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Organizing the Writer’s Chaos: Files – Electronic and Otherwise

Just like finding the right method of writing, there is no ONE WAY to organize and make sense of the mountains of papers that pile up on a writer’s desk and in his desk drawers and under his bed and in the leftover boxes from the new washer or refrigerator. There are any number of organizational methods and tools to use, but I thought I’d share about my own way of organizing my writing.

My Writing Process

I’ve talked about it a little bit, in the past (see my “Like a Snowflake” post) but here’s how I tackle a new story:

  1. I start with a central image, maybe a character or two, and a barely-defined setting, and I begin to write. My early drafts are almost always hand written, in a spiral notebook that opens “around” and lays flat. Page size doesn’t really matter to me, but the notebook must lay flat when opened. I write on both sides of the paper.

  2. I write linearly from that core image until the linear progress stops. Most of the time, the core image isn’t the start of the story, it is some part of the middle, or maybe even the climax/end. So, after I hit my first roadblock, I circle back to what I think the beginning of the story is. Usually, I’m wrong, but that doesn’t matter. I may, at this point, think of another scene or two. I will write them, if I know what they are. The hand written draft stage is as free of the internal editor as I can possibly be. It is messy. It is full of mistakes. The spelling is terrible. There is a kind of shorthand that comes into play. You would see “w/” for with and “@” for at. Sentences circle back on themselves. Let it run, man, let it run.

  3. I rip the pages from the notebook, put them in an approximate order, and type. I type the words into a new project in the writing software Scrivener. (It’s okay. You can click the link. I don’t get a kickback from the Scrivener people.) Scrivener (or, a similar program called yWriter, by Simon Hayes) has been my main organizational tool for several years now. This sort of writing software is great for long projects, but I use it for short fiction, as well. You can divide your work up into scenes and chapters, which you can move around with ease, and it is much easier to find the section you are looking for or add a new scene if you have this more graphic interface. I write everything in scenes, even if the end result won’t have hard scene breaks or visual scene clues (stars, bars, happy faces). The software saves often, automatically, and makes a full backup every time you exit the program. I also save all of my writing into my Dropbox folder for off-line, automated storage. Finally, I have regular backups of my entire computer on an external hard drive.

  4. When I type the words, I do some initial editing. Obvious things get fixed. I leave space if there is an obvious hole. I might move a sentence or a paragraph to a more reasonable location. Not a deep edit. That comes next.

Beyond the First Draft

Once I’ve accomplished the steps above, I consider myself to have a “first completed draft” of a story. (Or, chapter, or whatever.) That’s when I begin to implement more low-tech organizational solutions.

  1. I print a copy of the first completed draft and put it in a partitioned folder, along with the original hand-written draft. (Yes. These folders are freaking expensive. You CAN find them on sale, sometimes. Cami was able to rescue an ENTIRE CASE for me, from unused teacher supplies. I’ve bought them full-price, too. It’s an investment I’m willing to make.) I put the longhand draft in the far left hand position (the 1st set of clips, if you open left to right) and the MOST CURRENT typed draft in the farthest right side (the last set of clips).

  2. I read and re-read the draft, making as many edits, corrections, changes as I feel I can fit on the pages and still keep it understandable. If I add large chunks of text, I’ll usually do it on separate paper with a notation where the text goes in the draft of the manuscript.

  3. When the draft becomes too hard to read and edit (because of all of the marks or because significant structural changes have been made) I will go back to the software and make the changes to the text. When I make changes, I try to stay open to even more new words coming out and joining the party, especially in the first couple editing passes. I can tighten up the language later.

  4. When the prescribed changes are entered, I print another copy. I move the first draft to the first open slot in the folder after the hand-written pages, and put the MOST CURRENT typed draft back into the last slot, ready for the next round of edits.

  5. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Creating a Self-Contained, Chronological History

So, every story (or, for a novel, every chapter) has its own self-contained, chronological file that is easy to store, and easy to pull out and work on. When I’m done drafting (after readers have looked at it, maybe when I’m submitting the piece to magazines) I put a copy of the final draft in the farthest right slot, unblemished by pen marks, frowny faces, and down twinkles. If I need to, I can refer back to earlier drafts at any time. I don’t keep multiple Word Document files of the same story (versions) because I don’t want to accidentally email the wrong (old) version of a story to an editor. I have an electronic file on my desktop with the final draft documents (in MS Word format) for all of the stories I’m currently sending out for submissions, so I know which files to upload when I’m submitting. The computer (and the various backups, on-site and off-site) contains the culmination of my work, but the physical files contain the progression of it.

Hope that all makes sense, and maybe helps you come to some understanding of the ways you can best organize your writing life to make your work product accessible and easy to work with.

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