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.


I capture these kinds of notes simply in analogue, in a series of notebooks, with a pencil. My note-sized thoughts seem to flow better this way – and I use plain paper B5 notebooks so that I can draw connections and annotate freely. The pages are dated, but the individual notes are not numbered or tagged – I don’t think about that too much, but I assume that I’d find even that tiny level of organisation to be a source of friction. (And, incidentally I find fashionable neurobollox explanations of this better analogue flow quite unconvincing: I have been hand-writing my notes for decades, so it’s much more likely that I’m simply rather set in my ways).

Every few days, I go back and read through my recent jottings. Anything that is immediately relevant to where I am in my current project gets rewritten or dictated directly into that project’s document (meaning: into either  Scrivener or Tinderbox) and anything not immediately relevant, but which deserves not to be too easily forgotten, gets rewritten or dictated into an nvAlt folder, which is synced to Dropbox and then indexed in DevonThink Pro. There are two things that are important to my way of working here.

The first is that the transfer from analogue to digital gives me the opportunity – indeed it forces me – to review the note fully, to re-engage with the thought and to edit and often to expand it.

The second is that – as I discussed in the last post – once the notes are in Dropbox they are accessible to review and search and revision by different software on both my Mac and my i-Pad mini, making re-acquaintance sessions very easy. In down time, away from my desk, I very often sit browsing through that folder with my i-Pad, reading and editing using either Editorial or more recently 1Writer.

Moving and re-inscribing the notes like this provides a double benefit: if the notes stayed in the analogue notebooks they’d never change and would not be easily searchable, so they might be more easily forgotten; but equally, if they were first captured digitally then they would by-pass the review/edit process that happens during the transfer from analogue. And I’ve discovered that for the kind of material I put into notes, the first review, re-write and edit, a few days after capture, is crucial.

One final point. There is one alternative method which I use to capturing note material, most often when insights and connections and various other possibilia have come to me during my first waking moments. These are recorded using Drafts 4 on the iPad mini which I keep by my bed.  The dictation feature of an iPad works very well, so even if I’m very dozy I can simply start speaking what’s on my mind (by default Drafts always open with a new blank documents) and then as I begin to wake up I can add to it by thumb-typing. I can type like this still lying in bed – one clear advantage for me of the mini over the full sized iPad. Although Drafts cannot download Dropbox content, it allows the setting up of actions to upload the note to any Dropbox folder I choose with a single tap. Sometimes the destination will be the main nVALt folder, but often enough the note will related directly to a point in a current project, and so will be sent instead to the appropriate Scrivener Sync Folder. More of which in due course …

Next post: The Momentum of Writing