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~ Writing a Biography ~ STALKING THE ELEPHANTAbout Writing Biography and Imagining a Life


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—the one where I convinced myself that I could write a biography and still have time to blog regularly—I promised to continue with the subject of how to set up a seat-of-the-pants filing system for storing, retrieving, and keeping track of research in MS Word. (No. One and No. Two in the series are already up, as are Munker's hot tips for developing a good filing system.)

Inspired by the 2013 conference of Biographers International, I now plan to complete that project over the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, there have been some pretty interesting developments in low-cost electronic organizing programs for writers. Some are designed to automatically store, search, format, and share research electronically. Others make it easier to access research while you write, outline, or brainstorm your book.

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If the thought of using anything more complex than a word processor and keyboard to write a long, complicated piece of nonfiction daunts you, I confess that I, too, yearn for a simpler time when all I had to know was how to make notes on 3x5 cards, print out the results on a piece of paper, and then throw everything in a drawer.

However, having heard about what's available in the twenty-first century from two much smarter colleagues, Victoria Olsen and Barbara McManus, with whom I had the pleasure of being on a panel last month, before I get back to describing the principles behind my own comparatively simple folder-and-file system, let me call your attention to three recent software programs for organizing, on the chance that one of them might suit your needs.

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    1. ZOTERO. Zotero calls itself a "personal research assistant," and from all I can tell, it promises to do everything except actually write my book and clean out my file drawers for me when it's finished. It can organize, store, and search what I've collected, index an entire library (including PDFs and photos, audio and video files, and the like) and sort everything into i-Tunes-like "playlists," tagging items with whatever keywords I assign to them to make searching simple. It will also turn anything into a citation or source note in a publisher's required format, share data with collaborators, and automatically update what I've stored—if necessary, across multiple devices—when I get back from the library.

Zotero is available in Windows, Mac, and Linux. In its basic form, it's free, though that means less tech support than similar programs you have to pay for (see comparison chart at the top). For details, visit the Zotero website.

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2. SCRIVENER. Scrivener does some of the same things as Zotero, but its true purpose is to let the writer access her research while she's writing, from the same computer page she's writing on. Which, at the very least, means there shouldn't be as much of a mess on your desk.

Scrivener—which was concocted by a bunch of la-de-dah Brits who decided to call their company "Literature and Latte"—also enables the writer to outline, move parts of the outline around on a "corkboard" (just as one might do with 3x5 cards), store text files and other documents (photos, PDFs, Internet files, etc.), work on different chapters simultaneously, keep track of which draft is current, format in correct MLA, Chicago, or other style for either electronic or print publication, and a lot more.

Scrivener isn't free, but it probably won't break the bank, either. The versions for Mac 10.4 and up, including Mountain Lion, cost $45, and if you have Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8—sorry, no Linux—you can have it for $40. You can also try it out free for 30 days; only days when you actually use the program are counted. (Nice, huh?) Both the YouTube tutorials and the interactive one that comes with the program are excellent and quite user-friendly. (Okay, so not la-de-dah.)

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3. SCAPPLE. Scapple is Scrivener's little sister. It's designed for "brainstorming," and it's—well, adorable.

Scapple is meant for getting ideas down fast and mooshing them around. In fact, if your aim is actually to avoid writing anything, you could spend days just making notes and then formatting them on the screen in front of you as little colored squares and cloud shapes and circles, and then connecting and disconnecting them to each other with little arrows. It's certainly more flexible than the back of an envelope, and a lot roomier.

At this point, Scapple is only available in Mac OS X. Again, excellent tutorials, and the price is right: $14.95, with a free 30-day download to try it out. I did, and while I'll probably stick to the backs of envelopes, I highly recommend the free download, if only for fun; even if your experience with drawing software (for instance, the kind that comes along with MS Word) is limited, Scapple isn't hard to learn.

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Similarly, Scrivener's designers claim that users can begin writing with it after only an hour, once they've completed the tutorial. I downloaded the free trial, and so far I'm finding that the well-written instructions make learning it, at least in tutorial form, fairly straightforward.

Which brings us to the million-dollar question: If you're not used to the electronic approach to filing, is it worthwhile launching on a whole new way of organizing your research and your writing life?

The answer to that probably depends on (a) how far along you are in the book; (b) how much time you need to become reasonably comfortable with new software; (c) whether the problem you hope to solve looms larger for you than the problem of how much time it may take to learn to use the program.

My guess is that if your responses are, respectively, (1) either "not very far" or "formatting my citations is imminent"; (2) "a day to a week"; and/or (3) "I'm willing to go to any lengths to solve this problem," one of the programs described above (or a program mentioned in the comparison chart, top of page) might be the solution. Looking at online reviews for the software you're interested in will also give you more information about how suitable a program is for what you want, and how steep the learning curve is.

Then again, if you'd rather not think about any of this, my next post, which is on entering your research notes, gets us back to the basics.

Click here to see all my posts on organizing your research.

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