portable software for academics and other writers of long documents with many primary sources.  Plug ‘n play, easy to back up, and cutting down on the effort of managing your many documents.  You are still the Scholar and the Writer, but hopefully your work is not so exhausting and hopefully you cut a significant amount of time from completing your meticulously prepared document.




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