Looking for software to organize research for non-fiction book
December 9, 2022 7:07 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing my first book (non-fiction) and I will have dozens of sources I need to keep track of as well as outlines/brainstorming stuff. What do I need? What is the best approach to organization?

RIght now I have dozens of bookmarks in my browser, a folder full of photos and junk, and a Word document. This is not sustainable.

The book is about historical events but it's not going to be a traditional chronology so I can't just put segments on a timeline (though some pieces will need to be structured like that).

Must haves:
- works on Windows 10
- ability to tag items with multiple tags and search the whole thing by tags (filtering and sorting by other attributes would be great too, like type or date modified)
- syncs with my existing cloud software (Dropbox or OneDrive)
- display support for different languages (interface in English but will display text in Russian and Ukrainian)
- can eventually export to some normal format other programs can read
- has a good tutorial (not in video format!!!) and customer support
- will work offline

Wish list
- spellcheck/grammar check
- can link to stuff on my cloud drive (specifically images)
- help with citation formatting
- can grant access to others (view only is fine; it's not a collaboration)
- not a subscription service

Don't need/want
- daily goals, progress bars, motivational quotes, etc
- mobile app (fine to have, but I will rarely use it. I'm on iOS)
- free open source; I'd rather pay for something that isn't likely to be abandoned, and has actual support

I'm sure I've missed some things that I don't even know I need, so any advice on approaching this would be welcomed.
posted by nezlamnyy to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Citavi sounds like it could be a good fit for you. I tried using it as a reference manager for my thesis (but I was already too entrenched with Mendeley to switch), but I remember it had some interesting work flows and features (like tagging, ability to save snippets of your interpretations with sources, etc).
posted by Paper rabies at 7:29 AM on December 9, 2022

Best answer: Scrivener does all of this quite well, I think. I'm using it to write a non-fiction book, and having separate binders in the same file for research sources (including images), and move little bits and bobs around and toggle between sources easily has been incredibly useful.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:31 AM on December 9, 2022 [6 favorites]

Zotero is open source and will help with organizing your sources and citing them. It doesn't deal with the text you're writing itself though.
posted by kbuxton at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I came in to also recommend Scrivener, but I'm not clear if it meets your must-have of "display text in Russian and Ukrainian." It has localization for about ten languages (e.g. the app itself changes language) and uses the local computer settings, so if your machine is set for Russian or Ukrainian, it might display correctly? The Scrivener manual discusses this in section 4.5 if you want to investigate.

For future readers of this thread, my recommendation is based on a large Scrivener community and a lot of blogs, podcasts, and books about using Scrivener and setting up writing workflows. I found it to have a steep learning curve and I only end up using a fraction of the features, which might be part of the reason for the large community and all the resources.

Of specific interest for writing non-fiction with a lot of citations, I'll link these three blog posts. While they are about using Scrivener, they get into workflow and discuss other tools for dealing with citations and tracking PDFs.

Using Scrivener for Academic Writing: A Complete Guide

Digital Workflow for Historians

Dissertating with Scrivener
posted by BlueTongueLizard at 10:46 AM on December 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

I use Obsidian for some similar tasks: it works based off of Markdown formatted text files, with Obsidian providing a layer (which can use tags, folders, or embedded metadata, depending - for example, in one set of my research files, I have entries for birth and death dates for historical figures, or for publication dates for magazines.)

You can embed images/PDFs/etc. in entries, but I'm not sure how smoothly it handles bilingual notes in different alphabets. (There's a forum at https://forum.obsidian.md which is a good place for searchs for that kind of thing.)

It has a vast ecosystem of plugins, an active user community (Discord, Reddit, YouTube videos for specific things), but little direct support (the actual development team is three people right now.)

People do have detailed research integrations, including with Zotero. There is a footnote option, but right now the plugin won't re-index numbers (so if you add footnote 2 before footnote 1 in the file, it will be "Text something" [2] "Some other Text" [1]) and you almost certainly want something more robustly designed for citation for later work on the project. But for collecting notes and references, it can be immensely flexible.

I also use Scrivener, and it's a great program. It will almost certainly work better for once you get more substantial long-form text going, and it's better set up for formatting/footnote/citation in that text.

(I also agree with the complexity. In both cases, I recommend a "Can it do X? Let me search how to do that" approach to using it, rather than trying to learn everything it can do from the start. Run through the basic tutorial, but then add stuff as you need it and keep an eye on discussions about it so you come across things it can do that you wouldn't have thought of.)
posted by jenettsilver at 12:07 PM on December 9, 2022

Best answer: I recommend Scrivener for this as well, with all of BlueTongueLizard's caveats. It does have a learning curve, but that's because it does so very, very much...but there's a great community around it, it works fine offline, there is a comprehensive manual and lots of tutorials, both on video and from writers who blog about it. The PC version is not quite as featureful as the the Mac version, I don't believe, but is probably as much or more than you need. Best of all, it will grow with you. Start throwing research material into it, import your Word doc and divide it up as needed. The files are all rich text in the end, so there should be no problem with file compatibility.

It will also backup for you, but be sure to keep separate backups on at least two other media!

I'm a Mac user, and own both the Windows, Mac and iOS versions. The only reason I don't use it anymore is that its only sync mode is Dropbox, which I abhor (it works fine, I just don't like it). Dropbox can be one of your backups, of course.
posted by lhauser at 5:28 PM on December 9, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks! I hadn't even thought of Scrivener; I'd used a trial version for a (failed) Nanowrimo. It was good enough for fiction but I think the trial was minus some features so I hadn't considered it for this. I'll check into it again.
posted by nezlamnyy at 7:26 AM on December 10, 2022

I've used Scrivener to write over a dozen papers and chapters, and I'm currently using it for two book projects (one relatively short, at 40K words; the other will be more like 120-150K).

While I organize my research material in DEVONthink Pro (which is MacOS only), that's mostly because I had been using it before adopting Scrivener. If I were starting out, I might find Scrivener to be perfectly fine for that, too.

I do use Bookends (another MacOS only app) for citations, but Zotero would be a reasonable alternative.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:53 AM on December 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

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