In all my writing work, my notes come almost entirely from printed books, so the biggest challenge for me has been getting them into digital form so that I can manipulate them to begin with. Typing them in has always resulted in bouts of RSI, and even though I type fast, it’s tedious. I finally bought a MacBook Pro, and can now run Windows on Bootcamp. This means I can use Dragon Naturally Speaking, the only really decent voice recognition software I’m aware of. (Nothing on the Mac comes close enough to even be usable - it’s like magic.) I read out all the passages I’ve underlined in the book. This I can do as I read the book, but usually do afterwards, leafing through the pages to locate the sections I underlined while reading on the subway or in a cafe. My own thoughts I put in brackets. I use Windows’ basic text editor, whose name I forget at the moment, but it comes with XP.
What I wind up with is an RTF file that I move over to a folder on my Mac partition dedicated to all the notes for my book project. I then import it into Scrivener. This is all very well in cases where I just need a digest of the book, but the full document can be anywhere from 1000 to 8000 words long, so it’s not always practical to work from that when I’m looking for specific quotes or anecdotes that I want to drop into my own writing. Compounding that is the fact that I’m using several dozen books as sources, so even a Spotlight search in Scrivener can be unmanageable.
My solution for this came from a long discussion with other Scrivener users in another topic. Basically, I wanted to divide the long files of notes from each book into bite-sized passages, and I needed to be able to tag them using a pretty extensive list of tags. I wanted to be able to quickly survey all the passages pertaining to certain themes (in the case of this book, Britain, paganism, Romanticism, etc.) even if those words didn’t appear in the passage itself. I wanted it to work something like an old-fashioned, cross-referenced index-card system, but without all the duplicate cards. So I bought the notebook software Mori, which is nicely minimal but with lots of plug-ins if you need 'em, and fast, and copied the snippets to a notebook dedicated to this project. Then, I go through and tag them as appropriate. The source of the passage goes in the comment field of each note’s metadata.
This has turned out to be a lot less time-consuming than I thought it would be. The only real time-suck is the dictating, but it’s so much faster than anything else I’ve tried, including typing, that I’m OK with it. Now, as I’m writing along in the main document and I think “It would be good to include an anecdote or quote here to illustrate how X dominated his brother,” I just pop over to Mori, search on the brother’s name, and every snippet that includes that name or is tagged with his name is instantly at my fingertips and very easy to rifle through, much like those index cards.
I write about books for a living, and while I won’t often need something like Mori to manage my notes for shorter pieces, I do hope to store most of my notes for each piece digitally in the future. I currently have stacks of the old steno notepads I used to carry around with me to write down thoughts and page citations as I read. They worked fine during the week or so that I was writing the review, but all the information stored in them is essentially inaccessible now. That’s a shame since I’m sure if I created a DevonThinkPro database of all that stuff I could use it while writing pieces in the future. An example: While reading a history pertaining to the early church leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I came upon the tidbit that one of the church fathers tried to pass a law requiring women to wear veils in public. This came in handy when I was trying to make a point in another piece about Islam a few months later, observing that religious reform movements are not necessarily liberal in spirit. For that stuff, I’ve have to rely on my own crappy memory and hope that I can find it in the original source (if I still have it around) and that all this won’t take too much time.
One thing I am using Mori for apart from the current book project is to create a version of the old commonplace book of miscellaneaous interesting quotations and notes. Mori kind of utilitarian for that sort of thing, and it would be nice to have something prettier like Circus Ponies Notebook, but that seems a little extravagant. Maybe when I get the next installment of my advance!