Chunks: breaking research down into steps

Maria Popova, who became well-known for being wildly prolific on her Brain Pickings blog, is fascinating. She reportedly reads 15 books a week and publishes three substantive blog posts a day. She says she has an editorial calendar that stretches a year into the future. As someone who is trying to figure out how to put more content out into the world, I just want to read a shit-ton of interviews with her in the hopes that she will spill some sort of secret trick. No dice, but it’s still nice to read interviews with her in the morning. One I read this morning talked a little about her method of note-taking and cataloging material from the books she reads.

Especially if you read as a writer, [who] ideally wants to record what
those patterns and themes are, that sort of reading is very different.

Maria Popova

Popova says that in physical books, she creates a personal handwritten index of themes and topics on the blank back pages of the book. “I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important in recurring in that volume, and then next to each of them, I start listing out the pages numbers where they occur,” she says. “And I use that, then, to synthesize what those ideas are once I’m ready to write about the book.”

I’m struggling a bit to move from researching ideas to writing articles and essays for my fellowship. I tend to do too much research and end up drowning in articles on tangential topics that excite me and that I genuinely feel help put the original core idea in context. For example, I’m working on a short paper about the concept of filter bubbles, which leads me to a bunch of interesting academic articles debunking the concept (this is where I could probably stop my research for this particular paper!), which leads me to research on the sociology of moral panics, which leads me to specific theories about how technology and moral panics have combined in the digital age, which leads me to papers on Morgellons disease, a likely delusional disease that is spread by internet-fueled self-diagnosis.

I love these digressions! They are pleasing for my brain and truly do allow me to understand concepts and links and cross-disciplinary shit. BUT goddamn dog you gotta write that paper, not explain the whole world. Gotta break that shit into 5 page chunks.

Where Popova uses Evernote, tagging and alternative indexes to organize her thoughts and prepare them to be used at a future time, I’m trying out using a program called Roam Research that uses aggressive searching and personal hyperlinking and shit. It’s like $20 a month but it allows me to create a document with a proper citation and a list of relevant quotes drawn from the material I’m reading. The quotes and citations can sit there until I aggressively search for them and plug them into my papers.

It may sound like a small step, but as someone who has always tried to make the entire leap from reading to thinking to writing in one big jump, breaking that system down into parts is a big big deal. I’m not up to 10 books or even one blog post but it’s a start.


Tim Ferriss interviewing Maria Popova (2014)

Brain Pickings

Roam Research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s