DIY: How to write a book


36 Responses to “DIY: How to write a book”

  1. Kid Geezer says:

    I’m wondering why you quit using Nissus Writer. If you have the right scanner, Devonthink looks like fun.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am a freelance writer. Which version of Devonthink is adequate for writing a popular science book? Do I need the most expensive version or will the plain “Professional” do?

  3. reagent says:

    i wish i could remember any of the burroughs i read now. the sonufavish was always onto something in what he said – about the way memory worked, and perception too;

    what else are you going to write about?

    there was that weird cut-up technique he talked about… lines of text cut-up and placed in unintended ways: like bomb-sirens for the mind was what he wanted, right?

    i’m wondering now what mcluhan would’ve said as well: medium is the massage and all.

    also, i’ve been on the mac/pc fence since my lappy just crashed… the mac only comments kind of reaffirm my lean to’rds that side.

  4. Mark Frauenfelder says:

    I’d love to hear more about Devonthink’s semantic algorithm that finds connections between snippets. It reminds me of the episode of The Sopranos when Christopher bought a laptop to write a screenplay and was disappointed when the computer didn’t write the story for him.

  5. physicistjedi says:

    Here is a list of similar programs in different platforms:

  6. Michael Putzel says:

    I look forward to trying the DevonThink-Scrivener combination, but I’m surprised there has been no mention here of EverNote, a multimedia collection tool that syncs itself in Windows, on Mac OS X, online, the iPhone and perhaps other platforms. I use it like an endless spool of notepaper that can clip web pages, e-mail and other files that are then searchable by text or tags assigned by the writer. I use the free version, but there’s a commercial version with more features. I started using it in Windows a few years ago and was delighted recently to discover an upgrade that runs on Mac as well, making that part of my conversion a snap.

  7. gs33 says:

    google notebook is a comparable devonthink alternative that’s free and online.

    1. Google has recently said they will be ceasing support of google notebook.

    2. In no way shape or form is google notebook similar to or a replacement for devonthink. They’re not in the same ballpark.

  8. Ian Holmes says:

    Books are frowned upon in academic science (until *after* tenure), but for papers, I generally follow the more conventional (boring) process of starting with a list of figures and tables.

    I really like the database + semantic cross-referencing approach, though…

  9. Anonymous says:

    Yes but do any of these nifty applications allow you to open two documents side by side in the same project? Scrivener allows a vertical split pane, but most monitors are, yknow, wider than they are vertical, and if you’re writing something based on notes, you want those notes in one window, and your main document in the other.

    Also, these apps seem to accommodate audio files, but when will they integrate a program like Listen&Type, for transcribing interviews?

  10. parezcoydigo says:

    I love to use the combination of devonthink and scrivener. Unlike Steven, I prefer to keep my devonthink databases more structured– but this is related, I think, to the type of research and writing I do (academic history). In a manner similar to what he describes above, when I get to the writing phase, I drag and arrange all the snippets that work into folders on the research tree in scrivener– divided by chapter, and chapter section. This has transformed the writing process for me.

    I have a series of posts on this workflow for humanities research/writing here:

  11. clairegiordano says:

    Steven: Thanks so much for sharing your creative process–how you build bridges between the islands–and for talking about how you use DEVONthink. I’m also going to check out one of the tools mentioned in the comment thread: Scrivener, from Literature&Latte. Wish me luck! –ClaireG

  12. Russ Mitchell says:

    The combination of Scrivener and DevonThink works really well.

    Scrivener is simple and just about perfect.

    DevonThink is more complicated, far from perfect, but the best writer’s database I’ve found.

  13. PeerB says:

    Scrivener ( seems to do everything of the above except for the semantic algorithm. I like it a lot!

    (I have no affiliation to

  14. Hamish MacDonald says:

    How can we have gone this long without anyone mentioning Scrivener?!

    I was using a PC when I wrote my last book, so I used Microsoft’s OneNote for my idea-collection (along with a notebook I hand-made for the occasion; it feels important to do the ‘building your own lightsabre’ kind of preparation for the task, I find).

    Now I’m back on a Mac, and I’ve discovered lots of really supportive software for my creative activities. For writing, the most important of these is Scrivener (from It lets you pull your source material — any kind of file, be it text, Web pages, audio, video — into a research folder in the project, then gives you a great system for working on individual chapters then exporting them into a variety of ready-made formats (novel, screenplay, radio play, etc). There’s even a mode for blanking out everything on the screen except the document you’re working on.

    I’m looking forward to using this with my next novel, but I’ve already got a lot of use out of it for my copywriting, pulling together all the supporting material and writing articles in sections (hed, dek, middle, conclusion, etc.). Oh, and there’s a split-screen mode, which I use when I want to listen to one of the audios in my research folder while composing in the top panel.

    I’ve no connection with the developer (who’s very friendly and responsive, and hosts a great writers’ discussion forum on his product’s site). I just think this is a great and helpful tool.

    (And yet I can see how being called “The Great and Helpful Tool” would not be a compliment.)

  15. StRevAlex says:

    I think it’s always fascinating to get a peek at the methods and processes of a working writer. Especially when he’s as good a writer as you are, Steven. :)

  16. AirPillo says:

    I suddenly want to write a how-to book, about how to write a how-to book.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I had the pleasure of seeing Douglas Adams give the closing address at a Mac developers conference. One of the things he mentioned was the lack of really good software that works how authors think. He was invited to Microsoft to see the latest version of Word. He asked about having features that would benefit authors. The engineers said they were reluctant to add more features for lack of key combinations. Seriously.

  18. wobblesthegoose says:

    Is there a Devonthink like application for windows?

  19. the_boy says:

    well, this should make the second half of my semester less hellish. Provided, of course, that there is a windows version.

  20. Steven Johnson says:

    As far as I know, Devonthink continues to be Mac-only. But I know there are some analogues in the Windows world — I’m sure some will be suggested here…

    Of course, this could be a good opportunity to make the leap… :)

  21. Stu says:

    A quick google investigation revealed this list of windows alternatives:

  22. wolfiesma says:

    Mark passed along some more good advice on writing awhile back:

    Moment of silence for the late, very great John Updike. Angry, bitter silence.

  23. Mediocreman says:

    Very insightful! I’m overwhelmed right now with my current book project but was very encouraged by your piece. About how long does it usually take you to complete a book from the time you start researching to the time you turn in your first full draft?

  24. Anonymous says:

    You say, “I grab the first chapter folder and export it as a single text document, open it up in my word processor, and start writing.” But that exported text file is mostly, if not wholly, other people’s work.

    What workflow do you use to build your own writing around the ideas you’ve culled using that general process?

  25. Hamish MacDonald says:

    This might also be helpful: Jim Munroe wrote a nice article years ago for his site, No Media Kings, about the creative process of writing a novel (how you actually get it written, after you’ve done the kind of tought-organisation in the piece above):

  26. Anonymous says:

    A great Windows-based free form database along the lines of DevonThink is AskSam,

    You can capture or import whatever you want into it (images, urls, text, etc.) and have the search function return relative matches. You can adjust the relative aspect of your searches.

    The found information can be placed in a document and with added text, it can be a searchable paper, book or journal. There are examples on the site that showcase the use of AskSam.

  27. eustace says:

    This sounds great – a useful method to reduce the stress of writing almost anything.

  28. Anonymous says:

    The writing wannabee crowd here might want to check the free and cross platform wikidPad for a windows alternative to Devonthink:

    (I know, I know, not the same thing, etc.)

  29. Anonymous says:

    If I’m starting something new that I know I will hate writing, I do something similar. Instead of posting anything relevant to the topic at the bottom of the page, I post long quotes from a favorite book to make it seem like I’m just proofreading or filling in some details. Works like a charm because the voice in my head that sounds an awful lot like my mother stays quiet.

  30. thehum says:

    google notebook is a comparable devonthink alternative that’s free and online.

  31. boing_x says:

    I used to use Devonthink until it got corrupted and I lost a ton of info. Unfortunately I had backed up the corrupted version before I noticed. I seem to be the only person in the world this has happened to though.

    I had always used something, stickybrain, etc. Now I just organize files in folders in the finder. Seems safer.

  32. shava says: doesn’t advertise as this sort of application, but I use it as such and it’s very inexpensive. It’s more of a mindmapping tool, but the outliner is excellent and links out to documents, urls,…

    And hey, it’s Mac and Windoze and PalmOS at least. Don’t remember if there are more platforms.

  33. scottros says:

    Windows users should at least consider Ecco Pro, a freeform outliner which I’ve used to write two books following a methodology eerily akin to Steven’s. (Acquire vast quantities of raw tidbits; process into chapter chunks; reread and reassemble.)

    Ecco Pro is in certain ways more versatile than Devon Think, but it lacks Devon’s trump card, the connection-finding feature. It’s also been orphaned for a decade by the company that owns it. The good news is it’s a bulletproof Win32 app that runs great on XP and Vista, and because it’s so old it’s super light and fast, and you can store vast amounts of textual data in it. It’s a bit quirky and old, but those of us who use it love it. And I’ve never lost a piece of data to it. Also, though it’s sadly never been open-sourced, it is free for the download.

  34. Yamara says:

    The Scrivener guy ( is so friendly, he even lists PC-compatible programs like his own–another reason to check it out, even is you aren’t on a Mac.

    Scrivener is also organizing my writing properly for the first time in my life. I decided someone that nice deserved money.

  35. AUSTraveler says:

    I’m considering using DevonThink for a book project, but I haven’t seen much on how well the collaborative features work. Does anyone have feedback on sharing the DT database, either on a file share or with the built-in web sharing in the top-of-the-line edition? I’m co-authoring the book, so it’s not sufficient for me to have only local edit/update capabilities.

  36. Robbo says:

    I have a crumpled wad of paper in my back left pocket. In my front right pocket I carry a fine point felt marker. On the table in front of me is my lap top. In my carry bag is one of many notebooks. In my filing cabinet are many folders filled with many crumpled pages and older notebooks. In the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet is my older lap top that doesn’t work anymore. On my shelves are many books written by other people.

    I think I’ll go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea now.

    One of these days …

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