Writing the next great American novel, or realistically, finding the “write” tools to finish your thesis

The Scholarly Commons is a great place to write the next great American novel; in fact, I’m surprised it has not happened yet (no pressure dear patrons — we understand that you have a lot on your plates). We’re open Monday-Friday from 9-6 and enjoy a well-lit, fairly quiet, and overall ideal working space, with Espresso Royale and the Writing Center nearby. But actually getting that writing done, that’s the real challenge. Luckily, we have suggestions for tools and software you can use to keep writing and stay on track this semester!

Writing Your First Draft:

Yes, MS Word can be accessed for free for University students through the Web Store and you can set it up to better address your research needs with features like the Zotero and Mendeley plugins to incorporate your references. And don’t forget you can go to Word > File > Options > Proofing > Writing Style and select Grammar and Style and Settings to set what Spellcheck will check for so that passive voice gets underline. However, believe it or not, there are word processors, other than MS Word, that are better for organizing and creating large writing projects, such as novels, theses, or even plays!


Scrivener is a word processor created with novelists in mind that lets you organize your research and notes while you are writing. With an education discount, a license for Scrivener costs $38.25. Scrivener is very popular and highly recommended by two of the GAs here at Scholarly Commons (you can email Claire Berman with any questions you may have about the software at cberman2 [at] illinois.edu). To really get started, check out our online copies of Scrivener: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide and  Scrivener for Dummies!


Unfortunately, Mellel is only available on Mac. An educational license for the software costs $29. To some extent Mellel is similar in style and price to Pages for Mac, but also shares similarities with MS Word for Mac. However, this word processor offers more options for customizing your word processing experience than Pages or MS Word. It also provides more options for outlining your work and dividing sections in a way that even MS Word Notebook version does not, which is great if you have a large written work with many sections, such as a novel or a thesis! Mellel also partners with the citation managers Bookends and Sente.

Markdown Editors like Ulysses

Ulysses is a simple and straightforward word processor for Mac, but you do have to write in Markdown without a WYSIWYG editor. It costs $44.99 for Mac and $24.99 for iOS. However, it has many great features for writers (such as built in word count writing goals for sections of a paper, and Markdown makes outlining work very easy and simple). We have discussed the value and importance of Markdown elsewhere on the blog before, specifically in our posts Digital Preservation and the Power of Markdown and Getting Started with Markdown, and of course, want to remind all of our lovely readers to consider doing their writing in Markdown. Learning Markdown can open up writing and digital publishing opportunities across the web (for example: Programming Historian tutorials are written in Markdown). Plus, writing in Markdown converts easily for simple web design without the headache of having to write in HTML.

Staying Focused:

Maybe you don’t want to buy a whole new word processor. That’s fine! Here are some tools that can help creating the “write” environment to get work done:

Freedom : costs $2.50 a month, so Freedom is not free, indeed. This is an an app that allows you to block websites and even the internet, available for Mac, Windows, iOS devices. This app also has a lock feature that will not allow you to make changes to what is blocked for a set period of time.

RescueTime : another app option. Taking a slightly different approach to the rest here, the lite version of this app helps you track how you use your time and what apps and websites you use the most so that you can have a better sense of what you are doing instead of writing. The premium version, which costs $54 a year, allows you to block distracting websites.

SelfControl: a Mac option but Open Source, with community built Linux and PC versions, and most importantly it’s free! This app allows you to block websites, based on their server, for a set period of time, in which there is basically NOTHING you can do on your computer to access these sites. So choose which sites to block and the time limit wisely.

Editing Tools:


Named after Ernest Hemingway, this text editor is supposed to help you adapt his style of writing, “bold and clear.” When you paste your text into the free web version, the applet gives you the text’s reading level as well as pointing out instances of awkward grammar, unnecessary or complicated words and adverbs, and sentences that are too long or too complicated.There’s a Desktop version available for $20 though I honestly don’t think it’s worth the money, though it does give another simple space on your computer to write and get feedback.

A note about Grammarly 

This is an alternative to MS Word spell check with a free version to add to your browser. As a browser add-in, it checks automatically for critical spelling and grammar mistakes (advanced ones cost a monthly fee) everywhere you write except situations where you’d really want extra spell check such as Google Docs and can be wonky with WordPress. You can always copy and paste into the Grammarly window, but at that point, you’re probably better doing spell check in MS Word. There are also only two versions of English available, American and British (take that Australia!). If you are trying to learn English and want instantaneous feedback while writing on the internet, or studying for high school standardized tests, or perhaps a frequent YouTube commenter in need of a quick check before posting, then Grammarly is for you. For most people at Scholarly Commons, this is a plugin they can skip, though I can’t speak for the paid version which is supposed to be a little bit better. If you uninstall the app they try to guilt trip you, so heads up.

SpellCheckPlus: It’s BonPatron in English! Brought to you by Nadaclair Language Technologies, this web-based text editor goes beyond MS Word’s spellcheck to help identify grammar errors and ways to make your writing sound more normal to a native (Canadian) English speaker. There is a version that costs money but if you don’t import more than the allotted 250 words of text at one time you will be fine using the free version.

Let us know what you think and any tools we may have missed! Happy writing!

And to learn more and find more great productivity tools, check out:

Personal Information Management LibGuide

Learning how to present with Michael Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Presentations

Slideshows are serious business, and bad slides can kill. Many books, including the one I will review today, discuss the role that Morton Thiokol’s poorly designed and overly complicated slides about the Challenger O-rings played in why the shuttle was allowed to launch despite its flaws. PowerPoint has become the default presentation style in a wide range of fields — regardless of whether or not that is a good idea, see the 2014 Slate article “PowerPointLess” by Rebecca Schuman.  With all that being said, in order to learn a bit more about how to present, I read The Craft of Scientific Presentations by Michael Alley, an engineering communications professor at Penn State.

To start, what did Lise Meitner, Barbara McClintock, and Rosalind Franklin have in common? According to Michael Alley, their weak science communication skills meant they were not taken as seriously even though they had great ideas and did great research… Yes, the author discusses how Niels Bohr was a very weak speaker (which only somewhat had to do with English being his third language) but it’s mostly in the context of his Nobel Prize speech or trying to talk to Winston Churchill; in other words, the kinds of opportunities that many great women in science never got… Let’s just say the decontextualized history of science factoids weaken some of the author’s arguments…

This is not to say that science communication is not important but these are some important ideas to remember:

Things presentation skills can help you with:

  • Communicating your ideas with a variety of audiences more effectively
  • Marketing your research and yourself as a researcher more effectively
  • Creating engaging presentations that people pay attention to

Things presentation skills cannot help you with:

  • Overcoming systemic inequality in academia and society at large, though speaking out about your experiences and calling out injustice when you see it can help in a very long term way
  • Not feeling nervous especially if you have an underlying anxiety disorder, though practice can potentially reduce that feeling

For any presentation:  know your topic well, be very prepared, and actually practice giving your talk more than you do anything else (such as making slides). But like any skill, the key is practice practice practice!

For the most part, this book is a great review of the common sense advice that’s easy to forget when you are standing in front of a large audience with everyone looking at you expectantly. The author also offers a lot of great critiques of the default presentations you can churn out with PowerPoint and of PowerPoint itself. PowerPoint has the advantage of being the most common type of slideshow presentation software, though alternatives exist and have been discussed in depth elsewhere on the blog and in university resources. Alley introduces the Assertion-Evidence approach in which you reach people through presenting your research as memes images with text statement overlay. Specifically, you use one sentence summaries and replace bullet points with visualizations. Also you have to keep in account Murphy’s Law, where slide color or a  standard font not being supported can throw off a presentation. Since Murphy’s Law does not disappear when you create a presentation around visuals, especially custom-made images and video, you may need more preparation time for this style of presentation.

Creating visualizations and one sentence summaries as well as practicing your speech to prepare for these things not working is a great strategy for preparing for a research talk. One interesting thing to think about is if Alley admits that less tested methods like TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) and pecha kucha work for effective presentations, how much of the success of this method has to do with people caring and putting time into their presentation than a change in presentation style?

Overall this book was a good review of public speaking advice specifically targeted towards a science and engineering audience and hopefully will get people taking more time and thinking more about their presentations.

Presentation resources on campus:

  • For science specific, the definitely check out our new science communication certificate through the 21st Century Scientists Working Group and the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. They offer a variety of workshops and opportunities for students develop their skills as science communicators. There’s also science communication workshops throughout the country over the summer.
  • If you have time join a speech or debate team (Mock Trial or parliamentary style debate in particular)  it’s the best way to learn how to speak extemporaneously, answer hostile questions on the fly, and get coaching and feedback on what you need to work on. If you’re feeling really bold, performing improv comedy can help with these skills as well.
  • If you don’t have time to be part of a debate team or you can’t say “yes and…” to joining an improv comedy troupe take advantage of opportunities to present when you can at various events around campus. For example, this year’s Pecha Kucha Night is going to be June 10th at Krannert Center and applications are due by April 30!  If this is still too much find someone, whether in your unit, the Career Center, etc. who will listen to you talk about your research. Or if you have motivation and don’t mind cringe get one of your friends to record you presenting (if you don’t want to use your phone for this check out the loanable tech at the UGL!)

And for further reading take a look at:


Hope this helps, and good luck with your research presentations!

Image of Research – Undergraduate Edition: Now Open for Entries!

In conjunction with the Office of Undergraduate Research, the Scholarly Commons is pleased to announce the Image of Research Undergraduate Edition competition for 2017!


The Image of Research is a multidisciplinary competition celebrating the diversity and breadth of undergraduate student research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All undergraduate students are invited to submit entries consisting of an image and brief text that articulates how the image relates to the research.

Submissions will be accepted through March 1, 2017. Announcement of the winners will occur via email at the end of March and there will be a reception during the Undergraduate Research Symposium.

First prize: $300
Second prize: $200
Additionally, there may be up to two honorable mentions.

For more information about this year’s competition, or to submit an entry, visit the Image of Research – UR Edition website. Past entries and winners can be viewed in IDEALS.

Summer Research Programs for Undergraduates! DEADLINES COMING VERY SOON!

Are you a high achieving undergraduate interested in spending a summer conducting research under a faculty mentor and preparing for graduate school? Here are three places where you can find opportunities that you should apply for ASAP as deadlines are coming up soon:

1.Big Ten Summer Research Opportunities Program DUE FEBRUARY 10!

  • Must be an undergraduate with at least a 3.0 G.P.A., citizen or permanent resident of the U.S., and have completed two semesters of college with at least one more semester before graduation, interested in pursuing a PhD program. There are a wide variety of research opportunities available to students and students from all majors and backgrounds should be able to find a research experience that matches their interest.
  • The summer program at Illinois will be from May 30th to July 28th this year. However, Illinois is just one of many schools of the Big Ten Academic Alliance where you can conduct research! All program sites provide housing and a stipend to academic researchers with many covering costs of travel and meals as well.
  • To apply: complete the shared Big Ten application and any supplements depending on the school and program. Yes, this  is essentially a mini grad school application asking for a personal statement and research interests, recommendations, etc. but it is worth the effort as regardless of whether or not you are placed in a research opportunity, usually students who applied for this program can receive application fee waivers when applying to graduate schools in the alliance.

2. Leadership Alliance  Summer Research Early Identification Program DUE FEBRUARY 1ST!

  • Must be a rising sophomore, junior, or senior with at least a 3.0 G.P.A., a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S., and have an interest in pursuing a PhD or MD/PhD program. There are a wide variety of research internships available for students, including humanities and social science majors specifically through the Mellon Initiative ! Students can apply to up to three research sites through the shared application though some schools require supplementary materials.
  • Every program runs for 8-10 weeks this summer and students will receive a stipend, housing, and assistance with travel expenses and present the research they’ve conducted under a faculty mentor at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium at the end of the summer.
  • To apply: complete the shared Leadership Alliance application and any supplemental material by February 1st. Yes  this is essentially a mini graduate school application.  Yes this is soon. But we at Scholarly Commons believe in you, undergraduate researchers.

3. National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates– VARIOUS DEADLINES TYPICALLY LATE JANUARY THROUGH EARLY MARCH!

  • Must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, these programs provide stipends for student researchers and oftentimes assistance with housing and travel.
  • There are a lot of different programs in a lot of different areas of science from anthropology to zoology both in the U.S. and abroad. It can be a bit overwhelming to go through, however, there are a lot of interesting opportunities out there.
  • To apply: follow instructions on the individual program site, expect to have to do the equivalent of a mini graduate school application, and at the very least write essays explaining your interest in participating in a particular research project and send a resume/CV.

Hope that this has inspired you to start thinking about summer research if you haven’t already and get to work completing your applications! Best of luck undergrads! And welcome back!

Getting Started With Paperpile

Did the Paperpile Review leave you interested in learning more?

To use Paperpile you need an Internet connection, Google Chrome, and a Google account. Since student/personal use accounts do not require a dot edu email, I recommend using your Google Apps @ Illinois account  for this because you can fully use and enjoy unlimited free storage from Google to store your PDFs. Paperpile offers one month free; afterwards, it’s $36 for the year. You can download the extension for Chrome here. If you already use Mendeley or Zotero you can import all of your files and information from these programs to Paperpile. In order to use Paperpile, you will need the app on each version of Chrome you use. It should sync as part of your Chrome extensions, and you can install it on Chrome on University Library computers as well.

You can import PDFs and metadata by clicking on the Paperpile logo on Chrome.

Paperpile import tool located just right of the search bar in Chrome

On your main page you can create folders, tag items, and more! You can also search for new articles in the app itself.

Paperpile Main Menu

If you didn’t import enough information about a source or it didn’t import the correct information you can easily add more details by clicking the check mark next to the document in the menu and clicking edit on the top menu next to the search box for your papers.


Plus, from the main page, when you click “View PDF” you can also use the beta annotations feature by clicking the pen icon. This feature lets you highlight and comment on your PDF and it saves the highlighted text and comments in order by page in notes. It can then be exported as plain text or as very pretty printouts. It is rectangle-based highlighting and can be a little bit annoying, especially when highlighting doesn’t always covered the text that was copied. Like a highlighter in real life you cannot continue to highlight onto the next page.

Highlighted and copied sentence split by page boundary

When you leave the app, the highlighting is saved on the PDF in your Google Drive and you can your highlights on the PDF wherever you use Google Drive. The copied text and comments can be exported into a very pretty printout or a variety of plaintext file formats.

Print screen of exported annotated notes on Paperpile

Not the prettiest example but you get the idea.

Once you get to actually writing your paper you can add citations to your paper in Google docs by clicking the Paperpile tab on your Google doc. You can search your library or the web for a specific article. Click format citations and follow the instructions for how to download the add-on for Google docs.

Paperpile cite while you write in Google Docs

I didn’t try it but there’s a Google Docs sidebar so that anyone can add references, regardless of whether or not they are a Paperpile user, to a Google Doc. I imagine this is great for those group projects where the “group” is not just the person who cares the most.


Paperpile includes a support chat box, which is located on your main page, and is very useful for troubleshooting. For example, one problem I ran into with Paperpile is that you cannot change the page number to match what it actually is in the article and page number is based on the PDF file in the notes feature. I messaged and  I got a response with a professional tone within twenty-four hours. Turns out, they are working on this problem and eventually PDFs will be numbered by actual page number, but they can’t say when they will have it fixed.

For other problems, there is an official help page  with a lot of instructions about using the software and answers to frequently asked questions. There is also a blog and a  forum which is particularly nice because you can see if other people are experiencing the same problem and what the company plans to do about it.

Scholarly Commons runs a variety of Savvy Researcher workshops throughout the year including personal information management and citation managers. And let us know in the comments about your favorite citation/reference management software and your way of keeping your research organized!

And for the curious, the examples in this post are based from the undergraduate research collection in IDEALS. Specifically:

Kountz, Erik. 2013. “Cascades of Cacophony.” Equinox Literary and Arts Magazine. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/89474.

Liao, Ethel. 2013. “Nutella, Dear Nutella.” Equinox Literary and Arts Magazine. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/89476.

Montesinos, Gary. 2015. “The Invisible (S)elf: Identity in House Elves and Harry Potter.” Re:Search: The Undergraduate Literary Criticism Journal 2 (1). http://hdl.handle.net/2142/78004.

Review: Paperpile Citation Manager

Are you addicted to Google Docs and are looking for a citation manager, PDF reader, or research workflow system? Do you wish you could just cite while you write in Google docs like you do with Zotero or Mendeley in Word? Do you have an extra $36 a year to spare?

Then you might want to try Paperpile!

Paperpile App Main Menu

Paperpile is a simplified reference management system and research workflow program for Google Chrome created by three computational biologists based in Vienna.


  • Easy to use
  • Can organize your sources when you’re trying to write a paper or doing readings
  • A lot of explanatory text in the app
  • Allows you to import metadata and PDFs from your browser (similar to Zotero’s one click import) and asks you if you want to add the item (PDF and details) to Paperpile
  • The annotations feature makes readings and notes for classes a lot of fun with very pretty colors
  • When the PDF is not encrypted, if you highlight the text it will copy the highlighted text into notes with your annotations that you can then copy and paste when writing a paper
  • Wide range of document types and citation styles
  • You can cite while you write in Google Docs
  • Provides look up to find similar journal articles to what you are researching, which allows you to do research through the app, especially if you’re doing research from science databases
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • 15 GB of free space through Google
  • Good customer service
  • Thorough explanatory material
Highlighted text with annotations in the Paperpile app

Excerpt from Montesinos, Gary. 2015. “The Invisible (S)elf: Identity in House Elves and Harry Potter.” Re:Search: The Undergraduate Literary Criticism Journal 2 (1). https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/78004.
And check out Re:Search: The Undergraduate Literary Criticism Journal and more great undergraduate research in IDEALS!


  • High cost ($36), especially compared to solid free options like Mendeley and Zotero
  • Requires Internet access
  • Although the company is in the process of developing a plugin for MS Word, currently, Paperpile is heavily reliant on Google and Google Drive
  • Paperpile is a proprietary software and a startup so there are risks that they will go out of business or be bought by a larger company
    • Though, should the worst happen Paperpile uses open standards that will allow you to get your PDFs, citations out — even if they are in an ugly format — as well as the highlighted text saved in your PDFs, which can be downloaded through Google Drive
  • Paperpile is a very new product and there are still a lot of features to be worked out
    • I will say however that it is a lot less buggy than a lot of comparable reference management / PDF annotation software that have been around longer and aren’t classified as in beta, like Readcube and Highlights

Paperpile is comparable to: Mendeley, iLibrarian, colwiz, Highlights.

Learn more about personal information management through our PIM Libguide, various Savvy Researcher workshops and more! Let us know about your strategies for keeping everything organized in the comments!