Finally! A Way to Organize Research!
Write On! Roundup #5
A special thank-you to for this week’s Roundup question, because it prompted me to actually find a solution to my own research mess. I’m very excited about it, as I hope you’ll read below.
Question: How do you organize volumes of research material on your computer? I’m using tags, but all those files feel unwieldy. Using Word, keep debating trying out Scrivener.
Answer: Boy, do I feel you! I’ve been subject to research rapture my whole writing life. Even when writing fiction, I need research to ground me in the settings and situations reflected in my stories. But the real research challenge kicks in when I write nonfiction, especially when I ghostwrite books that require scrupulous footnotes and reference tracking. I just happen to be starting a new one of those projects now.
All that said, until this week, I never had a failsafe system for organizing research. Over the years, I’ve tried to do my own indexing. I’ve kept notebooks of printed sources. I’ve created libraries by topic. I’ve filed references according to their topics, my use of them, their dates, their authors, etc. etc. Nothing ever stuck, in part because I could never figure out a way to cross-reference, and almost every source contained multiple useful references. Worse, my sloppiness would send me into a panic of mad rummaging whenever I had to figure out where I got a particular quote or factoid for the copy editor or fact checker. I’ve also kicked myself for not keeping better records when trying years later to locate a source from a particular book project.
For my new project, I started a doc excitingly titled “LINK LIST master for research sources,” with links sorted by subject. And that would have been fine for the proposal, but it was not going to cut it for the whole book. I needed to capture the actual citations, preferably in APA Style, and add them to the manuscript as endnotes from the start; otherwise I’d have to spend eons on donkey work at the end of the project to properly cite my sources. Just like I did on my last big nonfiction book.
On that project I tried to use EndNote, which some on my team had recommended, but nothing about it seemed intuitive. It had too many bells and whistles going off in directions I didn’t need. I could not figure out where my sources were stored or how to get back and forth between them and my doc. And it was ridiculously expensive just to get connected.
For a couple of other projects I tried Scrivener, which has real value for developing ideas, tracking characters, planning plots, and generally assembling the pieces of a book — if you want an online system that functions like a humongous and very complicated bulletin board. And if your brain works like that. Mine doesn’t, at least not when I get to the actual writing of the book. Scrivener is designed to replace Word during the composition process. I needed a system that dovetails with Word.
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