Using Timers for Productivity

One of my favorite bits of culture from The Office is the Wuphf, an initiative spearheaded by the great Ryan Howard. What Wuphf allows you to do is link all of your communication devices so that when one receives a message, they are all notified. The keepers of one Office Wiki describe Wuphf as follows:

If you send a Wuphf, the message goes to the recipient’s home phone, cell phone, email, Facebook, twitter, fax and homescreen at the same time, the idea being that if someone has a really important message they can send a Wuphf and know the recipient will receive it quickly.

I chuckle when I think about the Wuphf because it isn’t that far from reality. When I receive a text message, for example, my phone buzzes, my iPad lights up, and my laptop pings. It’s utterly obnoxious.

But even aside from the synchronized alert phenomenon (which I could turn off if I really wanted to), all of us are bombarded throughout the day by various sources of distraction that vie constantly for our attention: e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, alerts, the occasional phone call (does anyone even talk on the phone anymore?), etc.

Some days, the amount of activity on the screens in my office makes it nearly impossible to accomplish anything. Some days, I can’t read, write, grade, or answer e-mails for more than one minute without being beckoned into another medium. On these types of days I find it helpful to do what I think of as a hard reboot – focus on one task, and only one task, for a manageable amount of time.

I accomplish this by using a simple timer app on my laptop. I like the Alinof timer because it is free and no frills, but really any timer will work. I choose a task for myself, be it writing, reading, grading, cleaning my office or answering e-mails, and I set my timer for 20 minutes and turn off alerts on all my devices. Until that timer sounds, I do not allow myself to do anything else outside of the task I assigned myself.

(This method is of course similar in many ways to the Pomodoro Technique, in which you divide your work into short chunks of time that are separated by scheduled breaks. The chief difference, at least for me, is that this is something I do only when I reach a point of desperation. Those who use Pomodoro tend to view it as a way of structuring all of their work time. I know several people for whom that works well, but it doesn’t work for me.)

As it turns out, you can accomplish quite a lot in 20 minutes. Assuming you keep a handle on the number of e-mails in your inbox (for me it’s a compulsion), 20 minutes is enough time to get your inbox to zero. It’s also enough to write a blog post or a page on that project you keep neglecting, grade a handful of essays, or organize your desk. When the timer sounds, I am often so pleased with what I’ve accomplished that I will set it again and keep going on whatever task I was working on. And after a few of these cycles, I typically find that I am much more focused, so much so that I eventually forget to reset the timer.

Using Scrivener to Write a Dissertation – Why I’m Glad I Did and What I Would do Differently Next Time

My younger colleagues often ask me for dissertation advice. How do you keep your research and notes straight? How do you structure and restructure your argument? How do you motivate yourself to write on a regular basis? How do you do all of this without losing your precious sanity? Regardless of which question I am being asked, my response almost always involves a common refrain: Scrivener.

Developed initially for novelists and other creative types, Scrivener is writing software that has earned quite the following in the academic community. In this post I would like to outline why I chose to use it while writing my dissertation, why I am glad that I did, and what I would do differently if I had to do it all over again.

[N.B. — Initially designed for Mac, Scrivener is currently available for Mac and Windows. Everything in this post is in reference to the Mac version. I have never used Scrivener for Windows.]

Why did I choose Scrivener initially?

A fellow graduate student introduced me to Scrivener years ago. I will confess that while he was explaining several of its features, I found myself wondering why he was so excited. How could this software be useful to ME, someone responsible for writing serious and scholarly things? I already had Microsoft Word, and it had brought me through college and two masters degrees, right? So what, I asked, was the point? I concluded (hastily, in hindsight) that it should be placed alongside font selection as one more way that graduate students could procrastinate while still appearing productive.

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About two years later and after several other encounters with devotees of the software, I passed my comprehensive exams and jumped headfirst into the dissertation. And because I was a graduate student, I also began to search for clever and efficient ways to procrastinate: I started printing out test pages to determine which font I was going to use; I began experimenting with alternative/therapeutic lighting schemes and furniture/book arrangements in my study; I discovered that not all note-taking paper is created equal; and I learned that Microsoft Word is neither the only nor the best word processor for long, book-length documents. Realizing that I was deceiving myself into thinking that such pursuits were good uses of my precious time, I devoted one day—and one day only—to figuring out which font, paper, and word processing software I was going to use.

I downloaded a few options to start with: Nisus, Mellel, Bean, LaTex (which I never did figure out). After toying around with these a bit, I remembered Scrivener. I’m not sure why, but when I opened up the software for the first time something about it just clicked with me. Perhaps it was because I found the programs I had looked at thus far to be downright clunky, but Scrivener’s user interface struck me immediately as clean, well organized, and intuitive in many ways. After about an hour with it I was hooked; I took a few of the tutorials and had a detailed outline set up in no time. So yes—ironically, what began as an attempt to procrastinate ended up yielding what I now consider to be the single most important tool in my toolbox.

Why am I glad that I chose Scrivener?

Anyone who uses Scrivener on a regular basis has an opinion regarding its most useful components. Below are three of the features of Scrivener that I found to be the most helpful in the process of writing a dissertation. The list is not intended to be exhaustive.

1) Outlining — One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to in Scrivener is the “binder” that is situated to the left of the text input window. The binder is divided initially into three sections: draft, research, and trash. The draft and research sections allowScreen Shot 2014-05-30 at 2.58.21 PM you to create outlines to guide you in the process of writing and research. These can be about as detailed or broad as you want.

The outlines you create are actually systems of tiered text files. So, let’s say you make an outline for “Chapter 1.” Under this broad rubric you construct five headings, and under each of these headings you create three subheadings. The benefit of this—aside from more or less requiring you to outline your project before you start writing it—is that the system of text files allows you to skip quickly from one section to another, which helps move you away from thinking of the whole thing in strictly linear terms. Most of us don’t think in straight lines from start to finish, yet the expectation (for whatever reason) is that we need to write this way. No wonder the experience of staring at a blank page is such a common one!

Scrivener’s outlining feature certainly does not eliminate writer’s block, but it does remind you that your larger project is made up of individual components, and that you don’t necessarily have to work on them in order. In fact, the whole thing may move along more quickly if you don’t work on them in order!

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2) Automatic Writing Goals — If you know roughly how long your project should be, and you know when you want to have it completed by, Scrivener can help you figure out how many words per day you need to write every day in order to reach your goal on time. I am aware of no other program on the market that has a feature like this.

I knew that my dissertation needed to be around 65,000 words, not including footnotes, and I also knew that I wanted to finish writing it in one year (that didn’t happen, but that’s a story for another day). So I opened up Project Targets, entered my figures, told Scrivener to Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM“automatically calculate from draft deadline,” selected the days on which I planned to write, and that’s it. Turns out that if you want to write 65,000 words in one year, and you only want to write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you can accomplish your goal by writing 414 words per day. If you set a more aggressive schedule, i.e., write on every day of the work week, that figure drops to 249 words per day. Either of these is entirely manageable and a lot easier than sitting down every day not knowing if you are ahead or behind. If you get inspired one day and write more than you are supposed to, Scrivener will update your goals so that you will write less the next time. Alternately, if you take a week off of writing, Scrivener will have you write a few more words to catch up.

This feature was valuable to me because it showed me that the only way to complete long writing projects is one piece at a time. And it reminded me throughout the process that regardless of how small an accomplishment it seemed at the time, writing 400 words was in fact bringing me closer to my ultimate goal, namely, finishing.

3) Design and Stability — One of the first things that really struck me about Scrivener was just how smart the layout is. It’s clear that the software was designed, from start to finish, by people who could imagine themselves using it on a regular basis. Nearly every aspect of the user interface, from the layout of the toolbar to the color of your backgrounds, can be easily customized to fit your own needs and preferences.Like any software, there are some learning curves. But if you are willing to spend a little bit of time working through the tutorials that come packaged with it, you will figure things out quickly.

One final point of praise, related to design, is that Scrivener is a remarkably stable program. In the two years that I spent using it to write my dissertation, it NEVER CRASHED ONCE. Anyone who uses Word will marvel at that last sentence. Go ahead. Marvel. I imagine there are ways to crash Scrivener—the point is that you are going to have to work at it. Even if you did crash it, however, Scrivener automatically saves your work every two seconds. So even in the unlikely event that you throw more at it than it can catch, odds are you will lose maybe a total of five words.

What would I do differently next time?

By now you can tell that I’m a huge fan of this software. I could certainly have written a dissertation without it, but the task would have been much more arduous. To close out this post, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what I would do differently next time. While I will never (ever) have to write another dissertation, I have recently started work on another project in Scrivener that should keep me entertained for at least the next year. So what am I doing differently now?

1) Use the research section of the binder more — Scrivener is first and foremost a writing tool. But it also sports a number of features that can help you organize the nuts and bolts of your project. One of these is the research section of the binder (mentioned above). This section can support pretty much any sort of file that you can imagine. In the project I’m working on currently I am keeping images and article .pdfs in the research section as well as outlines and notes. Scrivener’s split screen mode makes switching between your writing window and .pdf viewer unnecessary; you can have both open at once. While I am still using bibliography software for citations, I’ve found that using the research section is helping me stay more organized.

2) Take more snapshots — A snapshot enables you to save a version of your project that you can later go back and compare against newer versions. It is similar in many ways to Word’s “track changes” feature, though more smoothly executed (surprised?). I knew that this feature existed when I started using Scrivener, but I didn’t start using it until I was Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 3.00.18 PMfinishing the final chapter and beginning to edit. To be sure, the editing phase is the point at which snapshots are most valuable; if you find that you were a bit too zealous in your cutting, you can always go back and retrieve what you have chopped out.

In the project I am working on right now, the first thing I do EVERY TIME I open the file is take a snapshot. It takes seconds, and I have peace of mind knowing that there is a limit to how bad I can screw things up if I’m having a bad/off day.


3) Use the scratch pad. This is a feature that I rarely spend time telling others about because I don’t think all that many people would understand the idea behind it. The scratch pad is tucked away in Scrivener’s “window” menu (I think it is also possible to assign a keyboard shortcut that will open it). When you select it, a little text entry window appears. In this window you can do some free writing, record a stray thought that may have entered your mind, or sketch an idea you have about reorganizing a chapter, etc. You could use it to write out a grocery list if you want.

What the scratch pad does is give you a blank document quickly, before you have to waste a whole lot of time deciding where to type whatever might be on your mind. It’s akin in many ways to keeping an index card and a pen with you at all times, just in case something pops into your mind and you don’t want to forget it.

What makes the scratch pad different from all other text entry windows (as I understand things) is that the text you enter in it isn’t really linked to any project in particular. If you have a Scrivener file set up for your dissertation, another for your blog, and another for, say, teaching resources, all of these would share a scratch pad. So, if you are in your dissertation and open the scratch pad to make a few notes, those notes will be there when you open up the scratch pad while you are working on your blog. I use this feature when I am in the middle of writing for one project but have a thought related to another; the scratch pad lets me record that thought quickly without worrying about getting too sidetracked or forgetting where I put the note to myself.

At the end of the day, being a successful writer, i.e., completing what you set out to write without losing your mind, is as much about having the determination to sit in one place for long periods of time as it is about anything else. But coupling this determination with the right tools can make your task a little more pleasant.

If you found this post helpful and are considering purchasing Scrivener, please consider doing so through the following link!

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The Experience that All Researchers Share

There are few things more depressing than thinking of a great idea for a book, doing enough research to be sure that no one has written a book like it in 100 years, and then discovering a book that you didn’t see before that looks to be more or less the same as the book you want to write.

Your heart sinks, and you convince yourself that you’ll find your original idea someday.

But THEN, when you read the introduction to the book you just found, you see on the first page the words “secret brotherhood” and “Jesus.”

That’s when you know that you have discovered a book written by a crazy person.

That’s when you get back to work on your own book.

Why I “Loeb” the Salzmann Library

Lately I’m a bit obsessed with the Loeb Classical Library. There, I said it. For the “uninitiated,” the LCL is a collection of texts spanning about 1,000 years (from Homer to Bede). Each volume contains a citable Greek or Latin text with an accompanying English translation. For students of ancient history, it is an indispensable resource. As each of the exegetical chapters of my dissertation necessitates some engagement with classical Greek and Roman authors, I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year pouring through the Loebs.

I’m fairly certain that the Raynor Library at Marquette has most if not all of the volumes of the LCL. The only problem is that their collection is that it is spread over 5 floors of other books: the Iliad and Odyssey are with works pertaining to Homer; Herodotus’ Histories is located with other comparable ancient works; and (for reasons I have yet to understand) Strabo’s Geography exists alongside books related to travel in modern Greece. Because they are classified according to the Library of Congress rubric, the distribution of the Loebs in Raynor makes sense. But for those of us who need access to various different volumes of the collection at once, a great number of stairs and hunting through stacks awaits.

Enter the Salzmann Library at St. Francis de Sales Seminary. Located about 10 minutes south of Milwaukee, Salzmann is a quaint place, just far enough off the beaten path that it doesn’t attract droves of patrons (at least not that I’ve seen in my limited time there). It has a friendly and helpful staff, a respectable reference collection, some journals, and a fantastic reading/study space (with large windows, which is a nice change of pace from my dark cell at Marquette).

But the main reason that the Salzmann library is awesome (at least from my current perspective) is summed up in the following picture:


That’s right: the Loeb Classical Library, organized according to author, all in one place. Beautiful, no? Now, instead of trekking throughout the Raynor library in search of the volume(s) that I need, all I have to do is saunter over to this shelf, take a volume, and go back to my workspace. The other day I was able to consult 10-15 different volumes, and I didn’t even have to look them up in the catalogue! As I am nearing the point where I will need to go back through all my citations to make sure I’ve gotten the translations and references right, this resource alone is going to save me days if not weeks worth of time.

Thank you, Salzmann!

On Rabbit Holes and Writing Styles

There are two ways of writing a dissertation, broadly speaking. The first is to do all of the research that you will need to do before you even think about putting pen to paper: outline your argument, cover your bases, and then begin. The second is to start writing before you have completed your research: get a sense of where you’re going, be ready to change your mind, and write what you can when you can. Each approach has significant benefits and drawbacks.

With the first, the benefit is that you have charted a more or less clear path through the argument you’re going to be making. You know where you’re headed, who has been there before, and the path you’re going to take to get there. At least in theory, this approach makes the writing itself easier. The drawback to this approach is that it allows you to postpone the writing process indefinitely in favor of more research and reconceptualizing (a fancy term for procrastination). That is, if you’ve decided to do all the research before you begin writing, it is difficult to tell when enough is enough.

With the second approach, you discover much about where you’re headed while you’re on your way. You know where you want to go, and you have a vague idea of what the path you’re going to take looks like (or at least what you want it to look like). But because you are granting that you will uncover many things in the course of your writing, the second approach requires a degree of flexibility. And therein lies the drawback: you have to be willing to change your mind or alter your course after you’ve already begun.

Regardless of which approach you choose (I myself prefer the second), you will at some point encounter the phenomenon that some refer to as the “rabbit hole.” The rabbit hole is comparable to discovering a loose thread on a sweater. You see the thread and you pull it. Sometimes it will be an inch long, and you can remove it without difficulty and forget about it. Other times, it is much longer, and continuing to pull at it will undoubtedly destroy a portion of your sweater (if not the entire garment).

The same is true for rabbit holes. When you see such a hole, you have no idea how long the tunnel behind it is or where it leads. The only way of determining the nature of a rabbit hole is to dive in and take a look. You may discover that it leads nowhere, that it is little more than a shallow crevice. Or, you might find yourself in a veritable maze of new, unexplored territory. The question, of course, is whether to include what you find in your dissertation, to save it for another venue (an article, presentation, etc.), or to simply ignore it (not a smart choice).

Rabbit holes can be frustrating for a number of reasons. If the material you discover is relevant to your topic, then you have to make time (and space) to incorporate it. If it contradicts something you’ve already said (or planned on saying) then you may have to defend or alter your position. If it is truly interesting but simultaneously irrelevant to what you’re trying to say, you might have to find another outlet for it. To be sure, resisting the temptation to “say it all” is a challenge that all dissertating students share.

But rabbit holes can also be invigorating. If you are researching a topic in order to confirm a hunch (or a “thesis,” if we are being fancy), then you may uncover material that confirms your hunch in a way that you didn’t expect.  That is, you might uncover a path to your desired location that is different from and perhaps better than that which you intended. If this is the case, the challenge becomes determining what to do with the path you’ve already charted. Does it continue to exist as an alternate, albeit less-desirable route (i.e., in footnotes), or does it simply fall by the wayside? The latter of these two options is painful, to say the least, as it involves essentially trashing what may amount to weeks (or months!) of research. Yet even paths that end up being “less good” are valuable in the grand scheme of things, as we learn much from the roads we travel, regardless of whether they end up being the most efficient.

Please cf. The Chicago Manual of Style

Thanks to my dissertation director, I have become a bit of a snob when it comes to the proper formatting of footnotes and the like. The other day, I remarked to him that I feel as if I am under some sort of curse…I can no longer just read a book without noticing the author’s mistakes (and if you pay attention, most authors make a lot, especially when documenting sources is concerned). He chuckled as if to say, “infuriating, isn’t it?”

One of the pet peeves that he and I share is proper usage of the abbreviation “cf.” It stands for the Latin confer (imp. of conferre), which means “bring together.” In academic prose, it means “compare,” with the implication that what you’re comparing is different from that which you’re comparing it to (see the Chicago Manual of Style [16th ed.] 14.37).

Many biblical scholars like to employ it as a garish substitute for “see,” which has apparently become passé. The tendency is so prevalent that it’s even mentioned on Wikipedia (in the entry for cf.):

“While the use of cf. for “see” is widespread, usage guides consider it incorrect. Nevertheless, it is common, especially when used for Biblical citations.”

Vanity of vanities! The consequences, of course, are disastrous (well, maybe not disastrous, but I love drama).

Take the following example (which I made up):

“God loves the world a lot” (cf. John 3:16).

When used in this manner, it means:

“God loves the world a lot” (contrary to what John 3:16 would have you believe).

Used properly:

“God exists” (cf. Richard Dawkins).


“God exists” (Richard Dawkins does not agree).

When is Enough, Enough?

This is the season for the Marquette library to send out the obligatory “please return or renew your loans” e-mail. Generally, I’m content to just login, select all my books, and hit renew, but lately I’ve been feeling as if my life is being consumed by library books. They are everywhere — piled up in front of my computer monitor, holding my study door open, occupying my shelves and the floor of my research carrel in the library. Driven mostly by a sense of morbid curiosity, today I logged in to my library account at Marquette to see how many books I had checked out. The answer:

Screen Shot 2012-12-06 at 1.00.51 PM





Now, this is neither terribly shocking or offensive, given that I am currently in the midst of writing a dissertation. Others, I’m sure, are far worse off. Even so, having this many books checked out at once makes me somewhat nervous. For starters, the more you have checked out, the easier it is to misplace something and incur a fine, and I am not a fan of paying fines. Perhaps more significantly, I find that having this many books checked out at once leads to a sort of “fog” in the process of research: as I sit in my study or carrell surrounded by piles of books, many of which I can’t even remember checking out, I cannot help but think I’m missing something. To try and clear this fog, I will on occasion play what has become (for me, anyway) a sort of game.

The first step is to go through my shelves and try to determine why I have what I have, whether I actually need what I have, and whether I need to keep it on hand for reference. Many of the books I have currently checked out (probably 20 or so) are reference materials that I consult on a fairly regular basis. I need these, and I know that I need them. They stay. This leaves roughly 80 that are unaccounted for. Included in this latter group are books that were consulted for chapters that are already done, books that may have looked relevant for subsequent chapters, and books that at one point looked interesting, for whatever reason.

The second step is to go through this larger pile, one book at a time, and weed. Several books reveal themselves instantly as irrelevant for my current research. This morning, for example, I discovered on my shelves a copy of D. C. Parker’s Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (riveting, I know). I checked this book out last year, after I saw it at SBL. I read the first couple of chapters, and then got busy with other things (a baby, to name just one). Because it is entirely unrelated to my current research, I made a note of it in my “books to read” file, and I put it in the pile of materials to be returned to the library. It will be there when I have more time. Others are books that I have already accounted for in the dissertation but have yet to actually return to the library. They go back too. The rest, admittedly, are not so easy.

These, I put into a “skim” pile to be evaluated. The process of skimming a book, as I understand it, should take no more than 10 minutes. It involves, basically, reading a book through the table of contents/index in order to determine whether there is anything of immediate value to your project. I skimmed two books before I left the house this afternoon: Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans’ James the Just and Christian Origins, and John Painter’s Just James: The Brother and Jesus in History and Tradition. As my dissertation is on the Proto-Gospel of James, I’m sure both made sense when I checked them out. In the process of skimming, however, I found that Chilton-Evans was hardly relevant for my purposes. A fantastic book, to be sure, but uninterested in matters pertaining to James in Christian Apocryphal Literature. Painter, on the other hand, was peppered with valuable little snippets and insights that, at the very least, would make for some interesting footnotes. Having discovered this, I opened up the dissertation file and went through the various sections in which Painter’s work contributed to my own. I netted about 100 words in the body, as well as about 8 footnotes. Not bad, and now Painter can go back to the library. He will be there waiting for me if I need him.

30 or so books made it into my skim pile this morning, and I intend to peruse each of them over the weekend. Some, I’m sure, will end up in the “reference” pile, and will stay on my shelves until the dissertation is finished. Others I will be able to simply return to the library, having discovered that they weren’t what I thought or hoped them to be. Others still, like Painter, will yield some valuable insights that can be accounted for quickly, at which point they can be returned. The hope is that, come Monday, I’ll be able to log in to my library account and see a number closer to 60. That will, in turn, give me an excuse to check out more books from the library, and in another two weeks I will have to repeat the process. Such is life.

If you’re reading this, I’m curious to know A) if you take note of or care how many books you have checked out from your library, B) if you have a record that you’re particularly proud of, and C) if you have a process for weeding unneeded resources.

The Future of Scholarship?

A fantastic essay by Alan Jacobs on scholarship in the digital age:

The Future of Scholarship: Easier, Harder, and With More Charlatans – The Atlantic

Jacobs notes at one point that digital access to thousands of sources has made it easier for researchers to “fake erudition,” as a simple search in Google Books or JSTOR makes it easy to find obscure sources with which to dazzle one’s readers. I would by lying if I said I haven’t been guilty of this in the pass.

The upshot? Perhaps writing will once again become about writing rather than an attempt to pretend that you have actually read every word of your bibliography:

It’s at least possible that in this new knowledge environment we’ll be able to take more of the research as a given — not all of it, but more of it — and will demand from researchers some of the literary virtues: lucidity of style, subtlety of argument, liveliness of narrative. Maybe when readers will make it clear that they know how easy it is to multiply sources, writers will cease to try to impress through numbers of footnotes.

Overused Words and Phrases in Prose

I have a tendency to overuse certain words and phrases in my writing. My approach to writing is typically to get as much on a page as possible in one sitting and then go back and fix it later. This involves, among other things, not getting too hung up on using words such as “namely, moreover, that is, for example” or the like. These are my “comfort words,” those that enable me link thoughts together that would otherwise just be sprayed all over the page.

The problem, for me, is that when I go back to “fix” my prose, in terms of removing oft-repeated words, I tend to fix some things and gloss over others. It’s not the case that I decide some words are fine…it’s that I simply don’t see every word that I tend to overuse.

My dissertation director has an uncanny knack for seeing these almost immediately, at which point he will say something like, “Have you realized how often “X” occurs on this page?” He is correct nearly 100% of the time, and my writing is better because of it.

So, lately I have been trying to find ways to highlight words that may appear in a document more often than they should. To my knowledge, Word has no feature that makes this an easy process. I have begun keeping a checklist of words to go back and search for later in the editing process, and this has helped to a certain degree. However, as I am constantly replacing old “comfort words” with new ones, it is becoming difficult to keep track.

Enter Wordle.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this tool, but if you’re not you should be. I have used it in the past as a means of procrastination. I realized today that it might be useful in pinpointing overused words in my documents. Simply cut and paste a block of text into the proper field, and Wordle will generate a “word cloud” that will then enable you to see which words you use most often. The larger the word in the cloud, the more often it appears. Cool, no?

I suppose this may also be useful to those who have just written something and yet have no idea what it is actually about.

Here is a cloud generated from the text of my dissertation proposal (sans bibliography). Click for larger version:

How do you cope with overused words?