Useful tools

There are plenty of tools out there that will help you study and write more effectively. Getting something done efficiently and well starts with choosing the right tools for the job, and the most common aren’t necessarily always the most useful.

  1. Notes and Info management
  2. Writing
    2.1 Online Tools
  3. Citations and Bibliography
  4. Outliners
  5. Other stuff

Getting something done efficiently and well starts with choosing the right tools for the job, and the most common aren’t necessarily always the most useful. This is a list of some recommended alternatives, they are free unless marked $’.

I try to keep this updated with useful stuff I find but it tends to get outdated fairly quickly!


Notes and Info management

In addition to the stuff that comes bundled with your operating system (MS OneNote, Mac Notes) you should probably be aware of these…

if you don’t use Evernote already, you should probably start now! Keep the stuff you find on the web, take clippings, organise and tag relevant information, find it when you need it.
Obsidian (free or $)
As of 2021 this is my favourite and preferred note taking / organisation tool. It’s the best (IMHO) of a new breed of note-taking programs (like Roam’ below) that have internal linking (make your own wiki), and a variety of advanced features - eg. you can embed whole webpages in your notes - and the ability to use a variety of javascript plugins to do clever things with your notes. You could also try Logseq, which is similar but with a different emphasis.

Most of these type of apps use markdown’ as a way to create rich content, add links etc. so a familiarity with markdown principles is essential.

Similar functionality and feel to nvAlt for those who prefer to keep things entirely online. Great for keeping notes synced across devices.
Another plain text note taking app, but with some useful additional functionality, like the ability to use Pandoc to include citations and references, and then to export to a number of different document formats. Great UI, also — when you get used to its somewhat idiosyncratic way of thinking — a really great, and always improving, tool to help you write and produce documents.
note and writing app on the Mac AppStore, looks smooth, nice illustrations of bears!
DevonThink ($)
info organiser, a bit like a file manager but with lots of extras, good for managing lots of project-related documents/images/data-files etc.
Notes, that turn into a wiki, that includes calendars, and to do’ lists and code/text snippets. Free for a limited number of chunks’, not expensive even if you do decide to pay. Cheapest monthly subscription is US$5. This is what I use to maintain the webpages for course materials.


This list starts with the standard WYSIWYG apps, then gets progressively geekier; higher up the list generally means, easier to learn, less control; lower down means, more learning required but also more control (and probably more automation).

MSWord ($)
you know what Word is; but, just because everybody uses it, that doesn’t necessarily make it the best tool for what you want to do. Remember that there are alternative, sometimes better and easier ways to work.
OpenOffice (also LibreOffice, NeoOffice ($, Mac only) etc)
like MSWord but free! Uses the OpenDocument standard which has been adopted by the UK government (and others), this would seem to indicate a high degree of reliability so don’t be perturbed by the fact it’s OpenSource free software. In general these do pretty much what MSOffice does. Can read and produce MSWord .docx files etc.
OmmWriter ($-if-you-want)
distraction-free writing! If you find all MSWord’s buttons are a temptation to distraction, try this, it’s just you and your writing on the screen. Very minimal! Ommmmmmmm…..
Scrivener ($)
writing software designed for writers rather than people who only want to write letters. Too many features to describe here, best take a look at the website. Serious writing software!

Plain text tools

We are now heading into the realm of WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean); with this sort of software you are often creating your documents by separating out the logic’ (i.e. the role or function of a piece of text ) from what a piece of text looks like. For instance, a level one header’ always indicates that the bit of text that it precedes is somehow higher up’ in the document structure than the text preceded by a level two header’, but the headers themselves may need to look very different depending on which academic style you are using in your document. This type of software allows/requires you to manage these things separately; this means that you can ensure document styling is entirely consistent.

Atom (plain text editor)
a general purpose plain text editor, built for programmers really but as it’s hackable’ it can be adapted to just about any purpose. There are extensions(‘packages’) which allow/help you to write and preview various types of markdown… and to do just about anything else might want to with plain text!

UPDATE: There are now SO many plain-text note apps that it’s getting pretty much impossible to keep track of them, so those mentioned here are the ones I know of an have at least tried…

Aquamacs (Emacs, Vim etc)
Aquamacs is a Mac-friendly version of the venerable Emacs, which normally runs inside a terminal. In general terms it’s the same as Atom above, a text editor, but it’s much older, better established and therefore with even more possibilities - you can manage your to-do list, maintain a calendar and read your mail in Emacs, if you want. Requires a degree of computing nouse, so not for the faint of heart ;)
Texts (Trial period, then $)
looks more like a normal’ WYSIWYG-style editor but actually uses a clever piece of software called Pandoc to create different types of documents from your text (which is actually markdown formatted by the app to not look like it). If you set it up properly it will do all the generation and formatting of your citations and bibliography for you. There is a 30-day trial version available, then it costs US$19 to buy a licence.

Online Tools

Google Docs
Great for collaboration, versatile, easy to use and does most things you might want to. Just make sure you have net access when you need to do important things’ with it!
an alternative way of viewing a structured document. It’s easiest to just look at how it works on the website. Probably not for everyone but if you like it and it helps you organise your thinking/writing, why not?! Update: This is now available as a desktop app - a free trial is available and there is a pay what you want’ subscription too.
Another more conventional, but very powerful, online writing an publishing tool. It can use either markdown or (the very wonderful but rather complex) LaTeX. The publishing functions are oriented towards the kind of collaborative research and writing that happens in the life sciences and medicine, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t play with it.

A note about LaTeX

LaTeX is also a form of mark-up’ like the HTML used to make web-pages. It is used more in the hard’ sciences and mathematics but there are good reasons to think about using it for social science writing too, especially if you’re writing something longer than a 3000 word essay; citations and bibliographies can be generated and formatted automatically, internal references are generated and managed automatically, headers are numbered and formatted appropriately, and more importantly, in general you don’t have to think about document formatting at all and can concentrate on your content. For more information about getting started have a look at these guides:

Be aware, the learning curve is steep but the results can be worth the effort.

If you want to try LaTeX without all the messing about installing various (quite large) bits of software there are online services you can use to see if you like how it works.


Citations and Bibliography

Correctly citing your sources and providing references is a fundamental academic skill, the software mentioned here will help you get it right.

a bibliographic information manager to keep a track of all that reading you’re doing and, more importantly to make it easier to insert correct citations and a reference list in your papers and essays. To get the most out of Zotero you will need to install 3 different components; the Zotero desktop app, the browser plug-in, and the word-processor software add-ons that link Zotero to MSWord/OpenOffice. Once you’ve got all these installed and linked together then you can capture bibliographic info from the web (e.g. from publisher websites or Google Scholar search results), manage the info in the desktop app, and add it (all correctly formatted in a style of your choice) to your essay/paper.
like Zotero but does a bit more file management for you, if you like that sort of thing. Similar functionality to Zotero, slicker design. This app is part of the Elsevier evil empire’ ;)
Papers ($)
Similar to the above but for people who like to spend money on things they can get for free…
as above but with more of sharing/social media feel.
Update 2023/2: It looks like this hasn’t been updated since 2019, maybe the developers/maintainers have given up on it.

For the geekier…

a bibliography manager that uses the bibtex’ format to store information, it’s aimed primarily at integration with LaTeX writing tools but adaptable to other apps, I use it for writing in markdown using an Atom plugin.
as above but integrates a bit better with other apps, there’s a Firefox plug-in (JabFox) which helps grab bibliographic info from webpages. NB. this seems to require the Zotero plug-in to be installed too.


Many of the functions of outliners are now available in note-taking apps like Obsidian mentioned above. If you prefer to have them separate then these might be of interest, but if you want to be able to turn lists into documents/note then they might be superfluous.

if you like to plan your writing from the structure then an outliner might be a good way to get started. Checkvist allows you to make outlines - hierarchical lists - to which you can add text notes, deadlines, links etc. Then, if you like, you can export these and use them as a heading structure for a word-processor document. Of course, you can also just use it as a normal to-do list.
The Outliner of Giants
despite it’s silly name, this is a pretty good app. It’s available online and as a Chrome App’(I think…). There are free and paid versions, it’s very versatile and you can include, by using markdown, images, quotes etc in your outlines. Afaik, you can also email material into the nodes on your outline, if that’s your bag!

And too many others to mention…


Other stuff

PDF Shrinkers

If you need to send or share PDFs it’s often a good idea to try to compress them first, as they can get very large very quickly. Online compression services can often reduce the size of a PDF by 80-90%.

Smallpdf (limits uses per hour) EasyPDF : and lots of other similar services.


Aeon Timeline ($)
A timeline editor that, as well as being a fantastic bit of software, has the additional bonus that it integrates with Scrivener (see above), so especially useful if you are writing history, or anything with a time-based sequence of events as a framework. Unfortunately, costs $50 but a 15% academic discount is available.
DevonAgent ($)
from the same company as DevonThink (see above), a super-sophisticated tool for performing customised web-searches and storing the results.

Last Updated: 5 Sep 2021

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