Journalists: how do you organize your notes?
March 7, 2009 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Interview and note organization tips for journalists and non-fiction writers?

Can any Mefite journalist-types suggest methods for organizing interviews and organizing your thoughts for writing long-ish feature articles or books? Or can you point me to some books/resources that have helped you?

When I write non-fiction news feature-ish pieces with lots of interview sources, I feel like my method of note organization and interview organization is flawed, particularly in terms of optimizing time management and helping me find the best quotes.

For my audio files, sometimes I can find what I need by ear, but other times I feel like I need to transcribe the entire interview. My "system"* often consists of color coding text files, pasting into another word document, etc.

To put it simply, I suppose, I'd like some direction in how to make my writing more of a "process" or a "method", rather than a mental tornado.** I've found a few nice suggestions on prior AskMe posts***, but I'd like suggestions which consider not only text or web resources but also audio and written notes from interviews.


*I use this word loosely -- I'm always switching up my game plan, to see what might work better.

**The tornado has worked thus far, but it is unpredictable (time-wise) and I'm wondering if there's a better way.

***For the sake of posterity:
- a vague question about writing a non-fiction book
- tiddlywiki, etc for random snippets of info and also related
- zotero for wrangling up PDF journal sources
- virtual notecards oneand two
posted by NikitaNikita to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not really a journalist, but I was News Editor for my college paper (to warn more against taking any of these as a "sure-fire-technique," it was a small engineering school without a single journalism class or journalist-professor on campus). I can throw out some things that worked with me:

For interviews, if I recorded the interview and want to refer to it or get quotes, my general practice was to listen to the entire thing again (time consuming, I know) and just keep general notes in real time on what we talked about in the interview. When I got to a bit and I knew it was a good quote, I'd go back and play it until I'd gotten it down right (I can remember a sentence or two short-term, so I usually wrote it immediately as it was playing the first time, played again to get the entire thing, and again to check it). Notes helped me organize it with my paper notes.

Bookmarks in papers/books, just like writing a paper for class

If I had a good picture of how the story was going, organize notes by the part of the story they support. If you don't know how the story's going...affinity diagram?

If you want to make your writing more of a process, define a process that you think encapsulates what you do now. Document it (maybe with phases, checklists, scripts, whatever); follow it. When you see a way to improve it, improve it and document it. If you want to predict time based on this process, track your time on each part of the process and track the size/complexity/whathaveyou of the end product, then build a historical database where you can correlate: for a 1,000 word article, it takes you 15 working hours. (I never did this with writing articles (which I hardly do now that I've graduated), but I have started with writing software)
posted by Galt at 11:11 PM on March 7, 2009

I am a lawyer, not a journalist, but we have many of the same needs. I would add:
  • Zoot to collect, parse, and annotate short and long text items, and to use as a functioning document manager to handle external documents
  • MyNotesKeeper to help with writing by using both tabs and its tree-based hierarchy (extrinsic outliner) to organize the draft by its constituent sections.
  • Knowledge of the use of Acrobat's Marquee/Snapshot tool to quickly grab a shot from a PDF file and paste it to the aforementioned MNK and from there to annotate it as needed

posted by yclipse at 5:33 AM on March 8, 2009

Best answer: It sounds like we have similar jobs, NikitaNikita, and this is a topic very dear to my heart... which is NOT to say that I have it figured out - not at all, sadly. So I'll share what tips I think I've accumulated so far, but will also watch this thread like a hawk in the hope of learning new things...

1. This is discussed quite a bit in two excellent books on nonfiction/long-form journalism, The New New Journalism and Telling True Stories. There's also some good stuff in Write Faster Write Better. Somewhere in there you will learn of Ken Auletta's three-ring-binder color-coded cross-referencing system, and John McPhee's index-card system, etc etc.

2. I've long craved a clearer sense of "process" in my notetaking (and at every other stage of the writing process, too) but I've reluctantly come to accept that, for the way my brain works at least, the disorder at the notetaking stage is actually germane to the creative process. There's something about any kind of non-chaotic method that seems to prematurely "fix" the ideas contained in the notes, whereas when it's still chaotic, it's still bubbling and active - a big stew from which a brilliant intro or a clever structure might leap, if you're lucky. For me, the process that makes order out of this chaos is the writing, and any attempt to impose rigorous order prior to that point interferes with the writing. (I think this also why, in this recent thread on Paul Graham's writing methods, I sided with limeonaire and those arguing for an approach to writing that doesn't involve "writing a quick crappy draft first", as so many writing tutors etc seem to suggest - for me, that would be to impose order on the chaos too late in the process. I think of writing as a sausage machine. So I guess my advice would be to try learning to accept the disorder...

3. ...Which doesn't mean you can't impose some gentle sense of order on your notes just to make them navigable, of course. For me the crucial thing is to use one single text file, though for a book-length project presumably you'd have to do one text file per chapter, not for the whole book. This means that I can leap about from place to place in the file. This, in turn, means that I can take notes on my notes, which is crucial. So I organize the big text file into sections as suggested by the research (a section for the notes I took on a specific book, a section for the key quotes I transcribed from an interview with a specific interviewee), but it's also easy to create new sections like "Intro ideas", or "Main areas to include", or "Clever lines to use" (yes, seriously, I'm afraid), which will then feed directly into the outlining and writing stage.

4. On audio, I think a certain measure of over-confidence is called for: listen through, transcribing the quotes you think are important, and don't worry about the fact that subsquent research or reflection may change your feelings about what counts as "important".

5. With flagrant disregard for the environment, I print out my single text file, a lot, so I can take it to coffee shops, read it on the bus, whatever. It helps me to see it in a different form.

I hope some of this helps. I'm not sure how far it addresses your questions on this topic, as opposed to MY questions on this topic. As you might be able to tell, I've fretted about this plenty.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:17 AM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

After your interviews are typed, go through the pages and give each important quote a subject title in caps. Here's an example:

COMPOSING: "I'm never sure where my inspiration will come from. It might be another musician's latest release, a tune that mysteriously pops into my head, or even the dissonant sounds of urban life."

FUTURE PLANS: "Maybe I'll retire in a few years. I just want one more big adventure before I fade from the scene."

This can be particularly helpful when you're sifting through many subjects' interviews for related comments about a particular theme.
posted by terranova at 9:29 AM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I use a Mac program called DevonThink Pro. It is one of those "everything" organizers - it holds web pages, text documents, PDFs, mutimedia, and more - but with many advanced features, like a powerful search function; the ability to create a concordance that actually makes an effective summary of your work; multiple views of your notes, including the ability to create custom smart folders that sort through your stuff without changing your essential structure; and the ability to put the same item in multiple places, so that you can move things around. The Pro version has PDF character recognition, and it does a good job of that.

What I do is put EVERYTHING I collect into Devon. I also create a folder-based outline structure for it. I also create a folder-based outline structure for my writing itself. Then a sort through my stuff, creating "replicants" (similar to aliases) which are those copies of items that can live in more than one folder without changing their actual location (so if I keep all of my interviews in an interview folder, I can also move a replicant of the interview to my Chapter One folder without having to duplicate it or disturb my filed location.)

I create a very detailed outline - right down to the quotes and facts I'll include. One of the Devon view options lets me drag and move stuff around in an unstructured format, which is the text equivalent of an index-card view.

Devon also has a fairly powerful text editor, and I sometimes write in that. But it also has the ability to synchronize with most word processing programs, so that any changes you make outside of Devon to a document in progress will be reflected in Devon.

The program does much more, because it is completely scriptable, and there are many user and developer generated scripts available. The major disadvantage is a formidable learning curve.

My method isn't entirely my own - I adapted it after reading two articles by Steven Berlin Johnson, who uses a similar technique with Devon. Read his thoughts here.

DevonThink has a generous demo program, so if you are a Mac user, you can get a long tryout. I recommended also downloading the PDF manual and printing out and studying it. Keep at it - the results are worth it.

(BTW, my significant other uses a similar Mac program called "Scrivener." It lacks the analyzing and database power of Devon, but is a better tool once the writing gets started - and the learning curve is much lower. If Devon didn't exist, I'd be a Scrivener user.)
posted by soulbarn at 5:50 PM on March 16, 2009

As far as transcribing is concerned, if you have a little patience and some ability to do some minor work with coding, Amazon's Mechanical Turk service will get you fairly accurate, cheap transcriptions. Multiple people work on your interviews, which you can break up into small pieces (for simultaneous processing and speed) or bigger pieces (for ease of later editing.)

Advantages, as I said, are price. Disadvantage is complexity and varied accuracy rate. I'd grade my results as an average B to B-, with a considerable number of A grades. There were a few really bad ones, but since I break the interviews down into small segments that didn't cost a lot, I could live with that. The rates I pay for Turk transcriptions are 35 cents to 50 cents per minute transcribed.

After a while, I ended up finding reliable transcribers who I've begun to use privately. I pay them more, but they do great work, and I still get an excellent deal - usually between 75 cents and one dollar per minute of audio.

Again, this isn't my idea. Andy Baio did it first, and provides detailed instructions here.
posted by soulbarn at 5:55 PM on March 16, 2009

Response by poster: Actually, these are all great answers -- thanks everyone!
posted by NikitaNikita at 3:38 PM on April 7, 2009

Before I slink away (humiliated by the brilliance of the answers far superior to mine), one fairly accurate anecdote about journalists & transcription.

In 1990 a British Cabinet Minister was forced to resign after making an explicit Hitler reference about Germany's control of European monetary policy in an interview with a political magazine.

The senior journalist who had conducted the interview had, apparently, returned to the office, convinced his lengthy, very chatty interview with the minister about trade & industry had just been standard guff with a few edgy observations that might make a decent opening paragraph - but nothing shattering.

There was a temporarily idle intern in the office - so the journalist gave her the deadly task of transcribing the tapes in full - to save himself the trouble of picking out the long quotes he wanted. When he was flicking through the transcript - the hitherto muffled, offhand Hitler quote jumped out. It made the piece - the cover of the magazine - and ended the politician's career.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:50 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

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