For any author—whether writing fiction or non-fiction—research is usually a crucial part of the process in creating a book. Once you've done the research, there's the need to store and access the information you've found. Research is pointless if you can't access the material you have accumulated.
This note looks at my research and information gathering process from end-to-end as an integrated flow of information. In particular, it focuses on the processes and tools I use to find, review, store, and retrieve information.
This is quite a long post, so let me start with a brief preview (with links) of the main sections:
The first area that this note looks at is the general process for conducting research.
As well as researching, there's a time not to research. Knowing when not to invest time, is key.
This section looks at the tools and techniques that I use for research in the field.
This section looks at tools and techniques I use for desk research.
Once information has been captured, then it needs to be processed.
Having processed information, it needs to be stored.
Storing information is only of value if that information can then be retrieved at will.
A few final thoughts.
So that's what's coming. Let's start by looking at the research process.
Research: The Process
For an author, research takes many forms and can be undertaken in many different ways. Most often, research is a combination of several of the following activities:
- Interviewing (or just chatting to) people (usually experts, knowledgeable individuals, or people somehow featured in the book).
- Reading. Lots of reading...
- Receiving information supplied by contacts and experts.
- Visiting specific locations and objects.
- Scouring the news and other media.
- Searching the internet, libraries/museums, public records, and other sources of information.
And that's before you start digging out the accumulated knowledge that resides in the dark spaces of your memory or getting creative by looking for information in other places.
Clearly research from different sources requires different approaches. However, not only is research undertaken in many different ways, but the hunt for information also has many different motivations:
- Some information is necessary because it is required (for instance, you may need to know a specific fact).
- Some information is acquired because it might be necessary.
- Some information is acquired simply because it is interesting or you happen to have found a detail you weren't expecting. And in many ways, this last point is the most significant—the nature of research is that you are searching for something unknown, therefore, you are likely to find information you weren't expecting.
The other factor to remember about information is that it comes to you when you're not necessarily expecting it to.
Whether you actively seek out the information, or it fortuitously arrives, if you can't access the information you have researched at a later date, then the material has no value. So you need to store your information, and store it in a format that makes it easy to access what you want to know, when you want to know.
You can apply the power of your brain to try to remember your research. This may work for you. For me, trying to remember simply detracts from writing. For me, it's much more important to commit information to a form so that I can retrieve that data when I want. It's a much better use for my brain to process and integrate information than it is to try to remember. I write things down so I don't need to remember them. But as part of writing down information, I also make sure it is stored (and labeled) in such a way that I can access the information, when needed.
So, for me, the process of research and information storage goes something like this:
- First, I capture the information. This could be research I undertake, data I stumble across, or details that I find.
- Once I've found the information, then I need to process it. Crudely, this is where I read the material and make the decision to store the information or to junk it.
- The information that I choose to store—both from research, regular reading, and fortuitous happenstance—then gets stored. For me, it's not enough to print a page and put it in a file. Instead, I make sure that the information is categorized, tagged, searchable, and accessible in a range of different ways. The stored information is, of course, reviewed from time-to-time, in order than obsolete/irrelevant materials can be removed.
- Once stored, the information then needs to be accessed at the appropriate moment.
For me, the process is not quite as rigorous as these bullets may suggest. In particular, there is no clear delineation between each step and several steps can be completed at once. However, what is crucial is having a process to find information and to move the relevant details to a single form of long-term storage.
For the rest of this note, I'll look at my processes and tools to bring some structure to my research.
Research: When to Start Digging
It's very easy to think of research as a separate, discreet act: you "do" research and then apply the new learning.
There will be times when you do research. There will be times when you need to find a specific fact and you go to your sources—books, people, and the internet, in the first instance—and seek out the details. Equally, there will be times when you need to visit a location.
But there's more to research. Research should be a continuous activity, more akin to constant learning.
One difficulty about going into research mode is that it can become all encompassing. To some extent that's good, but it takes a lot of time when you could be writing. Also, if you're in research mode, then you tend to miss important details (you're looking for what you're expecting to find since you won't know better until you've completed the research since you will often be starting with no or little knowledge on which to build).
Some research, in particular field research, will have to be a dedicated exercise. But much research, especially desk research, can be integrated into your day-to-day activities. I find that if I am always in always receiving mode, that I am more open to learning in a non-pressured way. I can capture information and build my knowledge/understanding slowly and steadily, forming a view over a period of time. Plus I can learn in your "spare time"—in other words, I'm not taking time out of my day to do the research thing.
Let's move on and look at the first research step: capturing the raw data.
Capturing Information in the Field
The notion of field research might sound a bit melodramatic. Looked at in other ways, the notion is rather non-specific. All I'm intending by the term field research is research that requires you to leave the internet alone. In other words, research where you need to stand up, leave your desk, and maybe (in certain circumstances) interact with other human beings.
In many ways, the hardest and yet most significant part of field research is knowing where to go. Often it will take a long time to develop a network of contacts who you can call upon to help with your research.
Once you have found your locations and your contacts, then you need to capture the information so you can bring it back to your desk. For this, you are going to need a range of tools. I hope it goes without saying that the most important tools are a pencil and some paper. Once you have those, there are a range of other tools that can help you.
In this note, I identify tools (including specific brands/models) that I use (at the date of writing this note). The purpose of noting my choices is to illustrate the sort of tools that can help you. There are many other options out there, so please don't take my choices of being indicative of what is necessary—I'm just talking about my tools and what you might find useful.
Cameras come in different shapes and sizes. At the most basic, most phones have a camera, but often these lack the quality and facilities of a dedicated device where there is a wide range of options going from point-and shoot compact cameras at one end of the scale passing through Micro Four Thirds system (often referred to as MFT) and digital single-lens reflex cameras (often called digital SLR or DSLR) at the other end, with a lot in between.
Your choice of camera will be very much dependent on how you intend to use the photos:
- If you are taking snaps as an aide memoire, any reasonable camera should suffice.
- However, if the photos are integral to the book, you will probably be well served by professional gear and you'll have a good idea about what to get.
- In between the two extremes, you may find your images are going to be widely viewed, for instance, you may include one or two pictures in your book or you may want to share some of your research with readers, perhaps showing some locations on your website or on one of the photo sharing sites.
If you're not sure what you will be using your camera for, then go for one in the mid-range (in other words, avoid a cheap one, but don't go to the expense of getting a DSLR). Find a camera with a good lens which takes good pictures (and check out the review sites which will always show lots of test images—remember, you may be taking pictures of a range of subjects including people, buildings, documents, and other objects).
After a certain point don't worry too much about mega-pixels, instead, if you can, find one that will also store pictures in RAW format (in other words high-quality uncompressed format). A good lens and uncompressed pictures will give better results than a few more mega-pixels. Most importantly, make sure the camera takes a standard size memory card and buy the biggest you can afford.
Recently I've been using a Panasonic DMC-LX5 which has given me great results. If you're looking for a good camera, you might want to check this out.
Most cameras will record the time and date on which the photo was taken. While that information is very useful, it still doesn't remind you about where the picture was taken. By geatagging your picture (embedding the GPS location of the picture into its digital file), you will have a permanent record of where the photo was taken. As well as helping your memory, this has the added advantage of being able to show where a photo was taken with a high degree of accuracy if you publish your photo on one of the photo sharing sites (which is great if you want to tell your readers about your locations).
Most cellphones will automatically geotag photos and some of the expensive high-end cameras also have GPS facilities. The downside of having a GPS beacon in your camera is that it wears the battery very quickly. However, it is a (comparatively) simple task to add geotags after the event as I will explain in the next section, so you don't need to worry too much about getting a camera with this facility.
When you're doing a lot of research, and over the passage of time, it is very easy for one location to be confused with another. Luckily there are some tools to help.
The most straightforward tool is Google Maps. If you find a location on Google Maps, right-click and select Drop LatLng Marker, and Google will place a marker with the longitude and latitude of that location. You can then copy the location and drop it into your notes.
Manually marking locations gets very tedious, very quickly, especially if you are spending several days travelling between several locations. If you've got a phone with GPS, then your problems are solved.
You need what's called geologging software. As you start your day you switch it on—it will then record every move you make. You can then take this file and trace your route or upload the route to a map service (such as Google Maps) and see your day's progress laid out in front of you.
I use an app called My Tracks (which was developed by Google). This will run on any Android phone: there are similar apps for most phones, just search under geologger and choose the software that's right for you. If your phone doesn't have a GPS receiver, then you can buy a dedicated piece of hardware to record your location while you're on the move.
While it's very useful to know where you were, and when, there is another use for this software: geotagging your photos. By marrying the timestamp in your recorded track with the timestamp in your photos, it is possible to retrospectively add geotags to photos.
There is software that will help with this task—it is as simple as dropping your photos and your tracks into a folder and telling the software to join the two.
I use software called GeoSetter with which I've had great results. Unfortunately for you Mac and Linux people it's only available for Windows. I've heard good things about GPicSync (but have no experience) and if that doesn't suit you, you can always search for other geotagging software on your particular platform.
Even if you have a camera which automatically geotags photos, it is still worth getting hold of geotagging software. There are two reasons here:
- First, geotagging photos is not always 100% accurate, especially when you're inside, under cover, in a forest, it's cloudy, and so on. If the camera can't find the satellites, then it will guess the location.
- Second, geotagging records where the photo was taken. Often you will want to show the location of the subject of the photo. With geotagging software, you can move the geotag location of a photo to the desired position.
There are many times when you may want to record audio. The most likely instances are when you are making your own (voice) notes or when you are interviewing someone.
If you're going to do any sort of audio recording, then I suggest you get hold of a dedicated digital recording device. You may have an old tape-based dictation machine lying around, and if you do, just throw it away (the quality is not good enough). There are some digital dictation machines around, but I'm pretty skeptical about whether these are good enough, or whether they offer any quality above making a recording on your phone.
If your recordings are going to be heard by anyone apart from yourself, then I suggest you get a professional-quality recorder. Many of these are very cheap and comparatively small. I use a Zoom H2 which (literally) can fit in my pocket but still produces excellent results.
Whichever recorder you choose, take some care with the format you use for recording. There are two main audio encoding formats you want to look for:
- WAV format. This is a high-quality uncompressed format. The advantage of this is that there are no artifacts added. If you are making a recording with the intention that it be broadcast (or listened to by other people) then you should ensure your recorder can record in this format.
- MP3 format. This is a compressed audio format and is very commonly used on many personal audio players. MP3 is a compressed audio format which results in much smaller file sizes. In and of itself, compression is not a bad thing, however, MP3 uses lossy compression (in other words, it compresses the file size by permanently discarding audio data). The greater the compression, the more you will hear audio artifacts and distortion in your recording—this may become more evident when you start to edit the audio. If you record at a high enough quality (a sampling rate of 128k is often a good starting minimum, depending on the source material) the recording should be of sufficient quality.
There are other compressed formats. Personally, I avoid them since many add horrible audio artifacts and/or are not widely supported by playback devices. Saving an audio file in WAV or MP3 format is a bit like storing a text file in Word format—the formats are so popular, you're almost certain to be able to find a device the read (in other words, play) the file in ten years' time.
You may find there are times when you want to capture your research with video.
As you would expect, there are a number of choices for a video camera:
- Use your phone's capabilities. You will probably find you can get better results with other tools.
- Use the video capabilities on your camera. You may get excellent (visual) results, but the quality depends on how good your camera is (and you may find the audio is compromised).
- Use one of the pocket-sized video cameras on the market. These can give you good video and good audio if used appropriately.
- Use a consumer/pro-sumer camcorder. These will usually give you better results than one of the pocket sized devices.
- Use a professional level video camera. These can give you excellent results.
Personally, I would avoid the bottom end of the list and the top end (unless you really know what you're doing with video). My choice of is one of the small pocket sized video cameras, the Zoom Q3HD. I chose this for a number of reasons:
- It is small and light, and fits in my pocket.
- It takes good quality video (up to 1080 HD).
- It has excellent audio capabilities (and you can use it as a stand-alone audio recorder). For me, this was the factor that most influenced my buying decision.
If you're not using a professional camera, there are several things you can do to improve the quality of your results:
- First, mount your camera on a tripod. Hand held cameras give shaky videos which cannot be watched for more than a few seconds. By contrast, a camera mounted on a tripod may give a very static image, but that video can at least be used, and other images can be cut into the video as part of the editing process to add more visual interest.
- Second, make sure there is enough light, particularly when you are using a smaller camera. Videos will look very fuzzy, very quickly if there is insufficient light—any light source is better than none (so turn on any light you can, but beware of glare).
I have mentioned phones a few times and I will mention them (and other mobile devices) some more later in this piece.
Today's smart phones are an excellent all-purpose multi-tool for authors to collect, filter, store, and access information. They can do anything from send and receive emails, access your calendar, access and edit your documents, store information on a database, take photos and videos as well as recording audio, and you can even make phone calls...
While phones are great multi-purpose devices, I would caution about making them your main device for specific tasks such as taking photos—there is better, dedicated hardware. However, I still always carry my phone, wherever I am.
If you want to do more than just make phone calls, then you're likely to be best served by one of the smartphones on the market. At the moment, there are two main choices: an iPhone or an Android-powered phone (there are many different models which use the same software). You can achieve similar functionality with the iPhone and Android-based phones.
My current choice of phone is the Google Nexus S (which is an Android-powered phone). I'll mention my use of this and other mobile devices throughout this piece, but for the moment let me talk about two functions I sometimes use while collecting information.
The first function is the note-taking capability. I use simplenote for storing notes on my phone (and I access simplenote through the Flick Note app on my phone). Simple note is a very straightforward text editor allowing me to record notes on my phone.
The real power with simplenote comes in how it stores these notes. The data is stored online meaning that I can access it from anywhere: from my phone, from an iPad (using the simplenote app), through any web browser, and of course, on my computer when I get home. There is no manual syncing or uploading/downloading—the notes are there when I want them.
Very occasionally, I also create notes with Google Docs (I only tend to use Google Docs when I need the formatting). To access Google Docs from my phone, I use both the Google Docs app and Quickoffice.
Another function I use on my phone is the navigation feature. When I am at my desk, I can identify locations (using Google Maps) and star them. When I switch to my phone, I can immediately access those starred locations on my phone's map, and if necessary, use the turn-by-turn navigation function to guide me to those locations.
Capturing Information: Desk Research
As well as, and sometimes instead of, conducting field research, you can do a lot of desk research, in other words, research that you can complete without going out the front door. There are two strands to this research:
- Searching out information.
- Having information come to you.
The more information that comes to you, the less you need to go out searching for information. Now of course, if you're not cautious you can become overwhelmed by the torrent of information that can sweep in your direction, but the more you can integrate research into your day-to-day activities, the easier it becomes to build up your knowledge and the less you need to rely on active research (or more to the point, when you start your research, you can start from the basis of some knowledge, and build—you don't need to start from zero).
I recently finished writing a book. There was a period of six months between signing the contract and the time I needed to start writing. This was ample time to collect lots of information—from the sources I'm about to discuss, from contacts sending information, from media articles during that time—so that when I was ready to start writing, virtually all of my research was to hand. All I had to do was check out a few statistics and my research was complete.
For this project, my desk research effectively was effectively done automatically in the time gaps I had available. I didn't need to take time out of my writing schedule to complete the research. Instead, I was acquiring the requisite knowledge as part of my day-to-day activities.
For many authors, the internet is their main research tool. And by the internet, that usually means Google. Google is a great search engine and the internet is a wonderful resource, but please do not confuse a quick bit of Googling with research—whatever you find still needs to be read, analyzed, and integrated.
Also, don't just search with Google: there are other search tools too. As well as other search engines such as Bing, there are more specialized options such as Wolfram Alpha which describes itself as a computational knowledge engine (yeah, I'm not sure either, but it does provide some interesting data).
I'm not convinced that any one search tool is better than another. However, I am convinced that understanding how to use a search engine has a significant effect on how effective the tool will be for you. For instance, understanding how to search for phrases, how to limit searches by date range, how to search images, how to search specific sites, and so on can greatly increase the accuracy of your search results.
As far as web browsers go, by preference, I use Google's Chrome. There are many reasons for my preference: it is always up-to-date, pages are rendered very swiftly, I know how it works, and its work-flow/approach feels right to me.
But most importantly (for me), I like the way that it integrates seamlessly with other tools that I use, including: Instapaper, Read it Later, and Evernote (tools that I use to take information off-line and to store information—all of which are discussed later), Chrome to Phone (so I can send information directly to my phone, URL compression (which helps stop links getting lost in emails if they are so long that they break over lines), Simplenote (which synchronizes my notes across a range of devices), RSS (which is explained in a moment, and screen capture (to quickly grab an image from my browser).
The choice of browser/search engine, and how you consume the data you find and take it off-line, are secondary issues. The key issues are that first you find good information and second you analyze that information, so that you can store (and retrieve) the relevant details.
Remember books? They used to be quite popular and are still a great source of knowledge. I recommend you keep a selection of reference books close at hand.
By preference, I read books on the Kindle. Apart from preferring the reading experience, there are other practical reasons for my preference. One reason is the facility to bookmark passages. When I get to my computer I can then open the book on my desktop and have access to these notes (and to any internet links in the book).
If you don't understand RSS feeds, you need to, or at least, you need to understand how RSS feeds can benefit you.
You've probably seen those orange squares with white quarter circles on web pages (and if you're not sure what I'm talking about, look towards the top of the right-hand column on this page and you'll see an example). Those orange squares indicate that content is being published as an RSS feed (almost always in addition to publishing content as a web page).
An RSS feed is simply an additional way of making information available. However, unlike regular web pages, the RSS feed does not usually contain all of a site's information. Instead, it will send a selected portion of content. For instance, many websites include blogs—these blogs are usually published as RSS feeds in addition to being published as web pages. Equally, it is very common for sites to publish many feeds, for instance, news sites often have a feed for each of their journalists.
To view an RSS feed, you need to subscribe to it. You subscribe to feeds in a feed reader (sometimes called a feed aggregator) such as Google Reader.
You can subscribe to the RSS feeds that are relevant to you (and can ignore the feeds that are not relevant to you). You can subscribe to as many feeds as you want, so for instance, you can subscribe to the feeds for a range of individual journalists from different news organizations. Behind the scenes your feed reader will keep checking your feeds for new content. Whenever you go to your feed reader, all new content will be presented for you to review.
This approach brings several advantages:
- First, you don't need to keep checking websites—the content is automatically bought to you.
- You can focus the content you want to see—you only subscribe to the feeds that are relevant to you, and you don't need to wade through a lot of irrelevant material to get to what you want.
- All of your new content is aggregated in one place—you don't need to remember to keep looking for information.
- All new content is marked as unread, so you can keep track of new articles. Equally, you can star any interesting articles.
- You can share and/or save any interesting/relevant articles.
And just in case you're worried, the feeds to which you subscribe do not know that you (as an identifiable individual) have subscribed (and no one else will know what feeds you have subscribed to, unless you tell them). If you choose to unsubscribe, then the feed owner won't know that you've gone (and won't have any way to hound you to come back/send you spam emails, and so on since the subscription process is done through the feed reader).
The apps on my iPad and phone both sync with Google Reader so that I can see what I have read and which articles are new. Equally, I can star interesting items (the stars sync between devices), and also send articles to Evernote, my long-term storage (which I will discuss later).
As well as meaning that I don't have to be at my desk to read my feeds (which for me is a huge bonus), these mobile devices offer me a great advantage in that I can check my feeds whenever I have a moment or two to spare.
You might think that Twitter is a service where inane people exchange banal details about their daily lives, all in 140 characters or fewer.
And you would often be correct. However, there are people on Twitter who use the service in a constructive way. Very often, instead of making a blog post or some longer form notification, people will post small nuggets on Twitter—typically a link to an interesting article with a few words of explanation.
If you find the right people to follow—and unfollow the banal—then Twitter can become a powerful source of information for you. If you want to take this a step further, then you can subscribe to individuals' Twitter feeds through your RSS feed reader (rather than a Twitter client). This way more of your incoming data will be in a single place, but you won't be able to reply to comments or retweet.
Many people also find similar useful sources of information by connecting with well-chosen individuals through Facebook and Google+.
Have you ever wished that Google worked just for you, seeking out all the new information that interests you and ignoring everything else?
Well, it does. It's called Google Alerts.
Google search works by indexing the whole of the internet. It sends out a spider to analyze every page on the internet. Details of each page are then stored in a central index, so whenever a page is changed or a new page is added, Google will know. If you ask Google nicely, they'll tell you about the new pages that are relevant to you.
Google Alerts is essentially an automated search that is performed on every new page that is indexed by Google, and setting up an alert is only a little harder than searching Google. To set up an alert, go to Google Alerts and then:
- enter the search terms
- decide where you want searched (everywhere, just news items, blogs, and so on)
- decide how often you want to be notified about new items
- determine whether you want to see all results or just the best results that Google finds, and then
- decide how you want the information sent to you. Either you can receive an email, or (as I prefer) you can receive the information as an RSS feed—this integrates your own personal research into your other information gathering activities.
Once you have an alert set up, you can tweak it. For instance, you can change the search term or you can reduce the frequency of notification (which can be very useful if you have a particularly hot topic).
You can set up a whole range of alerts and you can be alerted about any term on which you can search. I often set up searches to notify me about topics and people, but you don't have to be limited in this way—you can search for anything you want.
If there is a limitation of this service, it is that your search can only extend to where Google is allowed to search. In other words, if a site blocks searching or the content is hidden behind a paywall, then Google will not be able to alert you to any new publications.
The combination of RSS feeds and Google Alerts can be very powerful for generating a highly customized flow of information.
You will know (or at least have some pretty strong ideas) about the projects you want to work on in the next few years. By subscribing to the appropriate RSS feeds and setting up a range of Google Alerts (as well as following some key individuals on Twitter) you will be able to focus the information that is coming to you.
Clearly there's no guarantee that the right information will come to you, but by planning ahead you can ensure that you keep up-to-date with subjects that matter to you, and that this base level of research/learning is both spread over a period of time and integrated into your day-to-day activities.
Another great source of information is other people. Friends and other contacts will often send me articles or links to information that they have seen which they think I may have missed or been unaware of the significance of.
While I subscribe to many RSS feeds and I have a range of Google Alerts set up, I do still scan the media. If nothing else, this helps me find unexpected issues (in other words, issues not covered by my feeds or the Google Alerts that I have running).
Reviewing and Processing Information
Once I've found my information, there's a step before it gets put into long-term storage: processing. In short, I:
- Review the information I have found.
- Throw out the rubbish.
- Keep the relevant material.
Sometimes I can complete the capture and processing stage together, but particularly when I have gathered a lot of material, I will sift through what I have found at a more convenient time.
There's another factor here. As a matter of personal preference, I don't like reading vast amount of information from a computer screen while I'm at my desk. I prefer to take the material off-line and go and sit somewhere more comfortable to do my reading. Also, again as a matter of personal preference, at different times I am more inclined to read—when I'm in a mood to search, I'm usually not in a mood to read in detail.
Luckily for me there are some great tools to help me with this.
For me, my main non-desk-based reading tool is my iPad and to a lesser extent, my phone, each used in conjunction with Pocket.
Pocket allows me to read a web page at a later time, much like a video recorder recording a television program. When I am viewing a page on the web (with Chrome) it is a matter of a single click and that page will be sent to Pocket. Equally, when reading my RSS feeds and my Twitter stream, it is also a matter of a click to send a link to be read later.
When Pocket reproduces a web page (on the iPad/phone), it is presented in a simplified form with all the navigation and extraneous material removed making the article much easier to read.
Once I have read an article, if I want to commit it to long-term storage, Pocket makes it simple to send the article to Evernote.
For me, from a work-flow perspective, I like having a straightforward reading list that I can sit down and go through. Pocket gives me the opportunity to adopt a work-flow that works for me. There's no magic to the tool: it simply allows me to filter the material that I have collected in a highly efficient manner.
Once I have reviewed my material, the final step for the data that I want to keep is to commit it to long-term storage, and for me that usually means sending the material to Evernote.
I'll talk a bit about why I chose Evernote in a moment, but it is not the only option—it just happens to have a functionality that matches my needs nearly exactly. You could store your research in a folder on your hard drive, in Dropbox (or a similar file sharing/accessing service), in Google Docs, in OneNote, in a dedicated writing tool (such as Scrivener or Storyist). The keys to your choice should be:
- security of data (in terms of ensuring that the files don't get lost/shredded), and
- ease of access (if you can't find what you're looking for, quickly, then there's little point in having the information stored).
So what is Evernote and why do I use it?
In simple terms, Evernote is a database where I can dump any piece of information. I can store text, images, audio files, video files, PDFs/Word documents, spreadsheets, and so on. In short, it will store any digital file I present to it. It then stores the information online (with a local copy) meaning that I can access my entire research database from anywhere where there is an internet connection (or anywhere if I'm using a device with a local copy of the database).
At any stage during the information capture and processing stages, information can be sent to Evernote. So for instance, I can send it directly from Google Reader (if I'm reviewing an RSS feed), directly from Chrome, I can upload PDFs and other documents automatically. In most cases it's a matter of a single click to send information to Evernote.
Benefits of Evernote
I said I would explain why I use Evernote. For me, there is no one reason why I use the tool—instead it's a matter that it works so well for me in so many different ways. In no particular order, this is a list of reasons why I use Evernote.
- It is easy to get data into Evernote—usually it's a single click.
- I can input and extract data using all my devices (in other words, a desktop computer, a laptop, my iPad, my phone, and so on). This means I can carry my entire research database in my pocket.
- The data is stored online so I can access it from wherever I am. Equally, local copies can be kept in case of a bad internet connection.
- Data in all formats that I receive (text, Word documents, spreadsheets, audio, video, PDFs, and so on) can be stored (without a need to convert the data into a different format).
- Some structure can be put around the data (so for instance, I can identify my research relating to a specific book).
- All data is indexed and is searchable.
- All images are scanned for text, and that text is also indexed so the search function will look inside images when searching. PDFs and other documents are similarly indexed and searchable. Everything (apart from audio and video) is searchable.
- (When using Google Chrome as my web browser) my database can be included within any searches (that is Google and Bing searches), so I can search the internet and my database simultaneously (without needing to open up Evernote).
- The data in Evernote can be easily extracted and each document can be shared (publicly and privately).
- All of my research is in one place. I don't store research on a per-project basis, and therefore my research is all immediately available irrespective of the project I'm working on.
- Geotags can be added to notes (there is a field to drop in a geotag which then becomes a clickable link to open up a map).
- I have yet to find a practical limitation to the amount of data I can store.
Categorizing and Tagging Information
Once I've sent information to Evernote, for me, there is another step: categorizing and tagging the information.
Each document can be assigned to a folder and can have a number of tags added. The benefits of this step are that they make specific documents faster to find, for instance, I can pull up all documents with a specific tag. Equally, I can limit a search to a specific folder.
This is a quick task and one that I perform once or twice a week.
This part of the process also gives me an opportunity to review the material I'm holding on the database. If I'm not sure whether to store something, then I store it—the corollary to this approach is that I need to weed out material. There is generally little downside to holding too much information, but I prefer not to store too much that has ceased to be relevant to me.
Throughout this process, I have chosen specific tools for specific jobs. Evernote is no different, and in that context, has certain limitation (or phrased differently, if you're going to try Evernote, don't have unrealistic expectations and don't criticize it for not doing something it wasn't designed to do). For me, the main limitations in Evernote are:
- Photos. While you can load photos onto Evernote, if you're looking to share/display your photos, there are better options (such as Flickr). Equally, if you want to share videos, then YouTube is probably a much better option.
- Audio, video, and search. Audio and video are not searchable, therefore it is important that you add a few surrounding words and appropriate tags if you want to find an audio file when you search. By the way, this isn't just a limitation of Evernote—it's a limitation of all search engines (at the moment).
- Books. It's not practical to take books and put them onto Evernote. Like with audio and video, my solution here is to include a few words (to show up on a search) and include a reference to the book.
In many ways, the retrieval of information is the easy bit. However, there is still some work for me here—mostly checking the categorization/tagging of articles I access, but also deleting obsolete material.
I don't think I'm doing anything radical with my research. Essentially with my research all I'm doing is keeping an ordered filing cabinet with notes and clippings. The twist from the analog world is that I'm mostly achieving this through electronic means. However, for me, the advantage of an electronic approach is work-flow: I can find information, process it, store it, and access it all at the click of a button, and from any geographical location.
This is quite a personal note explaining the process that I follow. I don't claim to have the solution, but I have an approach that works for me, and which I keep refining to make sure it keeps working.