Organic Organising 3 – Notes

My own writing projects are mainly academically-based historical non-fiction (19th century contexts of medicine and physiological psychology) and they all involve a fair amount of primary-text historical research, the details of which need to be variously recorded, filtered and organised. To a large extent, I treat this primary research information quite differently from what I call my notes. The function of notes is not really to capture information, but to record interesting ideas/insights/connections or useful phrases or prose snippets before they are forgotten. They are an essential adjunct to the research proper because their role is to help me to think freely, and to develop the form and content of the project’s narrative structure from the basic conceptual structure of the research. (One of my main tasks as an academic developmental editor is helping my clients to make this shift from conceptual to narrative structure: turning academic research written for colleagues into non-fiction for a more general audience).

The reason I make the distinction is because research information – even when it is not yet internalised – is generally quite stable, but the individual insights of the notes are very much less so. And in my experience, although information can clearly benefit from a quasi-formal approach (which I’ll write about in a later post) involving overly complex software with notes can actually be a hindrance to the subsequent career of an undeveloped insight or idea once it has been recorded. Hence the more diffuse nature of my note-taking practices.

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Organic Organising 2 – Dropbox Repositories, Access, Linking and Indexing

Dropbox is an excellent place for storage of large files – photo and videos – and as the cost of this storage has now dropped dramatically this makes it an obvious option for the off-computer/tablet/phone repository of such content. But Dropbox can also be an excellent hub for the organisation of professional writing, and allows for a tremendous freedom of working practices. Over the last couple of years this freedom has entirely changed how I work on my own writing projects. (N.B. Of course, there are a number of competitors offering similar facilities to Dropbox, and the strategies I discuss here are possible with them also – but I’m using Dropbox as my example as that’s what I know and use).

I will go into more detail of the various processes in subsequent posts on the topic of organic organisation, but the basic considerations are simply these:

1. We need single place to store our pieces of text: our notes, our fledgling pieces of prose, our drafts and our final copy. This place needs to be able to structured so that stored content can be organised using folders and perhaps even nested folders.

2. It is then also extremely helpful to have easy and direct access to the text is in this repository, and also to be able to link to items within it, all from a number of different devices and – importantly – using a number of different software programmes or apps. This is where software with its own proprietary formats, and especially those which protect their own Cloud storage, fall down (e.g. without some shenanigans you cannot open an Evernote item except in Evernote itself or such software – e.g. Curio – which specifically accommodates it; and you cannot link to a note written in Ulysses and stored in its own be-Clouded file structure).

3. And finally, given the growing need for re-access to particular texts at a later date, when the normal span of memory has expired, it is useful to be able to Index that folder to make it intelligently searchable within software, such as Devonthink Pro which offers that kind of facility. Dropbox allows for all of this.

In the next post I’ll give a full example of how this kind of system operates, using a core of different software programmes and iOS apps, within my own note-taking practices.

Next Post: Organic Organising 3 – Notes


I’m a long-time and daily user of Scrivener writing software. It is a superb tool for structuring longer projects and it will feature quite often in future Organic Organising posts. I used to recommend it to my graduate students, and now do so to any of my clients who ask my advice (it can help enormously with the developmental editing workflow).

I think software competition can get a bit 0ver-heated and silly though – choice of tools, or even OS, doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game – which is why I only agree with about half of this recent comparison between Scrivener and Word.

It’s an interesting read though: the re-description of Scrivener as a data-base for your writing is a valuable insight.

The Analogue Front End

The analogue front end for my main passion and part of my business interests – music – is a Nottingham Analogue Hyperdeck turntable with an Origin Live arm and a Transfiguration Spirit MkIII cartridge, feeding the six-valved Viva LF1 (with integral ‘Fono’ stage)  and thence to ATC SCM50 active speakers.

The analogue front end for my freelance editing and writing activities is an A3 sketchpad, one of the larger plain buff-coloured Moleskine cahiers, and either a brass bullet Fisher Space Pen or a revolving choice from my slightly silly (but still growing) collection of nearly-perfect pencils: Palomino Blackwing, Mitsu-Bishi 9800, Tombow Mono 100, Kimberly 525, and Mirado Black Warrior.

I also have a Digital front end for my music – either a Lector CDP7 MkIII or a Mark Levinson No.37 transport feeding a dCS 974 DAC – and something like a Digital front end for my writing – nVAlt, Scrivener, Tinderbox 6, and Ulysses 3. With both the music and the writing, the origin in the analogue is always a pleasure, and the return to it after a necessary digital detour is sometimes something of a relief.

There is no “analogue vs digital” competition here though: both are necessary parts of their wholes. My music business uses analogue components in the production process, but the final output, even for albums to be cut to vinyl, has to be digital (and delivered via an Internet channel), and most of the more intensive processes of audio production – the fine editing, the sonic repair and restoration, the mastering – have no viable analogous analogue counterparts. The editing and copywriting of course has to be delivered digitally too, and some of the more specialised processes of its production  – the reference database, the searchable repository of notes and other prose parts, sometimes the planning, often the editing, and always the mark-up and writing the final draft – are made much more easily, or even only made at all possible with the digital tools.

Organic Organising 1

In my editorial work with new non-fiction clients (memoirists, local historians) I am often asked for advice on the best way to organise a large writing project, basically from scratch. The writers have been on the net, they have read a mass of wildly conflicting but nonetheless stridently confident advice about Workflows and Productivity Software, and they are thoroughly confused. Me too: it seems pretty obvious that there is no more one specific way of cultivating ideas and organising interesting prose than there is of creating a nicely landscaped and populated garden, and yet a fair portion of the advice is offered, not as possibly helpful anecdote, but evangelised as The Way. There is quite often some merchandise and marketing considerations in play here, of course.

I’m a pluralist about all of this: there are a thousand way to get your flowers to bloom – there is no one right way. There are plenty of wrong ways, though, and anything too rigid that ties a writer into an unnatural way of working is likely to be one of them. So such web advice is best read in the same way as Homes and Gardens: not as a canonical text, but as a suggestive and sometimes inspirational collection of different visions, and a way of comparing the featured Gardens, for better or for worse, with the kind of thing you vaguely had in mind for your own patch. It is in this spirit that I’m going to sketch a few observations on my own way of organising my writing projects.

Keeping with the bucolic metaphor for just one moment longer, I should note that “organising” is almost definitely the wrong word to describe how it is that I finally get my own thoughts together to write an article, or develop a larger project. There is no Workflow and I am not a Manager of my Ideas; instead I picture myself as being a kindly, slightly lazy, Shepherd. My thoughts are left to graze freely and widely in the field – sometimes well out of sight – long before they are corralled into smaller, more tightly packed pens – and even then there is always the possibility of a breakaway thought, and of straggling and recalcitrant ideas that need time and different kind of effort to be rounded up.

Writing a non-fiction book is actually very simple. You have ideas, you write them down, you organise them, you write them up (you send the results to your editor) thought not necessarily always in that order. I can only comment on the final three (or four) stages, beginning with note taking – the simplest of tasks – and then the value of subsequently getting some of these notes and snippets of prose into a central repository.

Radio Four

Radio 4 this morning featured an over-excited guest telling us, uninterrupted, that MRI technology now enables us `to see thoughts pinging around our heads.’ This is a bit like saying that a scan of Alfred Brendel’s upper-body musculature would enable us `to see his music pinging around’.

An hour later, Mug-it-up Melvyn Bragg brusquely silenced a guest on his programme for suggesting that in order to read Smith’s `Wealth of Nations’ with any real understanding, we had to take account of the historical contexts in which it was written.

BBC Radio Four: the thinking man’s casket.


Jonathan Gray on Recomposing Scholarship

A topic that is much on the mind of any freelance writer whose work occasionally intersects with the formal academic (or like mine, runs for long stretches in parallel with regular interwinings) – is the availability of research materials to those operating outside of the institutional framework.

This is a thoughtful recent presentation on the issue by my friend (and incidentally ex-student) Jonathan Gray, Director of Policy at the Open Knowledge Foundation.

Some academic researchers go to great lengths to make their work more openly available at no cost; some publishers got to great lengths to make their `property’ expensive. Humanities publishers seem to be much more mean than those in the sciences – It is a complex topic which we will very definitely be revisiting …