Saturday, February 14, 2009

An Archipelago of Inspiring Quotes

I have mentioned Steven Berlin Johnson before.[1] In a recent post at BoingBoing, he describes how he wrote his latest books. with DevonThink. Basically, it's a three-step process
  1. "The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting ... This goes on for months and months"

  2. "In the last stage before I actually start writing, I create a little folder in Devonthink for each of the chapters. And then I ... read through every single little snippet that I've uncovered over the past year or so of research. And as I'm reading them ... I just drag them into the chapter folder where I think they will be most useful"

  3. "Devonthink has a wonderful feature where you can take the entire contents of a folder and condense it down into a single text document. So that's how I launch myself into the actual writing of the book. I grab the first chapter folder and export it as a single text document, open it up in my word processor, and start writing. Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I'm looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes."

"Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands."

I am not sure that thinking of writing as building bridges between islands of "inspiring quotes" is the way to go—at least not for academic and other more philosophical writing. Thinking through the "stuff" of which one's research is constituted is more painful than that, as it involves making new islands out of old ones and the inspiration that comes from quotations usually turns out to be inspiration for fundamental criticism. This would take place mainly during what he describes as the second step, and makes for the difference between mere collection of information and note-taking. At a minimum, collecting is classifying, and classification must be more than simply determining what snippet goes into which chapter.

Still, the way Johnson describes the first and the last step is inspiring, if only because what he says about DevonThink can just as easily be done in ConnectedText.

1. I guess Lyrical Connections between Ideas are like "bridges between islands" of "inspiring quotes."

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