Using the file system for your notes.
I’ve been keeping notes and journals for as long as I can remember. And I was born long before these cool PC/Mac thing’ies became ubiquitous, so my earliest notes were written on the best technology of the day: paper. Then came the revolution, and before too long I got with the program, moved on to the electronics, and started typing up all kinds of stuff in all kinds of applications.
Technology over this time period has been about as fickle as a saloon girl after a roundup, so I’ve used almost every type of system that’s been rolled out since the green screen VAX I played with in 1983. The result was a pile of notes that collected then collapsed into a mish-mash of various file types, in different formats, with incompatible structures, all strewn about various locations on multiple generations of mediums.
For example, in my notes folders I had files produced by AmiPro, WordStar, WordPerfect, Commence, Ecco Pro, and Word. There was text in Lotus 123 files, and Excel spreadsheets. There were files from an outliner app called Think Tank, and others from an outliner called Outliner. There were emails from Outlook, emails from Lotus Notes, stuff from an HP95LX, an HP200LX and a number of Palms. There were text files, doc files, files with extensions I had forgotten from applications I’d forgotten – all kinds of electronic exotica. But I carefully saved them all ‘cause I was sure that someday, somehow, I’d use them.
In 2007 I became a full time writer. All of a sudden this hoard of electronic chaff became a mineable resource. Making sense of it changed from deferrable issue to current todo because someone told me that note taking, journaling they called it, and, crucially, retrieving said notes so they could actually be used, was a key skill for a writer. I scrounged up the old data folders, consolidated them and began the search for a system to manage it all.
IT Architects like to call collections like this, “unstructured infobases” and there are lots of programs around – variously called information managers, PIMs, or Everything Buckets – to help manage them. Surveying the field I adopted two, Journler and DEVONThink, after I demoed a dozen more (and did this all, probably, while I should have been writing).
First, I poured all my notes into Journler, a fabulous but sadly abandoned gem of a program. Journler allowed me to think of my infobase as a structured whole, rather than as disparate segments, and it prompted me to habitualize the process of capturing and synthesizing the random bits of data flowing past my writing desk every day. Primarily the import to Journler standardized all my file formats. From the transition I got a fairly fixed TXT/RTF/RTFD/HTML set of documents, augmented with some PDFs, various image and audio files. This was not an insignificant feat.
When I outgrew Journler (and you always outgrow these packages, always, eventually, each and every one, no mater what the developer says about capacity and growth potential when you sign on) I transitioned to a beast of an application called DEVONThink. DT ultimately showed itself to be both constricting and superfluous. (see my Dating DEVONThink post about this) But DT further refined my file formats and got me to add tags to files in a common data set rather than categorizing by topic into groups.
Along the way I played with Evernote, MacJournal, SoHo Notes, Mori, EagleFiler and Yohimbo. I’ve written about these attempts, and my struggles with DEVONThink, elsewhere. In their own way each of these apps was lacking, but as a group hey all demanded attention to their own set of quirks that their programers thought of as features. You had to conform your dates, workflow, ideas, cataloging, to their app’s functionality. This for me was perfectly backwards.
So, now, while my data format was standardized, thanks to Journler and DT, and, as such, much more usable, the whole process was still not stable, not at least for any time horizon of more than a year of two, since everything was still in someone else’s app. I was dependent on one or another of these applications to make sense of it all, which was kind of where I’d been all along. Then I found a better way.