Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tech tools and writing inspiration

From BoingBoing, via Academhack, comes Steven Johnson's account of "How to write a book" (it's all worth reading, but I've cut it up here because I don't want to steal the whole thing):
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 . . .

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.

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.

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?


What Now? said...

Thanks for the link to Steven Johnson's interesting piece. I've actually read and enjoyed Johnson's Ghost Map, which made his essay all the more interesting.

Like you, I use MSWord in pretty much the way that Johnson describes using Devonthink, with the difference that my researching and writing phases are not distinct and chronological. So I'll do a lot of reading, sort my notes as he does, write some, and then go back and do more reading, which doesn't seem to be his process.

Anonymous said...

I've tried to use some of them but it has always worked better for me to have the physical files and postit notes. I agree wholeheartedly about having the files. I even have one that is a grab bag of quotations and ideas for when I get stuck - pick one at random, unstick yourself.

However at this point all the files and postits and books have gotten to be a bit much and I would rather have it in a computer program - except then you have all these tabs and so on, and all these IDs and passwords and silliness.

I just went and bought an external monitor for the laptop. It's 22 inches and it rotates, can be horizontal or vertical. I haven't set it up yet but the idea is write on the laptop while reading on the external monitor. It will be good if I ever get back to my manuscript reading project, because I'll be able to look very closely at digital archives. Now it will be good for looking at books and articles I want to see and scroll around in but do not really want to print or buy.

I have not set it up yet because I am lazy, I am sure it will aggravate me for a day downloading drivers and so on. But I'll let you know.

It will also permit me to watch movies on that size screen (I have no tv so I have to watch movies on this little computer and it is feasible but icky).

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Ooo, that's really interesting - thanks for the link! I haven't used any of the software he discusses, but like WN, I do the same thing in MSWord. I keep one big file for each research project, subdivided into sections for bibliography, thematic ideas, source material, and random stuff that pops into my head. (This last bit is almost the most important, as it's a place to keep those things that I trip over or that occur to me while I'm working on something entirely different.) Then I do basically what he describes - read through the whole thing, look for patterns, start a new file of chapters, and copy over all the stuff that fits into each.

Anonymous said...

I find that doing it by computer program, doing it by files, doing it by note cards, doing it by paper--it all eventually turns into chaos and has to be waded through countless numbers of times.

My current attempt is with notecards, and they have some definite advantages I'd say. Being able to shuffle them around is nice.

undine said...

What Now, my process is more like yours. Once the notes are sorted, there's always something to go back and read; the process of reading later things changes how you read the early ones.

profacero, I love the idea of the grab bag of quotations. Are they quotations about writing or about the project itself? My new computer monitor is bigger (20") but doesn't rotate that way. It has made a huge difference in my level of eye fatigue, though.

undine said...

Pilgrim/Heretic, that must be a huge file by the time you sit down to write. I am bad at writing down the random flashes of ideas but want to try putting them all in the file like that.

Christopher Vilmar, do you mean real index cards, the paper kind? Or something like I'd like to flip through the index cards but have had a hard time forcing myself to write on them when I've tried.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. That's very intriguing!

Cool to read everyone's process discussions here. Like some of the other commenters, I use a plain old regular MS Word file for the basic archipelago, which eventually turns into the chapter or article draft.

I also start a separate Word file called "scrap" into which I toss everything that I don't use while drafting, in case it comes in handy down the road, which it often unexpectedly does.

undine said...

Ink, I do that too, except I call it a "junk file." "Scrap" is better, though--it's like a scrap bag rather than something to throw away.