16 May 2016
At first, the idea of having a file system seems ludicrous, maybe even pretentious. You’re writing short stories, maybe sketches. A couple of printed pages. Maybe keeping a notebook. Not much of a threat to your sanity, right?
A year of steady writing, however, and the situation has changed. You have a file cabinet, notebooks or binders containing your manuscripts. A computer with an external hard drive. A desk with a printer, scanner, Wi-Fi box, monitor, a cup for hot drinks and a cup with pens.
And books. Lots and lots of books.
How do you organize it? What do you keep and what do you throw away?
So let’s back out of dreamland and on to more practical considerations. Organizing your work does not need to cause trauma. Just foresight and a system.
I would recommend “Getting Things Done.” David Allen devised a system that captures all the material, thoughts, notes, and emails, and helps you decide whether they are “actionable” (meaning they require some work on your part) or worth filing for later use. If the latter, you store them in a dedicated place until the end of the week, when you file them all.
If they’re actionable, you decide whether they can be accomplished in five minutes or longer. If the former, you perform the action. If not, then you need to break the item down into “Next Actions,” Allen’s term for a manageable part of the larger task.
With your work broken down like that, your day becomes a series of performing Next Actions so that at the end of the day, you’ll have a lot accomplished, and you’ll know where to pick up your work the next day.
There’s much more to the system, so I would recommend getting the book. I have read my copy several times; it is one of the few books that has several pages of notes in it so I can refresh my memory and get back on track.
1. Writing by File FolderThe backbone of Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system is the A-Z folder system. He recommends using just 26 folders, with the option to break out material if they all belong to a single project. Apart from that, you don’t want to go beyond A-to-Z. If you use lots of subfolders, it becomes easy to lose track of where important material went. Keep it simple as you can.
This also applies to a technique I call “Writing by File Folder.” I have a lot of ideas for stories and books. More than I can use in a single lifetime. They can be great nuisances at times. I can be in the middle of a novel, and realize that a character can be broken off into a series. In my spare time, I may come up with several story ideas about that character, each of them demanding that they be written right now.
Of course, my mind is trying to throw me off track. It wants to distract me from the hard, boring part of writing — getting it down on paper — and dive back into my imagination. Because it’s fun to imagine a story. It’s pure and whole and perfect and you know it would be a best-selling story. More than that lifeless lump on the page right now, the one that needs massaging and rewriting before it can assume a semblance of what it looked like in your mind.
When that happens, capture the idea. Write it down. Then stick it in a folder and forget about it. Once it’s out of your head, you know that you can come back to it later and see if it’s worth pursuing.
That’s one of the benefits of the GTD system. We try to keep track of so many tasks and errands in our head that it becomes difficult to focus on your work. By putting it all down on paper and stored where you can find it again, it becomes easier to work, because your brain knows it no longer has to keep track of all those tasks.
Writing by File Folder also helps you store material for future books, especially non-fiction works. You start with 26 folders, lettered A to Z, and when you come across a newspaper clipping, magazine article, speech transcript, book review, printout from a website — anything that pertains to your book idea — you throw it into the proper folder and forget about it.That’s how I wrote “Writers Gone Wild.” For years, I can across stories about writers from book reviews and feature articles, and I would print them out, label them on the side with the author’s name (or subject, such as sex, feuds, frauds, reviews, etc.) and file it in the proper folder.
For material on websites, I cut and pasted them into a Word file and saved them in the A-Z folders, plus folders on subjects such as feuds, bad reviews, fraud, and love affairs, in my Writers Gone Wild main folder (I also have a folder reserved for interesting art such as author photos, advertisements, movie clips and the like).
I have a similar system set up for other books in the series, including Hollywood, comic artists and writers, and sex. I still throw material into the WGW folders for a possible sequel.
To handle future book projects, a set of 26 folders has already been set up. By selecting them all and copying them, I can move to a folder with the new book’s title, open that, and select paste. That saves me time setting up a new book idea.
Now, you don’t have to do things this way. You may have a system that works perfectly for you. That’s all right, because it meets the CIA Third Law:
So whenever you come across a story, online or in a book, copy it to your folder. For computer files, consider using a system that renames it to something you can use to find it again. For my Gone Wild books, the files are organized by the last name of the person involved, with a few keywords identifying its contents. For a story about Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of his actresses, it might be called “HITCHCOCK Blonde Obsession.docx.” If a date is needed, I use a six-number code consisting of the year / month / day (e.g., April 1, 2016 would be 160401).
2. Using Other Systems
Writer have found plenty of ways to keep track of their material. Here are a few of them:
* MS OneNote. OneNote also has optical-character recognition software built in that will scan artwork and translate the results into a Word file. Its accuracy depends upon the quality of the scan. I have found it able to “read” a high-quality file with nearly 100% accuracy. Even if it delivers 75% accuracy, it might still be faster than keying in the document manually.
* Firefox’s Scrapbook plugin. I use this to save entire web pages that I can call back up in my browser.
* Firefox’s Zotero plugin
* Scrivener. I’ve dipped into this program and found it use, but I must admit I haven’t tried it with a book project. But others have recommended it.
* Evernote. A note-taking app.