I have written an entry about Circus Ponies Notebook (CPN), a program I can only highly recommend for collecting and structuring information for writing projects. You might want to read that entry first. In this entry, I’m going to give a short overview of how Circus Ponies Notebook can be used for academic writing (e.g., writing of a diploma or PhD thesis or an scientific article).
What do you need to write a scientific text? Besides skill and training, you need to have the information available (with their sources) in the right order.
Circus Ponies Notebook can help you with this. I had a lot of trouble remembering scientific information and consequently writing an article or text. After some toying around with different ways to organize my reading and note-taking, I came up with the following academic reading work flow:
Essentially, you use Circus Ponies Notebook and its outline pages to collect material, create the structure, make sure the logic of the argument is correct, collect results, etc. You build a huge bone skeleton of all the necessary information you have to have available for writing. If you have collected everything and found an order that works, you write down the text with a text editor (I strongly recommend using Scrivener), i.e., you create the meat and skin of the text.
1. Source (Article, Book Chapter, Book, etc.)
It starts with reading an academic text (or whatever you want to refer to, I also have presentations and fictional literature in my Bibliography). I prefer reading on the computer. While I remember more when I write my notes with a pen on paper, it takes longer and I have to type in the information anyway. So going from a .pdf (e.g., scanned article) to CPN Bibliography file is more convenient. (Careful with copy & paste, there is no use of having the whole text of the article in the Bibliography.)
2. Note Taking in a CP Notebook file (Bibliography.nb)
I write down any information I want to remember on a page created for that source in my Bibliography.nb (Circus Ponies file).
Structure of the Bibliography file
The Bibliography.nb is a typical CPN file. I have made dividers for each letter of the alphabet (and one for numbers). The dividers automatically have a tab on the side of the page which makes navigation easy. I use the surname of the first author to sort the page into the bibliography. The dividers themselves use auto-sort, so I just have to select an entry somewhere in the C-divider, press enter, type in the name of the author starting with C (in this case), and after I finished typing it automatically appears at the right place.
Below you see a part of the Table of Contents:
Structure of the notes page in the bibliography page
The page is titled with the source of the article as I would have to cite it (e.g., Wessel, D. (2007). The Role of Mobile Devices to Satisfy Situational Interest in Informal Settings In M. E. Auer, & A. Al-Zoubi (Eds.), 2nd International Conference on Interactive Mobile and Computer-Aided Learning Kassel: Kassel University Press.).
I usually copy-paste the citation in the first cell of the page and copy the .pdf of the source below it as a link. The files are all collected in a folder called cp-bib-files. It is easy to backup a CPN file with only text than backing up a file that contains over a hundred .pdf-files. The .pdf file can be opened by double clicking on its image, which is very convenient if I want to re-read something in detail or send the file to someone (as Preview can Mail Documents).
As further structure I usually follow the structure of the original text, but I include higher-level summaries in the outline (e.g., a small summary on top of the page and at the beginning of the notes of each chapter or section).
If an image or a figure is important, I usually copy-paste it from the .pdf directly onto the CPN page. I do not link the images because they are necessary to understand the notes. If I loose the source file I can find it again. If I loose the image, I do not know what the text refers to.
Below you see three pages in my Bibliography as an example:
Marking every cell on the page with the Source
After I am finished with note taking and writing down my own conclusions about the article (usually in red and in […] to remember that these were my thoughts and not those of the authors), I mark every cell with the source. This is very easy and goes really fast. For example, the article is by Hidi and Renninger and was published in 2006. Assigning this information to each cell goes in five easy steps:
- Write down “Hidi & Renninger (2006)” in a new cell
- select “Hidi & Renninger (2006)” and select “Assign as Keyword” from the right-click menu
- Expand All cells (icon)
- Select all (cmd + a if you are not in a cell)
- Right-click on a cell, select: Keywords => Add => “Hidi & Renninger (2006)”
That’s it. Every cell should now be tagged with its source. You can use cmd + k to display the keywords. As long as you remain within the CPN files and use only copy+paste to transfer them from one CPN file to the other, the keywords remain attached to the cells (they are not transfered if you copy only part of the text of a cell or copy-past-as-outline/plain-text cells!).
Separate Overview pages
If I am learning about a new topic I usually create a separate page where I link to each article that refers to this topic and make some notes about the content of the article. It helps me to get a short overview about the articles I have read.
3. Using the notes for your own work (e.g. handbook.nb)
Imagine you want to write a handbook for yourself with all the statistical methods you need in your work. You have read articles about, e.g., explorative factor analysis. If you want to use the content of one of those articles in the handbook, you can simply copy-paste the cells in the new structure in the handbook.nb file. The source information remains attached to the cells, as long as you copy complete cells and not the textual information in it, and you do it with simple copy-paste and do not use “paste as outline” or “paste as plain text”. This allows you to collect information about exploratory factor analysis from different sources on one page in a new CPN file.
After using the information on a page I usually write “copied: xxxxx” with xxxxx denoting the name of the document I used the information for. It prevents me from using the same information twice and helps me to keep an overview which information I used for what (and what to reference to when I write a related article ;-)).
When the newly created outline (e.g. handbook.nb) is finished and you have all the information from different sources you need in the order that makes sense, you can start writing a text with it. And that is the beauty of this solution: When you have your information digitally like this (and this includes the .pdf-files of the articles, books, etc.) you do not need more than your notebook and the CPN file (here: handbook.nb). You got the information, you got the source you have to name, that’s it. Now you can concentrate on writing the text without having to lookup information after information. Like all good infrastructure modifications, it places a high load on creating this structure and really reading articles this way, making the notes digitally and tagging them with the source as keyword. But once you have this, it all becomes very simple. And you need it simple, because writing takes a lot of cognitive capacity: finding the right sentence, or even the right word, take a lot of effort, and this solution can reduce that effort (or extraneous cognitive load) considerably.
I have collected a lot of information about mobile media in museum for my dissertation thesis. The articles I read came into the Bibliography.nb file, from which they were copy-pasted into my DissOutline.nb. I retained the source information but could order the cells as I saw fit, e.g., what do I need in the theoretical background, what in the discussion, etc.
See the image below:
This file became the starting point for an article I had to write, but I wanted to use only part of the information of my dissertation outline (the main problem is that you can collect a lot of information, so that you have to choose what to use and what to discard, but I like this problem better than the opposite: not knowing what to write). So I created a new file and copy-pasted the information I wanted to use in the article1.nb. After resorting the information so that a thread became visible that the article could follow, I opened a text processor, put the article1.nb outline next to it on my screen and started typing. Because all the necessary information was in the outline of article1.nb (including the results, tables and graphics from SPSS, etc.), I did not need to refer to any other sources of information.
The following image shows my desktop while writing the first article (BTW, it got rejected by the first journal we tried to enter it, but that’s unfortunately part of the game).
I used Pages as word processor because the article was very straight-forward and short.
The next image shows the same for article 2. I began using Scrivener beginning with the second article. It is just the perfect application for scientific writing, especially for longer texts where you appreciate the Backup-function and quick navigation. I wouldn’t directly start with Scrivener, since it is for writing, not for organizing (it has a research area but that is nothing compared to the power of Circus Ponies Notebook). But for writing it is — for me — the undefeated champion.
The last image shows yet another outline I used for the discussion section in my PhD thesis. Given that it is very easy to copy-paste the information, you can create a new CPN file and then focus on specific bits, e.g., the discussion. In that new CPN file you can play with the information and order it in a way it make sense.