How to organize research: My Rube Goldberg method and how it is evolving

I have finished two novels and two works of non-fiction, all of which required extensive research, and interviews, and I still don’t know how to organize all that information so it is accessible when I need it. I take voluminous notes, and then end up trying to keep everything in my head. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work too well.

So, as I contemplate writing yet another novel, I am daunted by the prospect of hours of research, and then hours of sorting through it to find what I need. For A Suitable Husband, for example, my notes were all over the place, some on the computer, some on the back of grocery receipts, some in the books that I owned, which I festooned with yellow stickers.

At one point, I decided to type up all my notes, and organize them by topic. That was a major project. I got a 3 ring binder and divided it into sections by topic, made ring holes in my papers (every step takes time!) inserted them into the binder, and then added copies of articles printed from the Internet, as well as copies of pages from library books. This proved somewhat effective, but not in proportion to the time it took to accomplish. However, when I needed to recall information about a certain topic, ie, the Labour Bund, or Hashomer Hatsair, or even, Polish anti-Semitism, I had someplace to look for guidance.

The problem was that I’m pretty sure I lost a lot in this process. My notes, themselves, were too sketchy. Sometimes I jotted down a page number along with a few words to recall what was there, but months later, it was all a blur. Sometimes the notes actually belonged in any number of binder sections, or none of them, and I’d have to read through everything to find them, which was inefficient. I ended up rereading sections of books over and over, attempting to find something that I remembered was there, somewhere.

At another point, I’d tried to organize information on Word, but that turned out to be a time consuming, confusing effort. Word is great for typing documents, even a manuscript, but not so much for organizing research. Every doc opens separately, has to be assigned a folder, named in a way that you can recognize. It’s hard to keep lots of documents open at the same time and see what’s in a folder. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe there are ways to do all these things in Word, but I never figured it out.

And then I wondered, how did Michener do it? Or Follett? Or any of the other historical fiction authors I admire? I looked into it, and it turns out they have assistants! And, in the case of Michener, an enormous study with walls covered with cork-boards full of information. I have no assistant. I work in a corner of my den. There are no walls available for cork-boards. No secretary with a desk outside a spacious office. I needed another approach.

So I bit the bullet and decided to research how to organize research. After days of trying and rejecting a number of solutions, I found Scrivener. I’m using it right now! It’s a program that was designed with authors in mind. It’s set up so you can type documents, kind of like Word, but it puts them in binders and it’s easy to go from one to the other. You can import and export your Word docs as well as pages from the Internet, so everything is together. I am still pretty new at it, and only understand how to use the most rudimentary functions, but so far I really like it and it gives me some hope for the future. I have a few projects going simultaneously, and it’s easy to move from one to the other.

There is still the problem of the best way to take notes and organize them, but this tool makes it much easier. And for my next novel, I am going to start with a much more detailed outline of the characters and the plot. I think that, in itself, will help with organizing the research, as the chapters can each have their own research section. It’s a bit of a work in progress, but it’s a good foundation.

I have to believe other writers, or even college students, struggle with the same issues. If you have any thoughts on the best way to organize research, please share them!

4 thoughts on “How to organize research: My Rube Goldberg method and how it is evolving

    • They have a free trial, 30 days (of actual use, not consecutive). There is a video on the Literature and Latte website, where it’s sold, that gives the basics and is useful.
      Let me know what you think!

  1. I have not tried it, but some recommend evernote.
    Back in the days of DOS, and Win 3.1 there was a wonderful program called Memory Mate. But it worked only with FAT drives and parallel printers. I have never seen an updated version. I wish I knew a good programmer. With modern computers and Windows, and a mouse, this thing would kill.

  2. I’ve had the same problem–research and notes all over the place. I’ve heard of Scrivener, but haven’t tried it. Maybe it’s time…

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