Tech tools to help you stay on top of non-fiction writing projects
People often ask me what tools I use to organise my research and writing. In this post, I’ll talk about a few favourite ones that have helped me over the years. One principle that we stress at A Desk by the Window is the need to harness two modes of writing when working on non-fiction projects: the open, exploratory mode (‘the window’) and the more focused, critical mode of shaping and editing (‘the desk’). As I’ve tackled different writing projects, I’ve found some great tools for both of these modes. I’ll start off with ones that have helped me with the more exploratory part of writing and research, and then move on to those that have helped me to create and hone manuscripts.
Evernote and Bear
My last book, A Little History of Economics, had a well-defined structure from the outset: forty chapters, each 2,000 words long and each covering a distinct topic. I used the notetaking app Evernote when working on the book. It’s one of the best known and earliest of the modern cloud-based notetaking programs, and still going strong. It allows you to organise your notes using folders and tags and to view them in a sidebar. Because I had a fixed structure upfront, Evernote’s architecture was perfect for organising my ideas. Using folders and tags for each chapter, I was able to keep all my notes and research materials in one place. Evernote also allows you to clip webpages, attach photos and documents and even record voice memos. It has a powerful search feature that lets you search all your notes, including images of handwritten notes using character recognition (although this didn't work perfectly on my dreadful scrawl). Evernote syncs across devices, which means you can add notes on your phone and then find them in the desktop app later. This is very useful for making notes on the fly and having them all in one place with your other research notes.
Over the years, Evernote have added more features and the software has become a little complex for my taste, so I’ve recently moved to a newer notetaking app, Bear. It’s similar to Evernote, but more stripped down and minimal. When you're working on a project, ideas and solutions to problems often come when you're away from your desk and it's important to have somewhere where you can quickly record them when you're out and about. I always used to carry a small notebook with me for this purpose, but Bear is such a nimble program that it's just as easy to use as a notebook when you're in a hurry, and has the advantage of syncing everything to your desktop ready for your next writing session.
Leaving aside the actual writing, producing a non-fiction book can be an enormous information management problem. The book that I’m currently working on, a history of utopian London, was much more complex to write than A Little History of Economics. It took longer, drew on a wider range of sources and wove together different strands of history, biography and ideas. Software like Evernote is easy to use because it organises the information that you put into it using simple structures based on folders and tags. It worked well for A Little History of Economics because I had a well-defined chapter structure from the start. This meant that it was obvious where to put new information. This wasn’t the case for my current project. I didn't have a fixed structure before I began researching and writing. It was through the research and writing that I discovered the narrative threads of the book and refined the overall structure.
Programmes like Evernote aren't as useful for this more open kind of situation. They don't allow you to visualise the relationship between notes in a rich way, for example by using colour or spatial relationships, in the way you might on a diagram like a mind map that helps you uncover structure in a mass of information.
For my current book project I used a very different kind of note-taking software called Tinderbox. What’s special about this program is its flexibility. You can start putting notes into it without having to define any clear structure. But as you start to notice patterns and connections you can build structure in. Allowing structure to emerge gradually is very useful for complex, open-ended projects.
Tinderbox is highly customisable, and has powerful ways of seeing the relationships between notes. You can create mind map-type visualisations, timelines and outlines, and set up all sorts of automations that help you to find the information that you need in your notes. The possibilities are endless. But because it's so flexible, it can be a daunting program to use at first. It’s certainly not a highly user-friendly, straight-out-of-the-box piece of software. You have to tinker with it to see what it can do for you. If you have the patience for this it can really pay dividends. I've included above a 'map' of the research for one of my chapters; the shapes are notes containing snippets of information or longer pieces of writing and the colours and links define themes and connections that I developed as I added to my research.
More user friendly than Tinderbox is Xmind, an excellent piece of mind-mapping software that allows you to quickly create all sorts of mind maps of different configurations. This is great for visualising at a glance the structure of a set of ideas or a chapter.
Xmind also has a really handy mode that allowed me to see chapters as a series of blocks, one for each paragraph, and then to rearrange them on the screen to start taming the unwieldy mess of the first draft. This kind of software can be a great way of quickly getting a bird's-eye view of your material and then playing around with it.
In terms of writing the actual manuscript, standard wordprocessing software like Word does just fine. But for book projects I prefer specialist book-writing software such as Scrivener. Scrivener has been around for a while and is very popular among novelists and non-fiction authors. What’s nice about it is that it allows you to organise your writing as a series of chunks that you can view in a sidebar. These can then be arranged into sections or chapters. It also has a corkboard view, which allows you to visualise your chunks of text as a series of notecards. This allows you to easily move things around as your structure evolves.
Scrivener has a huge number of functions that I’ve barely scratched the surface of, many of them aimed at fiction writers. The program has a lovely writing mode which gives you a typewriter-style full screen, blocking out other distractions. I've made a lot of use of its colour-coded comment function, which allows me to annotate my text as I go along, so that I can later locate the source of pieces of information and follow up my own editing suggestions when I refine my drafts. You can also add mini-synopses to notecards representing sections in a chapter so that you can get a quick overview of the structure of your material.
Pen and paper
Despite all this great software, sometimes nothing is as good as good old pen and paper and a stack of notecards, which can give you the space and flexibility you need to visualise a big project. Notes took over one of the walls in my office when I was writing my new book! My first draft of A Little History of Economics was scratched out in longhand, and I'm still very partial to a colour-coded notecard.
What are your favourite writing tools? Let us know in the comments.