Organizing Your Writing--Part One--Preparation and Process

by Michelle Jean Hoppe


In a previous article, I showed you how to organize your work space to create more time, and be more productive.  This article (Part one of two) will explore ways to organize your writing.  We'll cover both paper and electronic filing systems to help you keep track of all your projects--past, present and future.

The first step in starting a writing project should be to create a new file, both in your file cabinet, and on your computer.  You will be duplicating some of the items in these files, and that's okay. This will serve as a backup, should anything happen to the originals in either place.

The size of the file you'll create depends on the project.  If you're writing a non-fiction article or short story for the magazine market, you'll need a simple accordion folder with pockets, or separate file folders which can later be kept in an expandable folder, for your hard copies.  In these folders, you should keep the following:

  • Hard copy of article or short story
  • Cover letters of submissions
  • Replies to submissions
  • Correspondence with markets, both pre- and post-sale
  • Sources
  • Payments received

Your computer storage will be similar.  If you write both non-fiction and fiction, start with a folder for each of these, then create individual folders for each project within them.  Within your project folders, keep an e-copy of the article or story, proposals, cover letters you've sent out, and copies of e-mail correspondence regarding that project. 

For a larger project, like a novella or novel, use a portable file box with either hanging file folders or standard file folders.  You may also need binders, depending on the size of your files.  Start with your research materials.  Depending on your preference, you can either use a binder with index tabs, or file folders. 

Keep research material sorted by subject so it's easier to find when you're looking for it.  Whenever you copy material out of a book, include a copy of the title page.  That way, you can easily find the reference if you need it again. If you borrow a book from the library, write the call number on any copies you make so you won't have to look it up again.  If you take handwritten notes, write the title, author and call number of the book in your notes.  This way, you can easily locate a source if you need to prove something to an editor, agent or reader. Finally, if you interview someone, include the name, title and phone number of that person, along with the date of contact and a written transcript of the interview if possible.

You will find over time that you will be using many of the same references over and over.  This is when it's best to create general research folders for easy access. Rather than linking them to any work in particular, keep a separate file drawer for these research materials.  Again, create a folder for each subject and file them either alphabetically or by theme--whichever system works best for you.  File 'Craft' materials separate from 'Research' materials.  As you come across articles in magazines or newspapers, tear them out or copy them (be sure to include the source).  File them in the appropriate folder. For more efficiency, create a "To File" folder, and remind yourself to file those articles either monthly or weekly.  You may also wish to create a "Story Ideas" folder for any miscellaneous articles which pique your interest, but don't apply to your current projects. 

As for reference books, if you're a writer, you're sure to have started your own personal library.  Even this can be organized to make your writing easier.  Sort books on your shelves by subject, and within that subject, sort them alphabetically either by title or author. If you're using particular books for your work in progress, keep those books nearby on a separate shelf.  Write down the titles of any books you loan to friends, along with the date loaned, so you know where it is should you need it.  For references you used, but do not own, such as library books, keep a bibliography either in a database or spreadsheet program.  Spreadsheets are easy to work with because you can easily sort the data by any of the columns.  If you prefer to work with paper rather than electronic files, write the bibliographic information down on index cards and file accordingly.

For online research, create folders and subfolders in your "Favorites" file as your needs require.  For example, you may have a general "Research" folder, then within that folder, "Fashion" and within that folder, subfolders for Men, Women and Children's clothing. In addition to saving the page in your Favorites folder, you may want to print it out if it is not too lengthy.  This sounds like extra work, and extra storage space, but with the internet in such a state of fluctuation, what you may find one day, may not be there three months later.  If the URL does not print on the page, be sure to write it out, along with the title of the site, as some sites change URLs as well as content.

When you save a page to your Favorites folder, take a few extra moments to also save it to a spreadsheet file.  Include the name of the site and the URL in this Research file, and site content if not clearly indicated by title.  If you lose your "Favorites" file, you will still have this backup list.  Print this list out periodically and save in a separate folder. 

Once you begin work on your novel, you need to start another set of files.  These will go in the file box with your research material.  Keep copies of your character sketches, plotting worksheets, chapter outlines, floor plans, maps, etc. , in this file.  If you are working on a more complicated plot with many characters, you may want to map out a family tree and include that in your file.  This way, you can keep all your characters straight, and not contradict yourself.  I use genealogy software for this purpose.  The cost outlay is reasonable, and well worth it for stories which span decades or centuries. 

Once you begin writing, create a new folder in your computer files.  Have a separate file for each chapter or section, as well as the synopsis and any correspondence for that project.  Smaller files are more manageable, and can be easily combined into a Master File for printing and auto-collating later on.  Save your work as you go.  Some word processing programs allow you to save files automatically every few minutes, and a backup file is created in a power failure or other emergency.  Perform daily backups to a disc on any files you've worked on that day.  Once a project is complete, copy all pertinent files to a disc or CD and store the disc off site or in a fire-safe box.  If you choose off-site back-up, trade with another writer.  You keep her backups, and she'll keep yours.  Make sure the disc is easily accessible should you need it quickly.  And if you should happen to part ways with the other writer, get all your discs back and return hers. 

As you write, you will create another set of files for your file box.  Print out hard copies of your synopsis, chapters, cover letters, and all correspondence just in case all e-copies are destroyed.  Discard old versions, and keep only the most currently edited files.  Keep a master copy of your manuscript within easy reach so you can take it to a copy center when you get a request, rather than having to spend time printing it again.

Now that you've made good progress on your writing, or you've completed a project, it's time to start submitting to contests and editors.  Check back for Part Two of this article--Submitting and Networking.


Organize Yourself! by Ronni Eisenberg and Kate Kelly, Macmillan, 1997

Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern, Henry Holt & Co., 1998

Organizing Plain and Simple by Donna Smallin, Storey Books, 2002

For more resources on Organizing, see the "Writer's Resources" section on our Researching the Romance page.

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Copyright 2004, Michelle Jean Hoppe