Software review: comwriter

Many people never realise that you don’t have to accept Microsoft Word as the default writing software. There are many other products on the market which might suit you better.

While Google docs offer some advantages to conventional word processors, there are significant limitations. That’s why I was excited to see a new product called ‘Comwriter’, based in the cloud and designed by an Australian academic, Linda Glassop.

Here’s a review by Pam Mulready. Pam has had a long interest in higher education technology and has worked as a librarian, telecommunications Co-ordinator, educational technology managemer and as an academic.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 8.09.00 pmAcademic writing involves a series of discrete steps that can cause time intensive distractions from actually writing and researching. ComWriter is an Australian designed and developed writing platform that removes the clutter arising from tools, style requirements and formatting rules, to enable concentration on the process of research writing.

ComWriter has been designed to support the Academic writing pipeline from the conceptual beginnings of research, through to write-up, adaption, review and publication. It is a shift away from traditional tools for writing and bibliographic management to an architecture that better supports research, writing and ultimately publication.

This shift to a software architecture that supports the research, writing and the publication journey is a liberating shift for academic work, which allows for a greater focus on the whole picture of writing.

When I was writing my thesis in 2008, I was using Microsoft Word (Word) and Endnote. I had hundreds of Word files relating to various versions of my work, and numerous Endnote libraries. I used NVIVO, and Excel, to manage my data, as well as email and the hand written print based annotations of my supervisor, for various versions and sections of the text.

Iteratively, I worked on chapters of the thesis, styles, shifting between introduction, the literature review, methodology, and results, frequently rewriting before I began the painstaking task of final compilation and integration. A misplaced USB, a failed device or memory lapse would inevitably raise my angst a few notches and stop the process. I am sure this sounds familiar to most researchers!

In Word we work with individual files representing various requirements. ComWriter refers to writing work as a ‘Project’, even though the output might be a thesis, journal article, essay, or report. ComWriter enables the creation of my own research design architecture, i.e., my introduction, my literature review, my research design, my methodology, results and discussion or any other structure.

Unique to ComWriter is the removal of formatting issues from the writing focus. Within ComWriter, formatting rules are contained in pre-defined ‘style guides’ that can be applied whenever there is the need to output a document.  A document can be exported to Microsoft Word, Portable Document Format (PDF) or HTML for review or printing, with a single click of an icon.

A style choice can be changed at any time depending on the requirements of your institution or publisher.  For example, changing from APA to MLA, simply means changing the style guide selection in the project settings, and all the references AND text is re-formatted automatically (including page numbers, headers and footers, and captions).A dissertation of 300+ pages and nearly 600 references can be exported (i.e., automatically formatted in any style) in just over 1 minute!

In Microsoft Word all of these elements may be in separate files, or compiled progressively in increasingly larger and more complex files which can often cause problems. In Word, the experience of competing styles can make formatting a large document very time-consuming and intensely frustrating. In ComWriter, structural design choices can be captured in templates, using a simple ‘save as’ process, that allows the template to be used over and over again.

The major difference between a file and a project is its time continuum. Whereas files will be a multitude of versions over the life of a project, ComWriter tracks all the changes with a single working project. This allows you to trace back through the life of the project to source important former iterations, so you have the whole project from start to finish in the one working interface.

Although Endnote is excellent for gathering literature searches to form collections, applying different styles can be a minefield of complexity. ComWriter currently has twenty of the common styles including AGLC (Australian Guide to Legal Citation), APA (6th Edition), Chicago, Harvard, IEEE, MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association), MLA, and Turabian. More are being made all the time in collaboration with publishers.

Resources can be constructed dynamically in the form of bibliographic data, files, images and videos, and referenced within the text or incorporated into Smart Lists, such as a project bibliography. These resources can be associated with many discrete projects or collated into user-defined groups.

Existing libraries can be imported directly into ComWriter and from database collections in Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley and most other bibliographic tools, as well as Google Scholar and Library databases. They have also just released a search and retrieve from WorldCat and CrossRef, thereby eliminating the need to add resources manually or via file import. They make a promise to “eliminate referencing hurdles”. Let’s hope they succeed!

I have worked on publications with colleagues wherever they maybe located, so the ability to collaborate online is essential and will be an important feature when this becomes available.

ComWriter is cloud based, so you need network connectivity on any computer based device. While some users may be wary of the ‘cloud’, ComWriter’s Terms of Use clearly state that they do not own any content.

In summary, ComWriter has the following advantages for research work:

• the cloud-based location of the system so my work is available anywhere with a network connection
• the ability to impose, build and adapt a research architecture by building a writing hierarchy of elements or structure that allows me to work simultaneously on multiple aspects easily (i.e., different chapters)
• for all versions of  writing work to be contained within one single project, rather than the hundreds of files and dozens of folders that my journey required (with the ability to access the history)
• the storage of reference data within the same environment as the writing environment
• the ability to deploy a grammar checker, such as Grammarly, for free

I recommend you take advantage of the FREE licence to check this exciting tool out.

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24 thoughts on “Software review: comwriter

  1. Great to see someone developing viable alternatives! Though, looking at the features I think I’ll have to stick to Latex, since Comwriter doesn’t support equations: “Currently, equations can only be added as an image. An equation editor is on our future enhancement list.”

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  3. Now if only we could get the majority of university professors on board with this kind of thinking! As an English Major, the majority of my professors refuse to accept any format other than Microsoft Word. Now, I do see why some would be rigid in this area regarding MLA formatting and what not. But I think it’s time to change it up, especially since Microsoft Word costs a pretty penny nowadays for most people. I pay a monthly fee (granted it’s only $6) for Microsoft Word. And I only use it to appease my academic superiors. Meh.

  4. There is a distinct lack of information about plans and/or pricing on the website. Do they make you sign up before they tell you?

    • Yes, it appears so. I just had a good look at their site and can’t find any upfront fee info except that in the FAQs it says the ‘Starter Pack’ plan (which looks inadequate for the PhD level) is ‘always free’. Based on the rule of ‘if you have to ask, you can’t afford it’ I’m inclined to assume I can’t afford it. Also I’m not keen on getting locked in to a commercial product, especially a cloud-based one. What if they go bust halfway through my project?!

  5. The male American accent and white, male character in the promotional video put me off looking any further. Shallow I know, yet if the marketing is so narrow and how can I trust the program to be inclusive, up with current thinking and useful?

    • There is only one character in the video. Whatever gender/colour this character was, it would have been just as “narrow”. It really doesn’t help the diversity agenda to treat any appearance at all of white men as wrong.

    • you have a point… I didn’t watch the video, but I had to laugh at the stereotyped ‘professorish’ gentleman whose face appeared when I clicked on ‘Faculty’.

      It might still be a good product though.

      • Just had a better look: the ‘students’ and ‘researchers’ pictures are slightly more inclusive.

        In the ‘Business’ image the people have no faces at all, only hands 🙂

        Now back to work!

  6. I’ve never used word for academic writing, it’s an absolute pain! I’ve always used Latex, which has many of the advantages outlined above for ComWriter. In latex you just type the content, and then the typesetting, figure placement, and style formatting is all done automatically. References are all arranged and formatted automatically. In my field journals often provide authors with a style file, which they load into latex and the paper is automatically produced in the style of that journal. Latex is also brilliant for mathematics! If you then used a version control system, such as git, you can view all your editing history.

    • pickupdavid, can you give us a reference to a suitable introduction? Where to get Latex, how to get started / teach yourself to use it? Total n00bs guide? 🙂

      • LaTeX, to use its correct capitalisation, is downloadable from any of the CTAN repository websites. Easiest way to go about it is to google “LaTeX” and download and install the version suitable for your operating system. It runs on Linux, Mac, Windows and a bunch of other systems. You will however also need to download an editor as LaTeX is a typosetting system not a word processor. I use TexStudio as it provides a lot of shortcuts.

        Be warned though, that hte learning curve for LaTeX can be steep unless you’re coming from a computer science or maths background. On the other hand there are heaps of resources to help you out on the web.

  7. I just gave ComWriter a try, and it was INCREDIBLY slow — hung up multiple, multiple times across different parts of the application. It’s a neat idea, but they’re going to have to make it more usable before I’d be willing to switch.

      • @ Brian, I’m not Basset, but I couldn’t even open the comwriter.com/ website, so maybe it’s possible that there is some clitch with the service. And no, there is nothing wrong with my internet connection, thank you very much.

  8. I’d like to share my experience with ComWriter in case anyone here was thinking of using it to start a writing project or purchasing one of their plans.

    As soon as I read the article on this blog, I signed up on a free account to start a literature review project. On Sunday night I started writing with a set goal of 10 000 words for the whole project. I put 1000 words on Sunday and another 1000 on Monday morning. So far so good, I had completed 20% of the project according to ComWriter.

    On Tuesday, I logged on to put some more work into it, and everything seemed normal, ComWriter showed the 20% completion part. Once my project was loaded, it went from 2000 words to 1100. Most of the work I did on Monday did not appear.

    There’s a history option in which you can go and see the previous versions. I did just that but no dice, my content did not appear there either.

    I was thinking if I did something wrong myself, if I didn’t save the content. But the website still showed my project had a content of 2000 words and 20% completed so saving wasn’t the issue. Once I loaded the project, it went from 2000 to 1100 words again and 11% completion.

    I took screenshots of everything and contacted support to show them the inconsistencies. How come the program has on file 2000 words but only 1100 appear when loaded? I tried to export the project without opening but it didn’t work.

    To their credit, I am receiving prompt replies as I am writing this:

    “It would appear, as you say, that the work has been lost. We are about to release a new version that has some improvements to the save cycle, and will also inform you if the wifi disconnects. Little compensation, I know. ”

    and

    “I have asked the technical team to look into the issue (that will take a bit of time) and also to get the update released ASAP.

    I will get back to you when they inform me.

    Apologies for the inconvenience.”

    On one hand I appreciate the prompt replies, but I am not getting satisfying answers here. The product is broken. I don’t know if this issue happened to other people or if it’s an isolated incident

    Will I go back to use the product? Most probably not. I should have saved a local copy and not depend on the cloud alone.

    In other words, I strongly advise against saving your projects on other people’s computers, people.

  9. I use Latex for writing, bibtex for reference management (google scholar will autogenerate bibtex entries for you) and pgf/tikz for most of my graphics, and GIT for version control. Best thing about these tools is that they are all free and open source. Latex will handle any equations and formatting beautifully, and if you use tikz all of your graphics can be represented as text (source code) so GIT can track all of the history/changes. Set up your GIT repository on an external server and you can regularly back up the contents of your thesis as often as you want easily and without worries. Granted, those of us not coming from a math/comp-sci background might be a bit put off by these tools since they can take some time to get use to, but they are well worth it!

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