The Organized Writer: Research

by Jeff Abbott on December 17, 2008

I used to be buried in clippings. In my early days as a writer, I kept all sorts of newspaper and article clippings: on forensics, on interesting crime cases, on the social history of small towns, on anything that I thought would be valuable in my research. I had bulging files full of trivia and detail and wow, did I feel smart.

Obviously the Internet and the advent of cheap digital storage changed all that. Now every print publication has an online equivalent. I can do research without heading to the library with my pockets jingling with quarters for the copying machine. But this onslaught of information creates its own challenge: how to classify, sort, and even remember what I have accumulated. I started amassing web sites and PDF files from online journals and such, and just stuffing them into a back corner of the hard drive. But then I couldn’t easily remember what I had found, or summon it when I needed it with a simple search. . .I needed a better solution.
There was one advantage to the old filed papers system: I could leaf through a research file, mark the important articles with stickies, and sometimes–if I were stuck–going back through the research would prompt a solution or a new direction. When everything’s digital, browsing just doesn’t seem the same. So I needed to be sure I had a way to quickly find and more importantly, GROUP, related items.
So my solution is to use DevonThink Pro Office. This very nice Mac-only software package got a boost in attention last year when Michael Chabon cited it in the acknowledgements of his bestselling novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as being one of the two software tools he used to write the book. 
I once heard DevonThink Pro described as an “electronic shoebox”. It serves as a personal information assistant. I can dump everything related to my research into one place, and easily search, group it, and tag it with information. DTPro also lets you unearth relationships between stored items of information, based on an artificial intelligence engine. I’ve not really used that aspect of the program heavily, but I love that I can store and view web pages there, create markable documents from what I dump into it, and can even scan documents and have them go directly to the research archive. I can also archive all my emails into DevonThink Pro. (There are different versions of the software, based on price and capability, so if you’re interested in it, be sure and check to see which version is right for you.)
The best part to me about a solution like this is that it simplifies deciding what to keep for research–because I can keep nearly anything. I can print from a web page to a PDF file and then assign it to a folder inside DevonThink Pro. Done. Then when I search on a term, I get back all documents that relate to that term. It makes finding what I have very easy. As well, I will dump in key research nuggets I get from books or interviews. I can even store MP3 audio files and QuickTime movies in DT Pro.
You can read an account of how novelist Tobias Buckell uses DevonThink Pro to organize research and ideas. Nonfiction writer Steven Johnson wrote in The New York Times about DevonThink, crediting it with sparking new ideas for him by making connections between seemingly unrelated chunks of historical and biological research.
If your writing is research-heavy, you can build your own personal research library with DevonThink. I have no connection to the company, other than as a satisfied customer. At the least, think about how you want to store and access your research information. I can’t really suggest an alternative approach because this one works so well for me. If you’re on Windows and want something similar to DevonThink, look here and here for suggestions. 

    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    Kristan December 23, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Interesting to see writers making such use of technology. I wonder if it’s a certain “type” (or genre) of writer who primarily does that. I suppose the research-heavy ones, more naturally.
    I don’t tend to find much need for THAT deep a level of organization — right now just bookmarking things at or saving PDFs and articles and such in the appropriate project folders on my hard drive seem to work fine — but I’m definitely bookmarking the DevonThink link, just in case. ;)

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