Best principles for brainstorming highly ambiguous and complex project

So I’m working on a book right now which will taking hundreds or possibly even thousands of snippets and ideas, and make sense of them in a form which I don’t fully understand yet. The form itself is very ambiguous and unclear.

I need to experiment with various kinds of interrelations, easily reorganize the dimensions along which the snippets are grouped and assembled, and just overall be able to play with many different possible kinds of deep and hidden structures.

Any recommendations for best practices of what I should do in Scrivener with this so that I don’t get overwhelmed and loose many, many threads?

Are there other software tools which I would be wise to use in conjunction with Scrivener for this sort of thing? Thanks!

I am looking forward to reading the replies because I at times have similar issues.
Tinderbox is one program to consider. It has a STEEP learning curve but is supposedly very powerful. It might help you do what you want to do.

Good luck



Paper. No, not the bibliography manager, the stuff made from dead trees. It remains my go-to solution when I’m having trouble getting my head around something.

From there, move to Scapple, which is almost as good as paper, and has the added advantage of edit and zoom features.


I use Papers by 53 on my iPad, using my Apple pencil, instead of physical paper.

I have yet to find an 11 x 17 iPad. And even if one existed, I wouldn’t want to pay for it or haul it around.


You work with very large papers… The 12.9” pro is rather exactly half that size. But then again, almost unlimited in virtual resizing in some apps, like iOS Scapple (if it only existed :frowning: )

Oh my, yes. Definitely paper for me. I once had a roll of beige wrapping paper and laid note cards on it. I put on knee pads and worked with it unrolled on the carpeted basement floor. If I ran out of room I unrolled it some more. A drop of rubber cement would keep the cards in place with the ability to pick them of and move them easily. When I was done it was about twelve feet long. I just taped the cards in place, drew lines connecting them, sometimes with notes on the lines, cut it to length, rolled it up and took it to my desk. I unrolled it and rolled it back up like a scroll to get the data entered in my iMac. Worked great.

The ability to see so much at once is a huge help in sorting things out and getting them laid out in the right sequence. I tend to be too verbose in my outlines. The physical note cards help to curb that tendency. It’s easy to outline from a flow chart like that. It’s also easy to set up a timeline in Aeon Timeline from a chart like that. The timeline is invaluable.


Is there such a thing? One of my published writer friends recently shared that he has been writing longer and longer outlines in Scrivener that gradually morph into the published work. I think a recent one weighed in at over 21,000 words! I’m experimenting with that now and so far, it seems to be working.

There’s an interesting new iPad app called IdeaBoost that might be worth looking into.

Also, DevonThink. This is kind of like your own personal Evernote. It lets you capture, tag and file every idea you have. Fo;ks use it for very complex projects.

In Scrivener itself, you could experiment with a combination of keywords, labels, and collections. (I can’t help you with organizing keywords because I’m trying to figure out my own mess (!).)

A Collection is basically a flexible folder or container. You can create a Collection manually or through a saved search; I prefer to create a Collection manually by dragging found documents into a collection, because I usually want to add/remove files manually to that collection.

So, say you know you’re starting with 10 overarching areas, and you’ve begun tagging documents with these keywords. (I’m using ‘tag’ interchangeably with ‘keyword.’)

You go through and tag a bunch of documents/snippets with Keyword1, Keyword2, etc. Then, you can create a collection called Keyword1 (etc.). And another collection that pulls several keywords together. Or tag documents as “To be filed”… Collections aren’t fixed like folders, they corral documents and documents can be in multiple collections. When you select the Collection’s documents in the binder, you can see them in the usual ways: Corkboard, Outline, Scrivenings. (The manual has a lot of info on how to work with Collections.)

Or, create a collection based on a question/topic, and drag documents into it.

The trick with keywords, I think, is to keep them pared and organized (something I have trouble with). Also, it’s really useful to keep a research log/journal. I have a separate folder, “Research Log,” in which I’ll jot quick notes about what I’ve been working on/researching/pondering. These ideas are from Andrew Abbott’s “Digital Paper : a manual for research and writing with library and internet materials.” (It’s geared toward academic writers.)

You could also get adventurous and layer keywords with labels, using a combination of top-level labels and more fine-grained keywords. Keywords can also be nested, but I haven’t played with this much.

I keep my sources in Bookends, and I have separate Scrivener files for my research/writing process and materials (“Notebook”) and for my draft: so, I collect and process material in one file , and I craft and draft in the other. Edit: Actually, on second thought: for a nonfiction research project, a single Scrivener file could work better (I’m writing fiction now)–then you could use split screens, open another document (for reference or drafting, or notes) in Quick Reference and/or the new copyholders, and draft-brainstorm away in your main document with the others available for reference. Lots of options for having your research, notes and draft all available.

And also definitely paper. :smiley:

Let us know what you decide.