A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Writing a thesis is logistically quite difficult. When you have to remember where you read that one sentence that you thought would never be relevant but it is actually really useful. When you have to remember which version of the 6,000 backup versions of the document is actually the current one… In which version did I put that metaphor about hamster-wheels and justice? It was the morning when I wrote that…I need to take that out, that was dumb… Could you avoid all that? Could you write it on the cloud?
Google Docs is a cloud-based word processing program. It’s like Word, or Pages, or Libre, but the work you do is not stored in a single location. It’s great because you can edit those docs on any browser on any computer or mobile device and you don’t have to worry about which version is current. It’s great because you only have to have one version of the file. It’s great because you don’t have to install any programs. More than that, it’s free.
And it does all the things you need it to do: references, footnotes, end notes, it handles graphs and tables and figures pretty well, it has a bunch of fonts and stuff. These are all good things, and having it saved to the cloud undeniably saves a lot of hassle when you’re the type of person who would forget their shoes at a party, as I am. If, like me, you hear stories of people losing whole documents or chapters of work and you think to yourself “this is the future, we know how to do computers now, how could you actually lose the whole thing” let me tell you as somebody who has had to rewrite a 10,000 word BA thesis because of a swimming pool related mishap, yes, it is possible to lose files, and yes, working on the cloud is super cool because it sort of prevents that.
But if you’re also the type of person who finds the formal requirements of word processing despairing, then Docs can be a pain. Trying to figure out why this indented passage is double indented, why is this tab longer here than there, wh-WHY WHEN IT GOES OVER THE PAGE DOESN’T IT JUST GO RIGHT THERE??? IT GOES WAY, WAY DOWN, WHAT THE HELL!, spacing and margin widths and stuff like that, that needs some solid familiarity with a word processor, or, if you’re a fancy-pants, InDesign. There are times when Docs is a bit light on features.
In Docs’ defence, however, it does the things essential to my thesis project well. I can write words (phew!) and add footnotes, and break sections, and it can do pictures easily. And I don’t think that there are many tasks that it would be very bad at.
But the other obvious drawback of Docs is that it it’s totally online. Well, you can work offline, but it can be very confusing to get it back online, especially if you’re trying to add new elements beyond just words to your document as you go. Oh, when people say that the internet is everywhere, as soon as you need it and don’t have it, you know it really isn’t everywhere. It’s not in lots of cafes, its not on Sprinter trains, it’s not on many busses or in the park or just out in public sitting on a bench. At those times you cannot even access your documents.
Cloud computing also has the drawback that the workflow is sort of irreversible. If you’re working with an offline program, you can have various iterations of the file stored like time capsules of its different stages of progression. Working on the cloud leaves no trace, so it can be hard to backtrack if you want to get back to a juncture where you feel you’ve made a wrong turn.
Perhaps the most frustrating part is that Docs and Word (or Pages) are not best friends. Especially once you start formatting text in improvised ways and not through XML, moving text back and forward can create headaches. This means you sort of need to pick one and just deal with it. It’s also just a personal decision which, in the grand scheme of things, is totally insignificant.
For myself, most of the time, Docs is where I work, but I’m terrified of creating a monster I come to rue, so I actually work on the various parts in separate Docs. I got Pages for free on my laptop, so I use that, too. What do you use? Do you need catharsis for some traumatic file-loss experiences? Leave a comment below!