What’s the best way to keep notes for your writing project?

One of the most important things I learned early on in grad school was to simply keep my notes. All of them. Because, at some point, I’m going to remember a keyword that could lead me to an important quote … if I can find it.

Finding it is usually the problem. Past Rebecca was good about making notes, but she also tended to write them longhand. Take a look here – these are my notes from my independent study course on Jack the Ripper’s victims from way back in 2011. The box is full. That’s a lot of information. And at least it’s divided by subject, with sources up front, and at least Past Rebecca had neat handwriting, but … that’s not the easiest thing to search. It’s a nice physical representation of the research that went into that paper, which turned into my first conference presentation and then my first book. Still, it’s not very user-friendly.

At the time I wasn’t thinking about future projects or what all it might become. I was focused on getting through the semester, so it was all fresh in my head. I hadn’t yet made the shift to thinking long-term. What if I want to come back to it? What if I have a vague memory of a certain phrase from a certain book? At least all the cards are labeled by source, but …

Digital. Digital is your friend. Digital is how you make sure Future You doesn’t curse your name.

IMG-1578Oh, I still print things off. Here’s my notebook that I worked from while writing Ripper’s Victims. You can see some of my quirks – teeny font, two columns, printed sideways and then stuck in sheet protectors so I can scribble over it with markers. I find it’s easier to have the pages sitting by my laptop when I’m working on that specific section, and if you know me, you know I love my colored pens.

But all of the files with notes from all of those books on my shelf – over 100 of them – are saved in a single folder on my computer, and there’s that lovely search function. Now when I just know someone called Mary Jane Kelly an “Amazon queen,” I can type the phrase in and pull it up, no sweat. (Cullen, Autumn of Terror, 1965, page 166: “It was among such flotsam that Mary Kelly drifted on Thursday night, 8 November, borne along by the tide, yet remaining aloof, as befits an Amazon Queen.” Boom.)

And they’re saved in multiple places, too. I’ve got the printed version as a sort of fail-safe, but it’s also on my computer and in the cloud and on a USB stick. Part of taking the time to make the notes is also making sure you won’t ever have to repeat the same task again.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I won’t ever go back to the books themselves. When I took these notes, I took them for a very specific project, with that project’s focus. Even trying to narrow things down like that, I’ve got a very full binder. But, if I want to look at a different angle of the same topic … I’ll probably have to go back to the books and compile more notes with the new research question in mind.

Digitally, of course. I have to look out for Future Rebecca’s research needs.

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