On Notetaking, Part I: Application Agnosticism

Two for tea? Make it five. Identical. People. Pinkies up, everyone!

To help out some context to the challenge I faced, let me begin with a confession: I have not effectively studied since I was in ninth grade. The classes I took during my sophomore year didn’t exactly challenge me, and I found that I could do well enough in those classes without really I find myself and deliberately studying. That same year, I decided that earning a B on a report card without applying effort to the class satisfied my need for success while also accommodating my desire for laziness. In short, my study skills went to pieces, and I never really recovered. When preparing for the comprehensive exams for my Master’s program, I experienced the only genuine nervous breakdown of my life. I felt I had too much to do and lacked a clear understanding of how to go about doing any of it. My breathing went shallow, my pulse quickened, and my vision began tunneling. The only energy I possessed was a nervous energy, essentially channeled into twiddling my thumbs and pacing back and forth. I was stuck.

As a result of that harrowing experience, I vowed to take better control of my to-do list before I went back for more classes. I got myself setup with a very effective system for task management that synchronized across my notebook computer and two portable devices (both a tablet and a phone). The convenience of always knowing exactly what they have able to do and should be doing at any moment or in any place still astonishes me. I only wish I did what my task list told me to do a little more reliably.

After growing accustomed to the convenience and reliability of that system, I dove headfirst into a full-time graduate program working toward a PhD in Texts and Technology. The reading lists were massive, and the theory was at times daunting. But I managed the workload just fine, thanks to my bulletproof to do list. When papers for each class I took expected me to synthesize the text from within that semester, I was able to thumb through the books and retrieve a quote I had highlighted or the portions of the text I had marked in the margins without much frustration or incident. While each semester brought with it a stack of notebooks, that stock was small enough that I could hunt around through the books we came time to write a paper. Fast forward to my comprehensive final exams that I took this past spring, and things were little different. I was trying to manage the resources of four years’ worth of study and manipulate it all into a brief series of exam questions. The sensations of a nervous breakdown began to return — an unwanted feeling at any time, but nearly fatal before such a critical test.

It was during my preparations for that exam that I realized the way I have been studying and taking notes the entire time had been completely, horribly, disastrously wrong.

First off, I love writing in books. I don’t overdo it like some people who owned my textbooks before I did. I don’t highlight entire sections, I don’t underline entire paragraphs, and I don’t write tirades spending multiple margins. But I do like to bracket-off significant quotes, put stars in the margins beside critical moments, and write my own explanations in the margins, where necessary. I also earned a reputation and several of my classes for being the guy who talked back to his authors. I would occasionally write questions in my margins that were directed at whoever was responsible for creating the text I was reading. Often, these questions would end with several exclamation points interspersed between the question marks. My questions ranged from the mundane, “What are you talking about?” To the more controversial, “What are you smoking, and where can I get some?” For some reason, I felt those help me interpret the text.

But there they would stay. These delightful questions, these insightful interpretations, these highlights, and these signposts. They would all remain firmly entrenched in the pages of the book itself. Even while I was reading Jerome McGann’s excellent text on the benefits and possibilities offered by databases, and specifically treating text as though it is a form of database, I still did not notice that the notes I was taking were probably using the least-effective storage and organization method conceivable, particularly in light of retrieval method. The only way I could find my notes was if I remembered where the note was and that it existed. Nowhere have I created a means of retrieval to allow me to combine and collate all of my notes in one manipulable source. I did the same when I read PDFs. I would make comments, highlights, and margin notes, but they would all be annotations of the document, permanently embedded within the text itself.

Confronting the prospect of answering a proctored exam question, in which I had access to “notes” but not access to an unlimited a lot of time in which to work with those notes, I immediately recognized the error of my ways. All of my notes had to be transferred to another medium that could be more practical for retrieval and organization during the exam. I then began the process of transcribing every quote I had marked in every book I thought I would need to refer to. But rather than solving my problem, this process contributed to it.

Some of the books I read were in print. Some of them were ePubs that opened in nearly any reader. Some of them were PDFs, which I would read in one application that allowed annotation, and some were in Kindle format, requiring that I use that app to make my annotations. And for the texts that I merely checked out of the library, I had a document sitting somewhere, created in some application, that contained the quotes I thought were worth keeping, but not with any sort of organizational method. My notes for a mess, and I wasn’t able to get to them in a convenient and timely manner.

And that my need for a writing environment that I can access from any location. I have been a huge fan of Apple’s Pages application, but I have since switched to using LaTeX to typeset my writing. for a while, I use on the outliner to create complicated outline documents for classes or particular source material. My files were organized, but accessing them was a disastrous mess. There was no telling which app I used to create a document I needed, and there was no guarantee that I could get to my content on all devices. If I wrote outline-based notes, they were stored in OmniOutliner, and I couldn’t edit them on my iPad without a tedious round-trip process. If I wrote something in Pages, I could use iCloud to sync the documents, but I would have to export the files to another format before using any other app. I came to see the apps I chose as the problem with my workflow. Designed as full-featured powerhouses for one kind of file, they would lock my work into the one format they made for their product.

But all I do is write words. Sure, I organize them, format them, structure them, and manipulate them, but it’s not like I’m doing heavy processing of some exotic file type. I’m dealing with words. I’ve grown accustomed to using LaTeX structure and commands to build my documents, but that’s designed at its core to be a completely text-based system that anyone can open on any platform. I heard Karl Stolley speak at the Computers & Writing conference last month, and he harped on the advantages of text-file workflows and the simplicity of the oldest file format out there. I nodded my head, agreeing that a LaTeX file was ultimately more versatile than a Word document. It wasn’t until I got back home from the trip that I realized I was saying one thing and doing another. I nodded in assent when he praised text-file-driven systems, but then I picked up my devices and opened various proprietary tools to do my work. My final products—my papers—are made as text files, but everything leading up to that point used more complicated (unnecessarily so) systems.

I’m moving to change that. I’m working to build a system that allows me access to any document I need, at any time, from any device, using any app. I want changes to be automatically propagated across my devices, and I want all my notes and text to be indexed in a system that can help with my research. I’ll make a post tomorrow that sets up how I think my system will achieve these goals. But for now, I’m weaning myself off these very sophisticated tools for visually manipulating documents and downsizing to little apps that process text. It’s like letting go of a security blanket, but I can already tell that it’s helping me focus more on the content of my notes and less on the way those notes appear and are arranged.

[Image courtesy Pickersgill Reef on Flickr.]