Friday, December 16, 2011

Notes on: Organizing Your Notes

Thanks to all the member writers who attended the Library's Writing Life discussion Organizing Your Notes on Tuesday, Dec 13. The event was structured as an audience forum, moderated by biographer Gayle Feldman, whose current project (a biography of Bennet Cerf, a man of many lives) would sorely test the limits of patience of even the most organized among us.

The discussion revealed one observable fact: the majority of the member writers in the audience (Gayle included) do not use organizing software and actually do not use many electronic tools in organizing research notes. Those of you that do use organizing software, please weigh in in the comments section below!

Gayle Describes Her Own Project to Set up the Discussion
As she sees it, there are 2 separate organizing challenges:
1) the "stuff" itself - papers, archival materials, photos, etc.
2) how to have the material available to use it for writing

Gayle's own research "stuff" includes:
1) Physical Files - these are papers that she has organized in three ways: People, Thematic, and Chronological. Cross-referencing of paper files is ESSENTIAL.
2) 7 dedicated Bookcase Shelves - organized thematically and chronologically
3) Computer Files - these mirror the paper files in some respects
4) Archive Files - Archival collections in libraries often have finding aids online; some archival libraries are organized better than others. Gayle keeps physical file folders for each archive and since many will let you photograph materials, she does, prints them at home, and adds slips of paper with notations on the archive (eg. "Faulkner Box 20, UVA")
5) Interviews - Gayle's project involves over 200 interviews. She started the project 9 years ago using mini discs, which are now unfortunately obsolete. She does not transcribe interviews as it takes too long. Instead, she's developed her own form of shorthand, and she records the interviews in steno notebooks. An interview index (name, date, a few sentences of the important info or quotes) helps her to find the stuff later.

What Gayle does with the "stuff":
She has a big, general outline
- Each decade of her subject's life is a section
- Within each section are individual chapters
- She creates an outline for each section, sub-divides the section, culls all the "stuff" from filing cabinets and the computer files and puts it into files. Also uses post it notes on papers in files to flag things according to the outline. Once it's written, she pulls off the post it notes.
- Each chapter has a title
- Each chapter also has a footer indicating its place in the grand outline (eg. "Part 4, Chapter 6, Draft 12_2011)

The Discussion
Q (to Gayle): When do you get rid of drafts? A: She keeps them all.

Q (to Gayle): How do you manage transitions in the work and know when you've used material or mentioned various people, events, etc? A: Use search/find in the document

Q: How to manage bibliographies? One audience member suggested, which allows you to register, create lists, and export bibliographies and citations in various formats. Other suggestions were citation software like the fee-based EndNote and the free Zotero. Check out Zotero in the notes from the tech class on Citations Made Simple that one of our librarians taught last year.

Q (to Gayle): Do you ever convert the paper research you've acquired to electronic? A: No, there's basically too much photocopied correspondence. Audience members weighed in to suggest easy ways to digitize various files and formats so it can be used electronically. Adobe Acrobat can be expensive, but you can then run optical character recognition (OCR) on the output to make the content searchable. Paper Port software from Nuance was reported to be cheaper than Acrobat. Scanning can be quick and easy too. One audience member recommended her Fujitsu Scan Snap S1300 which is relatively inexpensive and can scan 8-10 pages at a time. It's also possible to purchase attachments for feeding slides for scanning.

Q: Perhaps off the topic for writers, specifically, but how would the audience suggest organizing personal papers? A: Again, much like when you're writing, you should think about the "stuff" and how you'll be using the "stuff". Audience suggested putting some order to it possibly by topic, and then by chronology.

Q: Any suggestions for software to cross-reference material? Writer has been using FileMaker Pro, which she finds difficult to use. Audience did not have alternate suggestions.

Q: Dictation software? A: Many audience members reported having great experiences using the latest edition of Dragon Naturally Speaking, which is very accurate. Another member suggested the add on software Utter Command, a speech command system that works with Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Other audience members recommended OneNote, which according to the Microsoft website is a "note-taking and information-management program where you can capture ideas and information in electronic form".

Please continue to inform the discussion by adding your own comments and suggestions!

These notes were taken with plain old pen and paper and were therefore difficult to decipher and interpret 5 days later. {sigh}

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