Tools for thinking, writing, and sorting a writer's notebook
October 9, 2010 10:44 PM   Subscribe

John Mcphee wrote about a nifty custom word processor in Wired 7.01 that allowed him to code his notes and reassemble them by topic. What other cool, specialized word processors do you know about?

I'm familiar with the qualitative research software Nvivo for social scientists, Devonthink, which author Steven Johnson is a big fan of, and Scrivener. Are there other word processors that allow one to code and sort their notes? Bonus points if they work in OS X.

Here's the original quote:

Wired 7.01: The Wired Diaries: "John McPhee: I don't use WordPerfect or Word. I have Howard. Howard Strauss. He wrote a program - an editor, created for IBM mainframe programmers to use at home on their PCs - to imitate what I do when organizing my work. And if Howard Strauss leaves Princeton, I do too. I used to type up my notes, and I'd have 150 pages of notes and the only organization they'd have is the order through time in which I scribbled them. I would make a Xerox of the whole set, code them all, then assign each note to one or more sections in the structure of my story. I would then literally cut the notes apart with scissors and put the whole thing in 36 separate manila folders. Then when I'd pick up envelope number one, I could forget the other 35. The purpose of all this mechanistic monkeying around was that it freed me to write. Now, I still type up my notes myself. But what Howard did was write a program where the machine chews it all up and reassembles it automatically. One file becomes 36 files, each with its own new name."
posted by mecran01 to Education (12 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm...there's always the low-level (er...) software like Emacs which will let you do pretty powerful stuff. Maybe not exactly what you're looking for. There's also Tex, very useful for mathematicians and scientists and etc.

You know, you can do this kind of file manipulation pretty easily with Unix CLI sorts of tools, assembling and deconstructing files with all sorts of patterns. But, again, not sure if this is quite what you are interested in...
posted by dubitable at 10:57 PM on October 9, 2010

I bookmarked a whole bunch of this software for organising and analysing notes recently. Haven't had a chance to experiment. Some will be less what you are looking for than others. Most is free software, and most is multi-platform, because those are important features for me:

Basket Note Pads
Note Lab

And various collections of links to other similar software.
posted by lollusc at 11:45 PM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also maybe look at orgmode for emacs.
posted by lollusc at 11:47 PM on October 9, 2010

The specific apps discussed may be deceased (or more advanced than described), but the About This Particular Outliner series is, at the least, useful background reading.
posted by caek at 1:32 AM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the Windows environment, Zoot is a program which can do this, and much more. The current official version is 5, but it is now in the late stages of a beta version 6 which has many of the functions of DevonThink Pro, but offers much more.

In general, using a tree-based organizer (an extrinsic outliner) to write gives you a lot of control and accessibility to the draft and all of its component parts while you are working. Examples are Treepad, WhizFolders and MyNotesKeeper.
posted by yclipse at 4:37 AM on October 10, 2010

Xywrite is (or was) the stuff of legend. Its descendant, Nota Bene is aimed primarily at academics. The former is DOS, the latter Windows.
posted by O9scar at 7:54 AM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ulysses is similar to scrivener.

Also, this question reminds me of a long discussion on boingboing.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:43 AM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

One note about Scrivener -- Version 2.0 will be released by the end of October and it seems to have a number of enhancements in the way you can use/move around notes. See this blog post on the Literature and Latte website for details.

As you're aware, note-taking programs like DEVONthink Pro, Evernote, Yojimbo, and MacJournal can also be really powerful ways to organize/reorganize your thoughts. That said, many of them fall short as dedicated word processors and -- if the writing and not the organizing is your primary focus -- they probably won't be full featured enough for your use. However since many of them have a free trial, I think it makes sense to at least take a look.

And since you're Mac based, I thought it might be worth pointing out that many OS X applications are AppleScript/Automator enabled. From a writer's standpoint, this may be a really desirable solution: It allows you to do your work in an environment that you enjoy and gives you the best creative flow, while coming up with a small program that slices-and-dices it up afterwards.... and it's certainly consistent with the John McPhee/Howard Strauss approach! If you're interested in this approach, let me know and I'll post more info about how to get started.
posted by Veritrope at 12:10 PM on October 10, 2010

posted by Jasper Fnorde at 7:46 AM on October 11, 2010

Ah Tinderbox. I own it. So tempting, so beautiful, but a learning curve as steep as the Swiss Alps!
posted by mecran01 at 4:35 PM on October 11, 2010

Does anyone know if org mode will work with aquamacs?
posted by mecran01 at 8:26 AM on October 12, 2010

I emailed Cory Doctorow about the earlier thread in this post, and he wrote me back almost immediately! He actually has a perl script for taking all of his coded notes and throwing them into a clickable cloud: Extreme Geek.
posted by mecran01 at 10:26 AM on October 29, 2010

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