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The Case for Online Word Processors

The Case for Online Word Processors

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    It’s no secret I am a fan of online word processors — computing in the cloud is just the thing for a guy like me who (I’m told) is apt to find his head in the clouds as well. I’m writing this on Google Docs, and have made no secret of my love for Adobe’s Buzzword (which unfortunately seems to have some issues on the computer I’m using right now). Zoho Writer has gotten a little use from me as well.

    I was recently asked what the big deal was — why should anyone go online when there’s a perfectly good copy of Office, Works, WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, Pages, WordPad, LaTeX, AbiWord, KDocs, or any of a multitude of other powerful, effective, and highly usable word processors available from the desktop? What advantage could a feature-limited online word processor possibly offer.

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    It’s a good question, and one that boils down as much to subjective factors as to any absolute benefits word processing online might offer. And it’s a question with as much relevance for the whole range of powerful Web 2.0 apps that have emerged over the last couple of years and which look set to dominate computing in the near-to-mid-future. Spreadsheets, image editors, presentation software, databases, and more are migrating online, and it’s reasonable to ask why, and to what end?

    What follows is my response to the question — the reasons that matter to me as an end-user of many kinds of online applications, particularly word processors. There may well be other, even better, answers to the questions online apps pose; at the same time, some of my reasons might not apply to everyone, or even to anyone other than me. But in the end, I think that my experiences aren’t all that unique, and while I might represent an extreme in some regards, the reasons that online apps work well for me will apply to at least a significant number of other people, if not most.

    Availability
    The main benefit of online word processors for me is their availability from any computer with an Internet connection. Since my schedule puts me in front of a number of different computers throughout the course of the day, and changes as well from semester to semester, I can’t count on being able to access the same software on one computer that I used on the last — and unfortunately, although most modern file formats can be read by any word processor, there’s always the risk of losing formatting, pagination, or fonts opening a document created in one program (or version) in another.

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    Using an online word processor means I have a standard format and interface from computer to computer — I don’t have to worry about whether the version of Word on this computer matches the one on the computer where I started my document, or whether I won’t be able to open it at all. I just log in to Google Docs or Buzzword and continue where I left off — as I am with this post, which I started writing in my office at the university and which I’m finishing on my netbook at home.

    Off-site storage/backup
    Another advantage of cloud-based word processors is that no matter what kind of trouble I get into, my documents are still safe and sound on servers hundreds of miles away. I can’t tell you how many thumb drives I’ve left in computers — or put through the washing machine. I’ve never done that with the Internet…

    The document storage online word processors offer gives me an excellent off-site backup for important documents, even ones I don’t create or work on online. I feel a lot better knowing that copies of my most important documents exist far away from my home, just in case.

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    Collaboration/Sharing
    When it comes to collaboration, most online word processors beat even the mighty Word, hands down. Documents can be worked on live, rather than emailing copies back and forth and trying to keep track of versions. More important, you don’t have to contend with Microsoft’s awful, awful, awful Track Changes (which isn’t to say other word processors do it much better…).

    Plus, most online word processors allow you to set various levels of permissions, so that you can offer read-only access to one group of viewers, full editing privileges to another, and the ability to add comments to a third. You can often post documents directly to the Web, too, which can be quite handy.

    User interface
    Finally, some online word processors just have good user interfaces. Google Docs is simple, streamlined, perfect for just opening a document and slapping some thoughts together. Adobe’s Buzzword, on the other hand, is simply gorgeous — it inspires me just to look at it. I wrote the first 10,000 or so words of my book, Don’t Be Stupid, on Buzzword just to keep using it!

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    It seems foolish to point to the way an app looks as an advantage, but I’d argue it’s a very real factor. Tools matter — ask any carpenter. Buzzword to me is like I imagine a finely forged chisel is to a woodworker — my fingers just itch to get to work. Google Docs is like a set of sturdy wrenches — nothing too fancy, but I know it gets the job done. While there are desktop-based apps that also feel quite good to use, the stripped-down interfaces of online apps seems especially well-suited to this kind of inspiration.

    So there you have it — four big reasons why I use online word processors, even when I have Office or some other program easily accessible. Like I said, there may be other reasons — and maybe you have reasons I haven’t thought of. Why not share your thoughts in the comments below?

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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