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.