Biographers - help, please!

(Not sure if this is the correct forum; if not, please feel free to move it, Keith.)

I’m writing a biography, and the project I’m using is becoming a maze of files and folders and subfolders. Biographers, how do you use Scrivener - do you have separate projects for, say, archive material, etc?

I’m not a biographer, but I’ve done research and writing in history. I put all my research material in Devonthink. I started with Scrivener, but like you I found that it got a little cramped when the project grew to a certain size and complexity. Now, I would use Scrivener only for the actual writing, perhaps only importing research materials that I need to refer to constantly (or linking to them, while keeping them in Devonthink).


Tell me about this Devonthink, please.

Sure – it’s a program that you will often hear mentioned on these forums, as a lot of people find it useful for handling very large research projects when these get unwieldy in Scrivener.

You might like to think of it as being like the Research folder in Scrivener’s Binder, but with very extended capabilities. You can import all sorts of files into Devonthink (text, .doc, rtf, images of all sorts, pdfs, etc), and arrange them in sub-folders as you like. You might think that this sounds like what you do in the Finder, or in Scrivener’s Binder. But there are two big differences: 1. Devonthink creates an index of any text in the items that you import; 2. It is very easy to get items to appear in more that one folder at the same time.

What does this mean? In the first case, Devonthink uses the index and its artificial intelligence to find items that are similar, and will give you suggestions of where it might be best to file an item (because it will be with other items that are on a similar subject). Even if you do not want to file the item in the same place, you are presented with a list of items that you may want to look at because they seem to deal with something similar. In other words, the program helps you to sort your research material, or to find associated items when you need them.

In the second case, it helps to solve that old problem of “where do I put this file?” If you have an article that is about Freud, but is also about Lacan, do you put it under the first, or the second? In Devonthink, it can be under both of them, and also under psychoanalysis, and any other categories that you can think of simultaneously.

This is a very crude summary of a sophisticated piece of software. It would probably be a good idea to visit their website to get a bit more of an idea of what it can do: … index.html

They have a forum, which will also give you information about how people use the program. It would also be worth your while to do a search on these forums for Devonthink – you will get a lot of hits and further ideas about its use.

A couple of hints: the artificial intelligence does not work well until you have done a certain amount of organisation of your data by hand. As you are doing that, the program is building a picture of how your material is organised (e.g., anything with the word “Freud” in it seems to go under “psychoanalysis”, so it will begin to learn that). Second, I’ve noticed in my own case that I move the material around inside Devonthink as I gain a better understanding of the material, and I begin to perceive themes emerging from the material. In other words, the program actually helps me to understand the material, and is capable of gradually morphing with it at the same time as it is shaping it.

In short, to a lot of people it is a very valuable tool, though it can feel a bit confusing at first. Don’t be put off right at the beginning: it will take a little while to investigate the program and find out what it can do.

If you need any more information, I’ll try and provide it.

Best, Martin.

Devonthink sounds good - though one of the things I like about Scrivener is being able to see my research right there when I’m writing, split the screen to get at it, and so on. Surely using Devonthink takes away this advantage?

I may try it, though; at the moment I’m crumbling under the weight of folders and subfolders and files, and they seem to be slowing the Scrivener project somewhat. (It’s also difficult to have to leave the project and pick it up again when I need to earn some money for food and the like; it would be good to have it better organised.)

There are three price models: personal, professional and professional office - as a user, which did you choose, and why?

I took the professional office, for its ability to store e-mail and OCR documents.
If those are not needs of yours, the pro level will be sufficient.
What’s important is the variety of documents you wish to store.
See this file for a comparison chart: … rison.html
Although it may seem awkward to work in two programs,
These two connect effectively.
You may place in Scrivener a “cross-link” to a particular DTP file.
Clicking on that link brings up the relevant document.
Also note, an educator discount is available on all DT products.

I agree that there are advantages in having everything in Scrivener – but as you are discovering there are serious disadvantages as well. If you have a lot of research material it can get too much for Scrivener to handle comfortably. To some extent you can mitigate the disadvantage of having to use two different programs. For example, if you have a large enough screen you can place the windows so that you can see Scrivener and Devonthink at the same time – not ideal in my opinion, but needs must when the devil drives. Alternatively, you can set up links in Scrivener that go direct to a file in Devonthink, or you can drag a file out of Devonthink and into Scrivener when you need it, and delete it from Scrivener (leaving it in Devonthink) when you have finished with it for the time being. Another technique is to work out what material you are going to need for a particular section of your writing (a single chapter, for example) and import all of that from Devonthink into Scrivener while you write it, deleting it from Scrivener later. This can be quite useful because you use Devonthink for doing what it does best (finding associated material and sorting it into folders) and you cut out all the distractions while you are writing by only having in Scrivener material that is directly relevant to what you are writing at that moment. No system is perfect, however. If we could have some sort of combination of Scrivener and Devonthink in a single program it would be great, but I don’t think it will happen soon.

I used Devonthink Pro for a while, and I only upgraded to Pro Office because I have a lot of pdfs, some of which do not have the text layer. Pro Office has an OCR engine, so it will process those pdfs and insert the text, so that they are then searchable. You can also scan documents and OCR them as you import them. If you don’t have those requirements, DT Pro would probably be good enough for you.

As I say, there are advantages and disadvantages in using DT, but when you get a project of the size of the one I have just finished, using Scrivener for all the research material is not really feasible. To give you an idea, it has 3.1 million words, 565 folders (or groups, as DT calls them), 622 images, 918 rtf files, and 494 pdfs. Scrivener is bloody marvellous, but I wouldn’t want to try and keep track of all that in its research folder, and write in it as well.

BTW, DT Pro has some very good search tools: you can, for example, search for a word that occurs NEAR another specific word – you can even look for a word only when it occurs within ten (or three, or twenty, etc) of another specific word. Clipping material from the net is also quite good.

I can only suggest you give it a try, and see if it answers your needs. Best of luck with the research and writing,

Oh, and in my experience, organising the material is always the big problem in non-fiction writing. Anything that helps with that is a boon.

Hm, you’re selling it well, Martin. I’ll give it a try.

(Organising the material is also my bane in fiction writing, as I tend to say “Oh, shoot, he wouldn’t have been that passive” and rewrite a scene, and then have the old version and the new in different folders, and… and…) Main reason I find fiction so difficult.

I hope you find a solution that suits you. I’d just say that it took me a little while to get used to Devonthink – you may pick it up more quickly, but it’s a big program with a lot of stuff to learn. And remember that the artificial intelligence won’t be much use to begin with: more like artificial stupidity, really. It needs to “learn” for a while, and to help it do that it is useful to arrange your documents by hand into groups with a strong theme (everything on Freud goes in the same folder, everything on Lacan in another, etc). The forums on their website are useful.

Best wishes, Martin.

There’s actually a fourth variant called DevonNote, which I used to use before Scrivener came along. It’s the least featured and cheapest version but still quite useful.
I’m interested to hear about how Devon works for you because I, too, am immersed in a biographical project. for now, i’m using the Finder to organize our voluminous research material, and scrivener to draft each chapter, as I would do with a nonfiction article. We decided early on to organize the book chronologically, with a few exceptions, so I’m hoping the finder will be sufficient for organizing the material. Eve tidbit gets filed in a folder corresponding to the year of my subject’s life in which we’ll discuss it. I’m also tagging each item with keywords, or just making duplicate entries, when I expect to need that material in more than one place. So ideally, a spotlight search should be enough. So far this system is working for me, but I hope you’ll post your experiences with Devon and whatever else you use with scrivener so we can all learn from your experience, good luck!

Chronologically sounds good, Brett; however, the ‘display’ chapter, if you like, is about firing squads, and I’m trawling archives and libraries and in contact with various people by email - the research for this chapter alone is bulging.

Firing squads!? You’re not working on the First World War, by any chance? I ask because I have just finished a major project on it. (But nothing about firing squads in it.)

In my experience, things get a bit more tricky when one has to work thematically, or mix the thematic approach with chronological. And even purely chronological can have its problems: how to deal with simultaneous events is one of my favourite headaches. One of them always has to go first your the text. When I have to deal with themes, I always find myself turning to mind maps, usually on paper.

Best, Martin.

Boy, I can attest to the simultaneity trap! My subject was doing three extremely important things all at the same time in the 1930s. We puzzled for weeks and several drafts about how to handle that, because each thread needed extended discussion, and then we had to explain how they interacted. Being able to write in Scrivenings really facilitated the process of moving bits around until we found the best compromise. That was probably the single biggest structural challenge of the project, so far at least. Fortunately, his life was a little more linear after that!
I’m not sure how mind map or Devon would have helped, though, which only shows that I don’t fully understand or appreciate their potential. So I’d appreciate hearing how other scriveners use those tools to deal with this sort of situation, which I imagine a number of us face. Maybe I’m turning the thread into less of a technical support matter and more of a Usage Scenario, though.

The thread should probably be in another part of the forum, I guess. But thanks to Keith et al for hosting it.

I’ve had to describe battles in which things are happening in different parts of the battlefield at the same time: when you find yourself writing “meanwhile” for the fifth time, you realise that it’s wearing rather thin. It’s when simultaneous events in different places begin to affect each other that it really gets unmanageable.

Mind maps are good because they allow you to see all of the simultaneous events on one sheet of paper at the same time, and you can draw links between them to show relationships. Have a look at any of the books by Tony Buzan, e.g. … 730&sr=1-2

You will find lots of very interesting ideas about how to organise and structure thoughts and information.

Best wishes, Martin.

I’m working on the Easter Rising, Mbuntu, which you might say is part of the Great War, as hundreds of thousands of the Irish Volunteers joined the British Army (and were slaughtered) at the onset of the war, and the Rising took advantage of the fact that Britain was at war to strike for Irish freedom.

I’d love to pool any information, though my pool is small - send me a PM if you’re interested.