Looking for the Perfect Organizing System for Writing Projects

The late, great C.C. (for Calico Cat), contemplating her owner's latest attempt to organize a writing project, wondering, "Is this supposed to be a substitute for kitty litter?"

Keeping all my writing projects organized is like herding cats. They are hard to keep track of. What should my priorities be? Finish my book? Screenplay rewrites? Research for a new script for my screenwriting group? This blog? Article queries?  Essay submissions? Website updates? Writing a proposal for a possible teaching gig? Writing a new speech for my Toastmasters group? Jumping on the e-book and social networking bandwagons? Drumming up new clients for my editorial business? Marketing my little publishing company’s first book? And, oh yeah, I have a family. People. And a cat.

Back in high school I hated “writing tools,” such as the A, B, C, a,b,c outlines that were supposed to help me plan out my term papers.  I resisted them. Now I’m the opposite. Now I’m always on the lookout for new and improved lists, forms, tools, hints, tips or techniques to help me organize my work. I love lists. I love calendars, agendas and notebooks of all sizes, from cheap spirals to expensive Moleskins. ™ Now that Moleskins come in so many great colors, not just black, they are sooo hard to resist. Trouble is, once I write down all my projects in a notebook and close it, I don’t open it again. I thought I’d solved this problem when I bought a stack of little sticky “To Do” lists so I can stick an abbreviated “To Do” list on the cover of the notebook to remind me that there’s more stuff “to do” written down inside. This helps. Sometimes.

I’ve tried clipboards in different colors, too, one for each current project. I even tried hanging them on the wall near my desk. But then I’d forget which was which. Is the blue one for my blog? Or I’d get too lazy to take the clipboard down off the nail to add something else, so papers would end up in a stack on my desk. I dropped that system. Now I have a dozen nail holes in the wall.

I have a friend who keeps telling me to organize it all online, but I know me and I know if it’s not in front of my face, I’ll forget it exists. And don’t even mention using 3 x 5-inch file cards. I use them by the thousands. I have boxes of them. I use them for research notes, for filing “ideas,” and for planning out chapters in books and scenes in a scripts. For a 115-page movie script, I’ll write out the beats on the cards and then lay them out in rows–one file card for each minute of film. I’ll do the very same thing on sheets of paper using the smallest size Post-Its ™, one Post-It for each minute of the story. You can move them around nicely. Or I’ll print out the draft of my script, divide it up and move scenes around on the dining room table (see photo above).

Since you can buy 3×5-inch file cards in different colors, I’ve used colors, too – maybe green for the protagonist, blue for the antagonist, etc., but then I’ll run out of one of the colors and it throws off my whole system. You can also get the Post-It versions of 3 X 5 inch file cards, but when you gather them up they stick together, so that ends that for me. I’ve tried cork bulletin boards and push pins to tack up the file cards, but I have an aversion to cork (it squeaks and feels funny) and I usually end up stepping on a tack barefoot. So forgetaboutit! Recently, I read about an author who swears by 5 x 8-inch file cards for outlining book projects. I tried that too, but I find the cards too big and when I make a mistake on a card and throw it away, it seems wasteful.

Then there’s organizing the old-fashioned way–file cabinets.In my case, that’s gotten out of hand. I have three 4-drawer file cabinets in the garage, one in my office, one in my bedroom closet, a couple of two-drawer file cabinets in the kitchen, and a couple of singles on wheels that I can roll around depending on where I’m sitting. So now which file cabinet is it that contains the material on book proposals? I haven’t a clue. Guess it’s time to re-organize them again.

Just two days ago–for $2.99 on the Red Tag table at Office Depot–I found a cool 9 1/2  x 11 1/2-inch dark blue folder with “Project Organizer” stamped in the cover. Music to my ears! Inside it are ten pocketed sections. I bought it, heart pounding, and rushed home and spent the next two hours slipping papers for ten of my projects into their respective, labeled sections, then I stuck a sticky “To Do” list on each section for tasks I need to attend to in order to complete the job. I love this folder/notebook! I just know it will get me organized. It’s my new toy. I carry it around with me, even to Starbucks..

Recently somebody oh so casually mentioned to me that maybe, just maybe, I should consider that my obsession with finding the perfect way to organize my writing is actually a way of avoiding my writing—and that the impulse I’d had back in high school to skip the outline and just jump in was the right one. But I don’t know…

You think?

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8 responses to “Looking for the Perfect Organizing System for Writing Projects

  1. Your dilemma looks so familiar. I’ve tried just about everything. Since I’ve been using Scrivener for all my writing projects, I’m dealing much better with the chaos. And lately, I’ve been thinking about starting a master project in Scrivener that will pull all the other projects together. I’m too busy right now to work it out, but Scrivener is so adaptable that I have high hopes for it. There’s a trial version for both Windows and Mac, and it’s not an expensive program.

  2. It may not be the right solution for you, but I remember being so desperate that I’d try just anything. Good luck.

  3. Your right, Sylvia. In seeking to find the “perfect” system, we end up with no real system at all. Sometimes simply picking a method and committing to using it until a project is finished can help quell that constant desire to try something new.
    Good luck in your endeavors. Love your cat’s picture!

  4. ha, ha, ha, so true…

  5. Pingback: 17 Steps Toward A Healthier Life | OMG It Went Viral

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