How to Write a Book
But the one constant for the past four books has been an ingenious piece of software called Devonthink, which is basically a free-form database that accepts many different document types (PDFs, text snippets, web pages, images, etc). It has a very elegant semantic algorithm that can detect relationships between short excerpts of text, so you can use the software as a kind of connection machine, a supplement to your own memory.
Since I wrote that essay, I’ve developed a new approach to using Devonthink that was enormously helpful in writing Ghost Map and Invention. The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text — and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink with no organization other than a citation of where it came from.
And so in the last stage before I actually start writing, I create a little folder in Devonthink for each of the chapters. And then I sit down and read through every single little snippet that I’ve uncovered over the past year or so of research. And as I’m reading them on the screen, I just drag them into the chapter folder where I think they will be most useful. Some snippets get dragged to multiple folders; most don’t make it into any folder. But I read through them all, and in reading through them all, I have a completely new contextual experience of them, because I’m at the end of the research cycle, not at the beginning. They feel like pieces of a puzzle that’s coming together, instead of hints or hunches.
And the added bonus here is that Devonthink has a wonderful feature where you can take the entire contents of a folder and condense it down into a single text document. So that’s how I launch myself into the actual writing of the book.
It’s a great technique for warding off the siren song of procrastination. Before I hit on this approach, I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.