How organized are you? I realized last year that I had spread my writing over various notebooks and virtual programs and platforms to the point that it took me an hour to find a snippet I wanted to use. The best book writing software will help you get your words on the page, but it won’t organize them on your computer so you can find them again — as I experienced firsthand while hunting down that snippet.
The “search” function pulled up zero. I checked my hard drive files, Dropbox, Google drives, blog, and finally Evernote. It wasn’t there.
By the time I went back through the files, I was frustrated and worried that maybe I was losing more writing than I was saving. Not losing it in the sense that the writing was gone, but losing track of where and how I manage my writing process.
Where do you keep your writing?
The (Dis)Organized Writer
I’m an organized person for the most part, but I have too many ideas and writing projects spread across too many places.
Offline, I keep several notebooks at a time, for logging ideas, processing novels, and developing non-fiction articles on the various topics I write about regularly. Digitally, I keep work on my hard drive, on Dropbox, in Evernote, on my blog, and in Google drive. As I have swapped out computers, I have saved work on flash drives and external hard drives, further complicating things.
I decided last year that I needed to simplify how I manage my writing files.
(Warning: this is not an article about cleaning your desk or going to buy pretty containers for things. Those tasks, while fun, are typically indicators that I am procrastinating.)
3 Questions to Start Organizing Your Files
You don’t need a big, complicated system or new book writing software to get minimally organized as a writer. Here are the questions I asked to finally tame the mess in my files. (I’m sure you all already do these things, and I’m the only one regularly trying to find where I saved my work.) If you are a non-techie, I have a couple quick tips at the end for you.
1. Where am I currently saving things online?
Get honest about all the places where you save things by default. I have my Mac desktop and cloud, a work Google drive, a personal Google drive, Scrivener, Evernote, various thumb drives and external hard drives, and a DropBox. For each one, I asked myself, “Why am I saving work in this spot?”
All my school related documents and writing are on a Google drive associated with my work email, in folders associated with each course, topic, or responsibility. This one was easy to justify and keep. (It’s also very organized — why can’t I do that with all my work?)
My personal Google drive is where I collaborate with other writers in real-time, whether sharing beta-reading files, research, or writing projects in process. It is also where I write and keep most of my non-fiction writing articles. Again, these are all in clearly labeled folders and I use it weekly.
The other places are where things got a little sticky, and I had to ask another question.
2. How can I simplify?
As I looked through the other files, programs, and platforms, I was torn. I kept circling back to the thought, “I can’t get rid of that. I have work on there.” Who knows if it’s work I actually need or if I’ve looked at it ten years. It exists.
Confession: in the past, I would have created one big folder, labeled it “Old Files,” and dumped everything in there (I may or may not have a folder labeled “green thumb drive” in my files right this minute).
This is not simplifying — it’s hiding the problem.
I don’t have time to go through all those old files, so I decided to simply establish clear guidelines for the places where I’ll save files going forward.
Novel and long-form nonfiction research is with the manuscript in Scrivener that saves automatically in my cloud. (If I didn’t have Scrivener, I would probably create a folder for each book and then two files inside labeled “Manuscript” and “Research.”)
I’m keeping all other types of writing in one place with clearly labeled folders for the type of writing: short fiction, poetry, essays, and edits. There are sub-folders based on topics or categories that help me, but mostly, if I save it to the designated folder, it’s a win.
If I go hunting for something pre-system and find it, I move it or “Save as …” to the current folder.
Commitment and consistency are beginning to pay off, because I know right where to find things lately. Which brings me to the last question I asked.
3. How am I using titles to help me easily find documents?
I used to get student work with file names like “Bananas thing” or “Here You Go” (I wish I was kidding). Now, I teach my students to label their work in specific ways to make it easy to identify.
Titles can help you sort work in meaningful ways. In my blog post folder, for example, I have the blog title as well as the date. This article is saved as “Organized Writer_Simplified Files_Jan 2018.”
Some short fiction or essay titles will have names that are easily related to the content, like “How I Saved Zombies With Essential Oils.”
Others might have obscure titles, like “Calculating,” which is a story about a self-driving car. When a title is not obvious, ask yourself what the predominant topic or image is in the piece and add it to the title. I titled mine “Calculating_self-driving car,” because I know I will remember it as “that self-driving car story.”
Title your work intentionally for ease of access.
The Best Writing Organization System
The best system will always be the one you use. My method may or may not work for you, but thinking through how to simplify and standardize a system for yourself is what’s important.
And before I wrap up, may I offer you one final tip? Back up your work regularly. If you think you have it set to do so automatically, check it monthly.
For the non-techie: Choose one place to save work. Then create at least one backup that you update regularly and learn to do it for yourself. (There are articles and videos that can help you do this, or you can find someone to help you.)
Where do you save your work? Do you have a system? Share in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to write a scene where a character needs a file (or something important) and can’t find it. Up the stakes by making it something he or she needs in an hour, or give them added pressure like an overbearing supervisor standing over his or her shoulder while they look.
Share your practice and encourage one another in the comments. And when you save your scene, remember to put it somewhere you’ll be able to find it later!