My Sticky-Note Outlining Process

I’ve been posting on Twitter randomly recently about my process while outlining a couple of new chapters. I’ll elaborate and make it clearer what is happening. I wrote a whole thread about this, then accidentally deleted it. A blog post is better, anyways.

As I’m researching, writing, I often make notes on stickies about ideas or documents, quotes I come across that I want to make sure I work in somewhere, but I’m not ready to deal with yet. I often have stacks of these around me. I collect them into my research journal, especially those related to the argument or introduction.

I also dump all my research photos, newspaper/magazine articles, transcripts of interviews, notes from archive trips, you name it, into Devonthink, where it gets OCR’d. I try to tag things there with subjects, but I’m not very systematic about it. I do try to get the date into a format that makes it easy to sort documents chronologically, whether they are in the folder view or in a tag. I review anything relevant or noted in my stack of sticky notes, and in Devonthink I tag it all with the Chapter # that I’m working on. (I did this in Zotero, previously, where my tagging system is far more robust).

My tagging and file naming system in Devonthink. Not all the files look this nice, but they are usually from archival documents that I’ve written from already.

After that search, I try to categorize what I have. All the sticky notes go onto a page, and I make note of what is in Devonthink (those are the pink notes on the piece of paper, below). These are organized here based on the theme that I think emerges, which will correspond to a section of the chapter. So, basically, a rough, topical outline starts to emerge in this process. But I throw everything that is potentially going to be included, just in case I change my mind, or a narrative develops differently than I envisioned at first.

The blue notes are rewrites of notes I made in a research journal, or loose documents not in Devonthink. The pink are thematic notes I made trying to link what I’ve written with the groupings in Devonthink, based on my review of material. The clipboard is from college.

Next, I rewrite the outline onto one page. Sometimes Tweed helps, or not. In this, I free write a general sense of what the chapter is about, what the big tensions are, and a few ideas. NOT the argument, because there isn’t one yet, at least not on paper and formalized. I have ideas, but I try to put things more in terms of what the documents are telling me, or what they are not addressing, since silences are important, too.

In this process, I’m taking the original sticky note outline drawn from various documents, and making it more formal, with a general sense of distinct sections.

Tweed observes this process closely.

Then, I print out all the documents from Devonthink (or Zotero, for secondary sources that also connect). I take notes, highlight, make sure the date is very clear at the top of each, so I can easily put them in order chronologically.

I pull out key quotes or highlight the theme for the documents, note people that come up frequently, or anything that I might want to reference in a quick glance to identify which document I have.

Then, I gather documents by section. This is the arts-and-crafts phase and where the BIG (8×6) sticky notes come into play. As I read, I make stacks. Mostly, documents from a station stay together, but not always. I note the relationship among the documents, and identify which part of the rough outline they correspond to.

Each stack gets clipped together and put in order. Some sections have sources from many different places. Part I, in this case, is about independent and major label relationships, so I have a bunch of oral histories with label reps, then examples from a few stations. The other two sections focus primarily on one or two stations, with a mix of archival, newspaper, and oral history transcripts.

Now, I have groups of documents to write a narrative from, with a general sense of the theme it contributes to in the chapter and book. But while I’m writing, I try not to worry too much about making those connections. That comes with the editing process. Instead, as I write, I label each narrative section with the station and/or scene, so that if I need to move it around later, it’s easy.

I still need access to Devonthink, Zotero, and other sources as I write, but this stack at least provides me structure as I am writing/drafting, and it helps me see how far I get in each writing session, or where I have holes as I write and need to go back to the drawing board.

In Word’s outline view, I can grab a section by its heading and move it’s location in the document, making that kind of rearranging very easy. Before, when I was drafting, I used Scrivener, which is made for this kind of thing. I’ve moved to Word for ease of sharing drafts, but I transposed that functionality into Word well enough.

In Word, I use style settings of Headings 1, 2, and 3. Heading 1 is for each PART of the book (I have three right now, each with five chapters). Heading 2 is for the chapter title. Heading 3 is for the many sub-sections of each chapter, and these are primarily what I’m moving around. Some are long, way too long, and some are just paragraphs or markers for where I think a topic will go. Ch. 12, which I outlined above, already has a few stubs in it that I will incorporate.

So that’s my outlining system, for what it’s worth! Writing a book that is national in scope but based on myriad stations and scenes from all over is a bit of an organizational morass. This is the system that I’ve come up with for overcoming these logistical challenges. It’s not perfect, but it seems to be working okay. The key thing is to get the stories told and the details down, the chronologies sorted, and then the themes and arguments can be strengthened and developed from there, re-organizing and re-outlining as needed.

The pen I’m using in this process is a Pilot Juice in Blue-Black (.5)

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