The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text -- and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink . . .I've never used Devonthink because I don't have a Mac. I've tried Evernote (seemed cumbersome) and OneNote (but I only have a trial version), but I keep coming back to plain old Word, which I use in somewhat the same way. Mostly, however, I rely on a blizzard of Post-It notes stuck in books that are piled 6 deep all around my desk, typed notes, scraps written during dull conference presentations, and so on.
When it comes time to actually write the book, I usually have a pretty clear sense of how the chapters are going to be divided up. . . . And so in the last stage before I actually start writing, I create a little folder in Devonthink for each of the chapters. And then I sit down and read through every single little snippet that I've uncovered over the past year or so of research. But I read through them all, and in reading through them all, I have a completely new contextual experience of them, because I'm at the end of the research cycle, not at the beginning. They feel like pieces of a puzzle that's coming together, instead of hints or hunches.
. . . I grab the first chapter folder and export it as a single text document, open it up in my word processor, and start writing. Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I'm looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes. It's a great technique for warding off the siren song of procrastination. Before I hit on this approach, I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.
Do these tools really make a difference? Or is it the part I've bolded at the end, about starting in a file already full of notes, that makes the difference? Do any of you use these tools?