When you write non-fiction, you sit down at your desk with a pile of notebooks, newspaper clippings, and books and you research and put a book together the way you would a jigsaw puzzle. – Janine di Giovanni
How many notebooks do you need to get your work done? How should you organize them to get the most out of your work?
I’ve just finished Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science by Richard Yeo. It’s a scholarly work, a third of the book seems to be the references section, and it studies the work of seventeenth century scientists in considerable detail.
It turns out that for a long time the main way knowledge was passed on was by remembering it. You memorised stories, ballads and sagas and passed them on from generation to generation. Then the means of writing came along and the most precious words were put down on stone, clay and eventually paper. This was a skill limited to a few people and the materials were expensive.
Skipping over the history of paper making we go from scrolls to the codex, the recognizable form of the modern book. Before printing, books were created by hand, copied and shared with others. If you wanted to have your own copy you had to write the words out for yourself and this led to a tradition of commonplacing – copying extracts into a single notebook that was your own personal library of the best you could find out there.
For a long time this was the way people gained knowledge, by reading texts, mainly religious, and extracting the good stuff. But around the seventeenth century the idea of a scientific approach to gathering knowledge started to take root. That meant gathering data, not just copying what had come before and the old ways of commonplacing just weren’t flexible enough to deal with the needs of the modern world.
People looked around for new ways to collect and record information and found it in the ways that merchants kept their accounts books. If you have a business you have to do two things. You have to record your daily transactions and then summarise them in accounts so you can figure out where your money has gone or come from and if you’ve made a profit or a loss.
Building on these insights you ended up with the idea of data collection and data analysis. On a day to day basis you need a journal, something that you collect information in that comes at you. This is a chronological record and, for scientists and engineers, this is standard practice – to keep an engineering notebook is something you’re taught in your first year in school.
What you collect needs to be summarised and that’s where the commonplace model starts to be useful again. You go through your journal and pull out the important bits and collect them using topics, themes or summaries. You can also index them, pointing to where the information is in your notebooks.
These two notebooks help you start to engage with your material, first to collect and then to summarise and group information.
But I think there are two more things that can help us. One is a book where you start to collect your arguments. As you collect and summarise material you’ll start to think of an argument, a position or view that you’ll set out for others to consider and agree or disagree with. These arguments are like outlines that you’ll build into papers or books depending on how long they are.
The last one is the practice of reflection, perhaps with a diary. Something that helps you go over what you’ve been working and thinking about, looping over and reflecting on what has been done.
Now, do you need physical notebooks for all these or can you go digital? Digital is clearly an option and arguably makes it easier to process text and index your material if you know you way around text files and scripts. Reflection, in particular, is the kind of thing you can do in a blog. It’s not just notebooks either – you could use a Zettelkasten or card box to do your topic summaries and develop your arguments.
But digital bits are invisible and it’s hard to see the physical work pile up. I feel like I’ve lost a decade of work because 2010 to 2020 was mostly digital. And there’s something about working with pen in a notebook that helps you engage with the content more deeply, inscribing it into your brain. A notebook rather than loose paper makes the long-term task of archiving easier. Loose sheets are just too easy to throw away when it’s too hard to put them in order.
The thing with writing anything, as the quote that starts this post suggests, is that it’s a process of assembly but you don’t know the parts or what they look like and you definitely don’t know how they fit together. You go out there, gather what you find and hope that you can make something useful. Having good note making practices will help.