Software that aids thought isn't cheating; it's a legitimate part of the creative processby Steven Johnson / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
Hemingway had it easy. Writing books in the 1920s involved little more than pen and ink. The period’s most advanced tool was a Remington typewriter. No such luck for the modern author. Yes, we have access to a wealth of information unthinkable a few decades ago. But we confront a problem unknown in Hemingway’s day: the proliferation of software designed to help to organise our thoughts before sitting down to write.
Because my books weave together multiple disciplines—one was even subtitled “the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software”—and in part because I write about technology, people often ask me how I write. As it happens, I have developed an idiosyncratic writing system. My basic tools, like word processors, have varied. (I swore off Word after one book, and used another programme for the next two before returning sheepishly to Microsoft.) But the one constant is a truly ingenious piece of software, called Devonthink.
Devonthink is a database programme into which you can copy anything from PDFs to snippets of text, web pages and images. There are dozens of other similar programmes, among them Evernote, Nota Bene, and even a Microsoft product called OneNote. But Devonthink is set apart by an elegant semantic algorithm: a mathematical formula that detects relationships between different bits of text. The programme can take your words, or anyone else’s, and suggest related passages from its database.
Over time I have made Devonthink a central part of my book writing process. The first crucial stage is a disorganised capture of information, where I grab paragraphs from web pages, digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text. This goes on for months; I read widely, in an unplanned and exploratory way, increasingly online, thanks to Google Books and other sources. Each snippet I drop into Devonthink, with only a brief citation. By the time I’m done, I have somewhere near a thousand separate snippets of text on my computer.
When it is time to actually write the book, I have a pretty clear sense of the chapters and structure. For instance, with my last book—The Ghost Map, which tells the story of London’s 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak—I wrote each chapter so that it both would convey the events of a single day, but also address one of the book’s major themes. Once the sequence is mapped out, I return to Devonthink, make a folder…