| July 6, 2010 2:32 pm

Since posting my thoughts on the integration of notes into LyX-Outline, I have gotten a number of very interesting emails. These have provided tremendous insight into how people would like to use LyX-Outline, while also helping me to better understand the role of notes and content management in the writing process.

There is, however, one point that has come up several times that I would like to address.

A variety of people have pointed out that in my original write-up, I don’t make any meaningful distinction between sources (e.g. the work of others) and new, original thinking. This was not due to an error, or oversight; but rather, I deliberately lumped the two together. Moreover, there was a rationale behind that particular piece of madness.

I understand that the sources of others and our own thinking are not the same thing. I get that using the work of others as our own is Bad Mojo. Even so, I wanted to highglight that from a creative standpoint, they can be extremely similar. The ideas of others, interesting observations of nature, or even misunderstood communication can serve as a springboard for creative endeavors. So while sources, responses, thoughts and other information might not be exactly the same thing, they are certainly on the same spectrum and most definitely related.

The notion that such a spectrum exists is very interesting to me. I originally stumbled across this idea while reading a blog post by JoAnn McNeil of The Tomorrow Museum; but pooled bodies of information can found in many other places. The collective body of scientific knowledge, for example, has long been viewed as a shared pool from which you may borrow or contribute freely (while thoroughly respecting and acknowledging the work of others). Similar “community commons” seem to exist in literature, art and design. In some cases, the shared mythology runs so deep that it is simply impossible to determine where an idea originated, or who should get credit.

Which brings me back to the subject I really wanted to write about.

Trying to figure out how notes should integrate into LyX-Outline and writing a book chapter about open source note/outline tools has given me a chance to really think about where my ideas come from, how they can be captured, and the best way to sort and manage them. While pondering such deep questions, I realized that I have a personal “taxonomy of thought”. It’s a five item list that described both the sources of my ideas and how I should use them. This was a bit of a personal revelation, and since I found the exercise interesting, I thought that I would share it here (with figures and everything).

The Taxonomy of Thought

Here is my list:

  • Static content: text of others (articles, books, essays, etc.), figures, images
  • Dynamic content: presentations, interviews; created by others, delivered in an interactive format
  • Data and Evidence: numerical results, factoids, environmental observations, information generated by others but requires interpretation
  • Notes related to content: quotes/annotations, summaries
  • Notes related to work-product: critical analysis, thoughts, scrivenings

These five categories cover most of the thoughts, sources, and information that enters my little world. What really becomes interesting, though, is what happens when you put the taxonomy on a continuum.

(Here, I stratified by the source of information with “external” data — meaning that it was generated by someone else — appearing on the left and “internal” information appearing at right. Content that is neither internal nor external — data requiring interpretation, interactive discussion, summary, critical analysis, etc. — appears in the middle.)

Once I got the information into a visual medium, there were a couple of things that stood out for me:

The first was just how little content is completely internal, or external. Even in the case of information that has been published, it requires that you read and engage with it. While the thinking might have been started by someone else, any person who picks up the book will take away perceptions that are unique to them.

The second thing which stood out was that my favorite tools for aggregating content — Zotero, which I use for reference information, managing files, and source related notes; and Scrivener/LyX-Outline which I use for putting together drafts — only cover a small amount of the spectrum. As I implied in the previous post, Zotero is really good for material that has a degree of permanence to it; while Scrivener/LyX-Outline works for stuff that needs the ability to evolve and change.

But even though the extremes might be covered, there is a lot of middle ground. What is the best way to capture and integrate all of the other miscellaneous stuff? For example, how might you corral numerical data and get it onto the same work canvas as your bibliography references and project outline? It would seem that there is still a place for the mind-mappers, outlines, and collaborative writing programs (like Google Docs) after all.

Over the weekend (and because I’m a software whore), I started looking into some tools that could help bridge the divide; and in the process, I found two that I really like. The first is called Visual Understanding Environment or VUE, and is developed by Tufts University. The second is called SciPlore.

Both programs are mind-mapping apps, but with a small twist: they include the ability to link to a reference library (VUE connects to Zotero and SciPlore works with BibTeX files), in addition to other outside content.  And while I need to play with them more, my first initial reaction is extremely positive.

Before I write, there is a big chunk of time when I’m not quite ready to start drafting — or even outlining — but I need a canvas to sketch out how my ideas connect to one another. The canvas serves as a place where I can start shooting darts, and analyze what patterns emerge. It’s also a time when I’m trying to figure out what sorts of questions can be asked, and whether there is something interesting in the amalgamated morass of my mind.

I like how Booth and co-authors describe the process in the “Craft of Research” (see page 138):

As you collect evidence, you can use reasons (and sub-reasons) to organize the evidence that anticipates the structure of your report. You can do this in a traditional outline, but at this stage, you’ll probably find it more helpful to create a chartlike outline known as a “storyboard”. YOu put your main claim and each reason or subreason on its own card (or page). Then, put all the evidence that supports an individual reason or sub-reason on its own page. Finally, arrange the cards on a table or wall to make their relationships visible.

If this chart makes your argument look too predictable, don’t worry about it. It outlines not your paper, but your argument. When you begin work on the first draft, you’ll have to plan in light of your readers point of view and find a way to introduce your problem so that it looks significant. But right now, you are still discovering what you can make of the mess in your office. Time for refining will come.

What about you? Do you have tools that help to cover the middle ground? And if so, can you foresee ways that those features might be incorporated into LyX-Outline?


2 Responses to “The Materials and Methods of Thought”

Stephen wrote a comment on July 9, 2010

I had to give SciPlore and VUE a try after reading this. SciPlore is based on Freemind which I use sometimes (I have also used Vym – although development there seems to have been by one person who has got what he wants and has now slowed). I can get Freemind stuff into Lyx via open document format export/import. Freemind doesn’t seem to allow me to number and order branches in the way I would want, so I end up doing that in LyX. I am intrigued by ability to deal with BiBTeX/zotero information (Zotero is something I have just signed up for).

VUE also looks interesting in the way it can deal with relationships beyond the coming out from a centre in a mind map – not sure how I would get information out again, appart from as graphical output.

Moon wrote a comment on July 19, 2010

As one of those who felt the need to separate sources and ideas, I found your taxonomy very interesting as well. Personally I feel that I would like to at least note the source, or heritage if you want, from everything but the complete internal. Maybe I am being too academic about this, but data, quotes, and definately interviews and presentations really are sources imho. It may also have to do with my way of idea-forming. I think that in my case much happens in my head, but also I often note the relationship with ‘the outside world’. I suppose I find it useful to be able to retrack the triggers for my thoughts anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the need for freedom of thoughts, ideas, doodles, etc. but I would always like to have a track back to the source.

I never wrote a book (yet), but I believe the idea-building process is essentially the same among any artistic creation, at least for me.
When it comes to the idea-process before the actual producing of anything creative, I think I recognise some steps I always take:
1. First, I usually panic, think I can’t do it and start browsing the internet, to learn anything concerning the subject and method I am supposed to cover. (This happens even when something is my own idea).
2. Then panic fades and I usually have a stack of web-sites, articles, pictures collected on my (digital) desktop. I keep searching the web, but narrowing – ideas start to take shape.
3. Then I make a plan, line out what the goal is, who the target is, etc. etc. This will be my reference on which I will base choices. I don’t know why, but I do this usually by hand, with pencil.
4. Then I stay in the no-computer’ mood and start sketching, cutting and pasting post-its, papers. etc. Also there are many notes here and everywhere, which I will or will not find back.

This is my base for creating. I hope this is in some way useful to you. I think the neccecary chaos-bit is more tangible to me if I can actually keep it in my hands. Things that are important are:
1. space (I use not only my desk, but also the floor and the wall)
2. meaningful visuals
3. the ability to phisically sort, pile, connect, put away (for now) etc.

If you can simulate that in the “ideas-manager”, it would probably be a miracle, but, well, it would be great too.

Hope to have been useful again,

Care to comment?