Writing: Biology

Brian Penney, a biologist at New Hampshire's St. Anselm College, studies a family of shell-less, brightly-colored marine snails and their chemical defenses. He writes that

I am working on a literature review right now, and I cannot express to what degree Tinderbox has helped that process along!

In his research and teaching, Professor Penney uses Tinderbox in a variety of ways.

In a Tinderbox file prepared to help students write more effectively with Tinderbox, Penney explains that

Writing papers is a part of everyone's high school and college career, and a part of daily work life for some of us. Many of us remember being taught how to organize a term paper using index cards: make a card with complete bibliographic information for every source, and include a code to match to cards for notes. For every note, include the code for the source from which it came, and write one statement on each card. To organize the paper, just sort the cards by topic. Some systems even suggest tagging the outside edge of each card with a highlighter color to match certain topics, to help you organize by topic.

However, this system has several flaws due to human nature and real life. For instance:

  • what if you come across the perfect fact, but don't have your list of topic or source codes handy?
  • how many of us have forgotten to write the source code on our note cards, only to discover the mistake after cards were already sorted into different piles?
  • What if the note on a card belongs to more than one topic? You can create an identical card, or resort the cards after writing each section, but this is extra work.
  • Sorting the cards into piles by topic can be a lot of work; work that can be quickly undone by children, pets, or a strong wind.
  • Cards are bulky to carry around, limiting your ability to move your place of writing when needed in order to avoid distractions.
  • All the work spent writing notes on cards must be essentially repeated when typing the the paper on your word processor.

His Tinderbox file works around many of these difficulties. When notes are added inside a category, the category automatically tags the notes with their source. Writers can add additional tags as well. Because the notes aren't physical, it's easy to cross reference and to experiment with different organizations even to let agents automatically pull together families of related notes.

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