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.