Author Steven Johnson describes what software he uses to write his books, including an insanely useful research database for the Mac, DEVONThink Pro ($79, Mac only).
DEVONThink is a desktop document database, where you can save snippets of web pages, PDF’s, and any other kind of document. Its killer feature is its ability to determine which documents deal with similar subject matter based on the frequency of the words that appear in them. More powerful than just a regular keyword search, when you’ve got a DT database of thousands of documents, this relationship ranker helps you connect ideas you may not on your own.
Back in 2005, Johnson inspired me to try out DEVONThink, and I used it to put together the first edition of the Lifehacker book. Here’s what my database at that time looked like:
You can see in the left pane that the “Lifehacker book” folder contains one subfolder per chapter. Johnson described months of collecting bits of research and dropping them into DT, then using that research as a starting point for his manuscript. For me, already-published blog posts were my research. So I exported my blog’s post database, wrote a couple of scripts that massaged the files for use in DT, and dropped them in. From there I set up my chapter folders, and dragged and dropped the items I’d use for those chapters into the corresponding folders.
Like Johnson, I used a small percentage of the posts I’d written–you can see above that almost 4,500 items went unused in the “post archives” folder. But like Johnson said, starting out with a big database of research and piecing it all together is a LOT more practical than staring at a blank page when you start writing your book. Here’s Johnson’s post at BoingBoing, How to write a book, and here are more details on how I turned the Lifehacker blog into a book. Here’s a gallery of screenshots of DEVONThink in action for the Lifehacker book.
As far as I know, there’s no true DEVONThink equivalent for Windows. DT’s ability to detect relationships between documents is an area ripe for someone like Evernote to develop something similar for Windows users.
You should definitely check out Scrivener. It looks like DEVONThink, but is focused on writing projects.
Congratulations on Smarterware!
I (for one) would be interested in the scripts you used to bring the blog posts into DT. Any chance of an “addendum” to this post? 😉
Just found you through a twitter message. Unfortunately I don’t own a mac, so what I do is to use celtx which is multi-platform, and although intended for movie scripts it is also a great tool to organize a project.
I discover your new blog on twitter.
I haven’t a Mac. I’m on linux and I use Zotero to organize papers, books and articles on my pc. Tags help me to do the rest.
Gina, great to see your new site! I’m writing my first book and have been trying Evernote, but I don’t know if it is the right thing for me.
Looks like something worth a try. I’d be interested to see if a newer version has post import built in without scripting.
That looks like a truly helpful piece of software. Maybe it’s time for me to finally get a Mac.
Hi Gina, I second the request for the scripts you used to massage text into your DEVONthink database.
In particular, are there any scripts that can chop up a big text file into smaller chunks that are better suited to being read by DEVONthink’s semantic algorithm?
Another question: Do you create a separate, new database for each new project? Or do you keep everything in one massive Outboard Brain-style database?
I’m curious if you’ve tried the newest version of DEVONthink that’s just been released (version 2.0), and if it’s any better. I used the previous version for a while, but ended up ditching it for a homebrewed notes orginization setup.
And I’ll also second the recommendation for Scrivener. It’s a mighty fine piece of software.
Hi Gina: Do have any posts/suggestions/tips/guidelines on writing blog entries and articles?