What’s Your Research Work Flow?

The great response to last week’s post about writing groups (I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends) has really gotten me thinking that–in addition to sharing great stories in history–we might do some more talking about the ups and downs, joys and challenges, of writing on this blog.  I sure could use your wisdom and encouragement as I work on my next book proposal…and in return, you can count on whatever modest wisdom and encouragement I can offer on my end.  Writers unite!

So in this spirit of sharing, let’s talk work flow.

After I finished Blood Work, I vowed that I would never again do a major research project without first figuring out a research/writing work flow.  I wrote the draft of Blood Work on my PC and a few months in started using OneNote, which I liked but also found incredibly frustrating at times.  (Notably, that I could not export easily my data and the search function felt a little clunky.)

When the PC died just days before the book was due to my editor (post about that here), I decided to switch to Mac.  The learning curve was huge–and was made worse since I was in the thick of revisions.  Everything I did, computer-organization-wise, felt ad hoc.

Not any more!

So for this latest book, I’m pleased to report that I may have found a work flow!  And of course, it has to have a few cool technological bells and whistles (not surprising to anyone who knows me well…)  But most importantly, I’m seeing how it’s all going to work for me.

I started by doing a lot of research on how other writers and academics organize their work.  This was a really helpful summary of available tools (for Mac users mostly–there has to be something similar for PC users).

It took awhile, but I’m feeling  comfortable using Devonthink Pro as my database (the learning curve is pretty steep).  I’ve reread the manual and have read lots of different web posts by academics who use the program for their research.  This thing is amazingly powerful.  Steven Johnson also has done a good job explaining why the database can be so dang useful:



A few other helpful posts about Devonthink here as well:



I dove into the French Revolution book proposal head-long about a month ago, when the travel for Blood Work started to let up,  I started by rereading some concise histories of the French Revolution.  The first book I read was not available online–so I typed interesting/important snippets from the book into DTP (using a similar approach as Johnson, with a folder for each title and RTF files for various snippets).  Another book was available on Kindle, so I was able to highlight the passages I wanted to retain and then import them into the database, using Amazon’s online page where I can see all of my highlights in one place.

Now a full month into the process, I’m starting to be able to do the artificial intelligence/”see also” cool things that Johnson talked about.  But more important, I’ve moving closer to a better understanding of where I want to go with this project.

As I take notes, I’m careful to input the full bibliographical reference into Zotero, along with a hotlink to the Devonthink folder where I am keeping the snippets from the book.  In each snippet reference, I add the short citation {Smith, 2010, 12-15} that I’ll need when I write and, later, create a bibliography using Zotero.

As I read/import snippets, I’m keeping a file in DTP called “Brain Dump”.  That’s where I put random think-aloud notes, along with a DTP link to the snippet that got me thinking about whatever I was thinking about for later reference.

At the end of my research sessions, I then head over to Dr. Wicked Write or Die and set the goal for 500 words.  I then dump those words into Scrivener, which I will use as my writing platform once I get a bit farther along on the concept/narrative structure for the book.

I’ve been really surprised to see just how long it -doesn’t- take to get those words out.  Granted, right now most of those words are think-aloud about where I am on honing the topic.  But the process has allowed me to see that there are many more puzzles in this project that I first noticed.  And I’m delighted by this.

All of this probably sounds much more complicated than it is really is, if you’re not familiar with these programs.  But believe me, a little organization goes a long way (no, HUGE way) toward moving this project along and putting together what I hope my editor will see as one fantastic book proposal.

Eager to hear your thoughts!

  • http://www.historyinthemargins.com Pamela Toler

    Thanks for posting this, Holly. I’m a big believer in Write or Die and Scrivener, but hadn’t yet made the leap to replacing my beloved legal summary pads with computerized research tools. So many choices!

  • mark

    Old-school Unix/Linux tools, everything in text files. Text files are small and easily searched with grep and other utilities. Small file size means creating backups is simple to the point that you’ll actually do it. Vi editor is blazingly fast once you learn a a few of the keystroke commands — the learning curve is steeper than other options, but once you get the hang of the basics, you can just fly because your hands never leave the keyboard. LaTex will produce typeset-quality output which can be easily converted to .pdf for printed copy. Can’t beat ‘em.

    If you’re running a Mac, all of this stuff is accessible through the Terminal utility.

  • http://heidenkind.blogspot.com/ heidenkind

    I tried Scrivener a few months ago for a huge term paper I was writing. What a nightmare! Admittedly, I hadn’t used the program before; but it lost all my citations transfering between my laptop and Mac, and I spent the whole day before the paper was due–which I was planning to use to finish it up and edit it–going through and trying to remember what citation went where for what. UHG. Horrible.

  • Dannyn Q~P

    Here is a link that I found that has tons of apps for Mac and for Windows. I think that your post is the single thing that is going to get me off my intellectual arse and actually start writing, instead of sitting around thinking about how to go about it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


  • http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/ Kristen Nawrotzki

    Workflow – now that’s something a lot of us are struggling with when it comes to choosing and using multiple digital tools effectively. We’ve been having a discussion on the methods and means of writing history using digital tools over at http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/, and we’d love for you all come have a look and contribute your ideas about workflow and tools, joys and frustrations, and just what effect any/all of this has had on the way you write, publish, teach, and think about history.
    –Kristen Nawrotzki, co-editor with Jack Dougherty of Writing History in the Digital Age. Under contract with the University of Michigan Press. Web-book edition, Trinity College (CT), Summer 2011.

  • Joy Lintelman

    I’m experimenting with a trial of Devonthink and with Zotero, both new to me. You talk about hotlinking your bib reference in Zotero to DT. How is this done?

  • Pingback: What’s Your Research Work Flow? | Jo VanEvery

  • thorn

    i’d love to know your file-naming scheme. do you just name each ‘snippet’ the short citation? i do understand correctly, do i not, that each rtf ‘snippet’ is a separate file in your schema?

  • boris

    Good post – will just say, no-one should ever change their workflow (much less to a new platform) in the critical stages of finishing a project.

    DTP and Scrivener both suffer from one-person-shop quirks that never get fixed, but both powerful tools.