As a writer, I have always kept notes, and thought out my ideas on paper, but this had previously meant only that I wrote things in a fancy notebook, using my fancy fountain pen, and often never referred to them again. Getting my thoughts down on paper was a way of thinking through the problems of my novel, before writing it.
Only the novel, was important.
When I began my PhD by Practice, however, I realised that the notes were as important, if not more important, than the novel. It was the process that mattered. And, rereading my notes, I realised that they would probably not be a great deal of help, not least because they were barely readable. The handwriting deteriorated as I wrote faster, and each page was filled with crossings out, insertions, arrows and fevered shorthand that meant something to me in the moment, but which was incomprehensible later.
And so, like most PhD researchers, I eventually realised that I would need to keep some sort of digital Research Journal.
There is a lot of journaling software on the market. Some of it is better suited to scientists and those with data driven projects. Some of it is designed with specific users in mind. Some is designed for specific platforms. Some of it is free.
If you want one of those programs, you can find a good comparison of software here
You could, of course, simply write your Research Journal in MS Word, but it is much more difficult to search and arrange data in one long document. I wanted to be able to tag specific entries by theme – Structure/Characterisation/Plot etc, so that when I come to write up my thesis I can access this information quickly.
I looked only at those programs which would suit an arts-based student who wanted to keep a fairly simple record of their project. I needed to be able to write diary entries of varying lengths, and be able to arrange and re-arrange them by themes.
And I began my search with programs that were free. I tried Journaley, but found it quite cumbersome to use, and not very stable, so quickly discarded that. I also looked at One Note, which was OK, but is designed more for collaborative work. It would make an excellent choice, probably, for anyone doing a group project. And it is free.
I did not look at any of the Apple products, as I do not have a Mac, but other users have reported finding MacJournaluseful.
The solution that I chose in the end was Scrivener. Possibly because this program was designed with writers in mind, it seemed to be most suited to my needs. The program is not free, although you can download it and use it on trial free for 30 days, which I recommend doing first.
It is relatively simple to use, although I did need to consult their FAQ section once or twice. Each new entry has an Index card attached to it, and I can move these around in Outline view, grouping the entries any way I want. I can save work in different Binders and there is also a section for Research and Notes, which I use to keep a record of ideas for further along in the novel.
I didn’t wait until the end of the free trial to purchase Scrivener, which had a one-off cost of around £40, because I was happy with my choice. My only reservation is that I am not able to back-up my Scrivener files automatically to Google Drive, as I can with all my other documents. I had to get a Drop Box account specifically for these files and manually back it up, which is annoying. However, I believe that this is something that the creators of Scrivener are working on, so I am hopeful that this will be only a temporary workaround.
I spent several days transcribing my scribbled notes into digital form, and cursed myself all the while for my lack of forethought and my hard-to-read (but kind of beautiful, I think) handwriting. So my main recommendation is, if you think you are going to need a Research Journal, and you almost certainly will, get one sooner rather than later, and use it often.