Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The joy of text

with 2 comments

Search query

When you’re working on any long writing project, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you’re eventually forced to deal with the problem of information management. In contrast to what a lot of readers might imagine, most writing—at least for someone like me—doesn’t consist of waiting for inspiration to strike while you’re staring at a blank page. A lot of the work and hard thinking has taken place prior to the physical act of writing a first draft, and more will come later, during the revision process. The rough draft becomes a kind of bottleneck through which ideas have to pass to get from one step to the next, and the challenge is less about coming up with good stuff in the moment than about ordering the material that you already have. If you’ve spent three months thinking about a project and six weeks in the actual writing, which isn’t an unreasonable proportion, you’re faced with the task of mapping one collection of thoughts onto another. The first set is amorphous, disorganized, and accumulated over a long stretch of time; the other needs to be set down in some orderly fashion, in a shorter period, and without forgetting anything important. As a result, many of the tools that writers develop to keep their thoughts straight are really designed to enable a lossless transfer of data in the transition between the chaos of conception and the more linear writing stage.

Over time, I’ve come up with various tricks to keep this information under control. The trouble, as with so much else in life, is that the approaches that work well when you’re first starting out don’t always hold up when you graduate to more complicated projects. Early on, for instance, I used hundreds of index cards to plot out my novels, supplemented with handwritten notes and mind maps, on the belief—which I still hold—that the tactile qualities of pen on paper would generate ideas in themselves. Later, as the individual pieces became too numerous to manage, I switched to keeping track of it all in a series of text files. Without thinking too much about it, I began to use TextEdit, the default text editor that comes packaged with my MacBook. And somewhat to my surprise, I’ve realized that I use it more than any other piece of software. For the actual manuscript, I still use Microsoft Word, but for almost everything else, I turn to TextEdit without hesitation. Why? It opens instantaneously when I click on its icon, as opposed to the ten seconds or so that Word takes to boot up, which makes it ideal as a notepad for jotting down quick thoughts. Even for longer writing sessions, its lack of bells and whistles appeals to me for much the same reason that WordStar still attracts loyalists like George R.R. Martin. There’s nothing between me and the words. In fact, I’m typing the first draft of this blog post on it right now.

Notes in TextEdit

But the most interesting use I’ve made of TextEdit is as a kind of filing system for notes. Nearly all of the information I’ve assembled for Astounding, for example, currently lives on one of four text files. One contains general biographical information about John W. Campbell and my other subjects; another consists of notes gleaned from going through 12,000 pages of his correspondence; another holds similar thoughts from reading through four decades of back issues of Astounding, Unknown, and Analog; and the last houses my notes on the hundreds of science fiction stories and novels that I’m reading or rereading for this project. My notes on back issues and stories are arranged chronologically, so I can scroll down and see patterns at a glance, but with the others, I don’t bother with any kind of order: I just type the notes in the first available spot, and I don’t really care where they end up. The result is a set of huge files—the one for biographical details alone is 60,000 words long. But it doesn’t really matter how big it is, because it’s searchable. If I’m looking for a particular piece of information, I just enter a query, either in the search box within TextEdit itself or through Spotlight, which searches the entire hard drive at once. It’s very fast and generally reliable, as long as I know what to look for, and assuming that I was smart enough to peg my notes to some obvious search term in the first place. It’s as if I’ve created a small, highly specialized slice of the Internet that only returns results that have previously passed through my brain.

Needless to say, there are limitations to this approach. My ability to find anything is predicated on my capacity to remember that it exists in the first place, which is harder than it sounds, given the thousands of discrete facts that I need to keep straight for a project like this. Every few months or so, I’ll sit down and read through the whole bulk of my notes in their entirety, which takes several days, just to refresh my memory about what I’ve got. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s arguably better than trying to do the same with handwritten notes. There’s also a real loss when it comes to the physical manipulation of ideas: I still do mind maps and write down ideas in my notebook whenever possible, and I can even do a rough version of shuffling the pieces in TextEdit by copying and pasting chunks of text until they fall into an order that makes sense. (Much of this, I imagine, would be possible in programs like Scrivener, but I prefer my more flexible approach.) A lot of it also depends on how much I can keep organized in my own head. It’s impossible to imagine writing a whole book at once in this fashion, but as David Mamet once said, you eat a turkey one bite at a time. I’m familiar enough with my own attention span to know how much I can handle—usually the equivalent of three chapters or so—at any given moment. So far, it seems to be working pretty well. Taking notes, as I’ve said elsewhere, amounts to a message that you send from the past to the future. And while I still miss my cards sometimes, I’ve found that it’s easier to just text myself.

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2016 at 8:57 am

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for sharing this! I’m still trying to find a way to organize all my notes. Right now everything is spread through various word documents.


    December 8, 2016 at 9:10 am

  2. @Akaluv: I still use Word for almost everything, but it takes more than twenty seconds just to start up on my MacBook, which is much too slow for quick notes.


    December 22, 2016 at 9:09 pm

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