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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