DIY: How to write a book

Ed Note: one of Boingboing's three current guest bloggers, Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America. (You can see a video interview introducing the book here.) He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site

In part because my books have had a habit of weaving multiple disciplines together, and in part because I've written quite a bit about technology, I'm often asked about the tools I use to research and write my books. Given that Boingboing has its own wonderful multi-disciplinary sensibility, and of course a major obsession with DIY movements, I thought it might be fun to say a few words about the writing system I've developed over the past few books.

My word processors have varied over the years: I swore off MS Word after Mind Wide Open, and used Nisus Writer for Everything Bad and Ghost Map; had a quick dalliance with Pages, and then actually returned to the latest version of Word for Invention. 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. I wrote about this several years ago for the Times Book Review, and I still get emails from people every couple of weeks asking about the software. (The Devonthink guys should put me in an infomercial.)

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. This goes on for months and months; I read in a completely unplanned and exploratory way (increasingly online, thanks to Google Books and other sources) and just drag anything that seems at all interesting into Devonthink.

When it comes time to actually write the book, I usually have a pretty clear sense of how the chapters are going to be divided up. With Ghost Map, for instance, there's a cool little trick I figured out before I started writing where each chapter maps to a single day in the epidemic, but also connects to one of the themes of the book: the shit and scavengers, miasma, the map. (No one seemed to notice this in any of the reviews, but it's one of the things that I'm most proud of with that book.) 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. I grab the first chapter folder and export it as a single text document, open it up in my word processor, and start writing. Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I'm looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes. 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.


  1. 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. :)

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

  3. 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… :)

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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 …

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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…

  11. 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.)

  12. 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):

  13. 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?

  14. 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:

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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?

  26. 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.

  27. 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?

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