Some Notes on Note-Taking

I am trying to get over the dreadful hump of being in the middle of writing a multi-part book and trying to determine what part I am going to write next. I would prefer to work closer to the middle of the book, the section that needs the most work, but because I hope to secure a grant to finish writing the book, I think I need to work closer to the beginning to give readers a better sense of the book’s frame.

This kind of falderal opens up a space in which to procrastinate, a space which I am too happy to create. One of the ways I procrastinate, and if all the web sites dedicated to productivity hacking are evidence, a whole host of others also procrastinate by focusing on how the work gets done. Is there a better word processor? A better note taker? A better something or other?

I have no idea if it’s a global, human phenomena or simply an American one. I can certainly see it in the number of gadgets we Americans buy: it’s the stuff of late-night television commercials. And, well, I’m a good American and so I can’t help but turn to gadgetry when I think things can be made better.

Fortunately, for me, I have already found the best application there is for long-form writing: it’s [Scrivener][] and I have written about it before, as have many others. The novelist David Hewson has even written [a fantastic Kindle ebook][dh] about how he uses the application.

But it’s the note-taking, and for a nonfiction writer, the keeping of source records that continue to make working difficult, at least for me, within a larger project with multiple threads running simultaneously. (A lot of this is going to make a lot more sense when the book finally comes out.)

For citations, I have decided, for better or worse, to go with [Zotero][] for the time being, despite the fact that I have a license to the much better-looking [Bookends][]. (This may change at any time, however.)

Zotero is capable of keeping your notes, but it’s a terrible interface with very little functionality.

More importantly, it turns out I already own the application around which an entire community has built a system of note-taking, [Devonthink][]. Much of the success of this must be credited to Steven Johnson, a very successful nonfiction writer who early on described [how he uses Devonthink][sj] — later he blogged a version of this on [BoingBoing][]. Others have since chimed in: [Devonthink for Historical Research][dthr] is a really involved essay, which also contains a link to how the author uses Devonthink for course management (interesting!). And, speaking of teaching, Shannon Christine Mattern keeps a blog entitled _Words in Space_ and has a fantastic post on [note-taking and abstracting][wis] that would be a useful place to begin talking about the research and writing process with students.