Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May: Tips for Collecting and Organizing Ideas, Part 4 – Organizing Your Thoughts
Image by ecstaticist via Flickr
The hardest part of any project for me is getting my notes and captured thoughts into some sort of usable format. That’s one of the reasons why I like conputerized note-taking systems like Evernote so much – it organizes for me by creating notebooks and allowing me to tag each entry.
But Evernote is only one of many different tools out there for organizing your thoughts. Each tool offers one or more of several key strategies for organizing ideas, so I thought I’d start this last section in this series by outlining some of the main strategies or paradigms for getting your thoughts organized in a useable form.
Strategies for Organizing Ideas
There are several different ways to organize your notes and inspirations for later recall. The ultimate goal is to be able to pull up the ideas you recorded earlier, whenever you need them and with as little effort as possible. This means imposing some sort of order on your material that makes sense to you – unfortunately, there is no single set of “best practices” that’s going to work for everyone. Here are a handful of strategies that might work for you.
The simplest way to organize ideas – or anything else that occurs at various moments over time – is chronologically. You can keep an index card in your pocket, record any thoughts that come to you over the course of the day, jot a date in the corner, and drop it into an index card file at the end of the day before starting a new card. Or you could keep an idea journal, putting ideas down from front to back. Or even keep a single word processor file and add each thought to the bottom as it occurs to you.
The drawback to this kind of organization is that you have to remember when an idea occurred to you in order to find it again. Which isn’t very useful unless you have a mind like a steel trap (as they say) and a memory that goes back with some precision over several years. On the flip side, flipping through your ideas can be an inspiring activity in and of itself, and working chronologically does have the benefit of allowing you to see your ideas progress over time.
If you work a lot on discrete projects, you might keep a file or folder for each project and add each idea to the appropriate place as needed. For example, you might write each new thought on an index card and, upon returning to your desk, drop each card into its respective folder. Or you could start an EverNote notebook for each project and clip notes to that notebook. This has the benefit of keeping everything you need to work on a particular project at your fingertips when you need it most, and out of the way when you don’t. On the other hand, it doesn’t help with ideas that don’t clearly belong to an active or past project, nor with ideas that might be useful in more than one context.
Tagging is the newest thing in taxonomy, and if you use any modern blogging software, photo sharing site, or social media service, you’ve run across it. With tagging, you can assign a set of descriptive keywords to an item, allowing you to find it by browsing through any of the tags associated with it. Tagging eliminates the need to place individual copies of a document in several different folders – the same document can be found through any of the tags you’ve given it.
Several applications use tagging, but for the most part, tagging hasn’t quite hit its stride yet. It’s still difficult, for instance, to tag files on your computer’s file system (though see below for one solution), and no adequate system of scanning files and automatically tagging them has been developed yet. On the other hand, if you stay on the ball, you can produce a very useful set of tags, assigning everything you produce to its relevant project(s) and a set of descriptive terms that you are likely to remember.
With search technology becoming more and more robust, some people have foregone organizing their thoughts altogether, depending on the ability of tools like Google Desktop to find whatever they’re looking for quicker than they could themselves. There are tools that bring this approach to note organization as well, allowing you to dump everything into one central repository and pull out of it what you need using search or visualization techniques. For example, personal wiki software allows you to keep notes and add links on the fly using special formats like CamelCase (phrases squished together with each word capitalized to distinguish it from the words before, as in “CamelCase”) – and some newer wikis will find links between entries automatically.
Some applications for organizing your thoughts while writing
askSam: askSam has been around for years, and is the original freeform database. You can dump just about anything into askSam – including imported documents – and organize it easily in ways that make sense to you. askSam will locate links between various pieces of text and help you find exactly what you’re looking for. And it’s designed to be easy to use for non-technical users. At $150 for the basic version and almost $400 for the Pro version, it’s not cheap, but so many writers swear by askSam that I had to include it here.
The Literary Machine: A free program that whose author calls it a “document compiler”, the Literary Machine is a strange beast that some writers rave about and others loathe with all their hearts. The general idea is that you can dump ideas in and then pull them up and string them together into a final document. It’s not particularly intuitive, so I might be missing great gobs of functionality hidden under the hood; if the LM’s oddness clicks with your own particular brain quirks, you might find it an amazing extension of your thought processes. Otherwise, like me, you’ll pr’y be baffled.
Liquid Story Binder/yWriter 4/Scrivener/Story Mill: These novel-writing apps allow you to organize your ideas by project, with character sheets, setting forms, images, sounds,notes, and all manner of other information. They also feature built-in document editing, so that you work in a wholly self-contained workspace with everything you need a mouse-click or two away. I’ve written about Liquid Story Binder and yWriter on this site; Scrivener and (Story Mill (formerly “Avenir”) are Mac-only and I haven’t used them, but many writers claim they are worth switching to Mac for! yWriter is free; the rest are all commercial software.
TiddlyWiki: TiddlyWiki is designed to be a personal wiki, allowing you to store, search link, and easily update your thoughts, notes, and ideas. The system is a self-contained web page that can open in any modern browser, from any storage medium (which means you can easily run it from a thumb drive, external hard drive, even an mp3 player if it will mount as an external drive on your system). TiddlyWiki is free and very customizable, with themes and plugins such as those at TiddlyTools.
Tag Everything (formerly “Files, Folders, and Tags”): Tag Everything allows you to add tags to files and folders directly in the Windows file system, which means you can easily associate one file with several different projects. It’s not free, but at $30 it’s not terribly expensive, either, and if taging “clicks” with how yur brain works, it’s the only way at the moment to bring tags to your Windows files.
Of course, there are hundreds of other tools that can help you organize your thoughts. I’ve tried here to mention a few of the more representative ones, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts – what software, if any, helps you get your thoughts organized when you write? How do you keep track of all the odd ideas that occur to you throughout the day – once they’re recorded, then what? Let me, and the other readers, know about your system in the comments!