Are you fighting a chaotic mess of manuscripts? A plethora of plot outlines? Reams of rejection letters? Do you lose documents and important info? Do you have enough paper on your desk to potty-train a herd of baby Godzillas?
You’re not alone.
I recently did some research on organization specifically for writers and authors, then I presented my findings to the MNSpec Writers Group. I’ll post a link to the podcast here when it goes live, but this blog post highlights five key points from that presentation.
One book that was very helpful in my research was Organizing for the Right Side of the Brain: A Creative Approach to Getting Organized by Lee Silber. According to Mr. Silber, writers, authors and other creative types have special needs when it comes to keeping organized. Writers (especially Fiction writers) tend to be right-brain dominant, and right-brain dominant people are wired for creation, not organization. Their thinking is more abstract and intuitive than left-brain dominant people, whose thinking is more linear and analytical. You can read more about Left-Brain, Right-Brain Theory here, and you can take this test to see whether you are right or left brain dominant.
The most surprising discovery I made in my research was that I’m not as disorganized as I thought I was. It all started with this revelation:
Cleanliness Does Not Equal Organization
I used to believe that a clean desk was an organized desk, but on closer examination, I found that is not always the case. For instance, I work with someone whose office cubicle looks like it was ransacked by the FBI. It looks like the contents of every desk drawer were turned out onto her desktop. But she never loses things. She knows exactly where everything is. She can pull stuff out of the chaos like a magician. You wouldn’t know it by looking, but she is very organized.
Meanwhile, another coworker’s cubicle looks like it’s her first day on the job. Not a scrap of paper in sight. You literally could eat off the surface of her desk, it’s that clean. But she’s constantly asking me for copies of paperwork I gave her earlier. And when I ask her for paperwork, the usual response is, “Oh, I’m not sure where it is. I’ll have to dig for it. Let me get back to you.”
So there you are: Cleanliness does not equal Organization. If you “clean” your writing desk by shoving all those stacks of paper down the laundry chute, then your desk really is clean. But if you spend hours sifting through a mountain of paper in the basement, looking for manuscripts instead of writing, then you really are not organized.
So if organization isn’t cleanliness, what is it?
Bing.com suggests Organization is “effectiveness of arrangement” But we can do better than that. Try this:
Organization: The ability to find things in a reasonable amount of time.
The more organized you are, the faster you can find things when you need them. You either know EXACTLY where they are, or you know MOSTLY where they are, and can find them after a short search. Either way, if you are organized, then you don’t waste much time looking for things, whether these ‘things’ are contact information, appointments, character bios or that manuscript you haven’t worked on for months.
None of which has to do with cleanliness, which leads me to my first tip for writers and authors trying to get more organized:
Writer Organizing Tip #1 – Don’t Fear The Clutter
Authors, writers and other creative types are less limited by clutter than your average person. They are able to see patterns in chaos that would drive a left-brained person barking mad. Having things out where they can see them is a trait of right-brained folks who tend to believe that out of sight = out of mind. Where others see piles of paper on a desk, right-brainers are able to see a series of tasks they are working on: Manuscripts to revise, royalty checks to deposit, and rejection letters to burn to offset the heating bill.
So just because you have piles of paper on your desk doesn’t mean that you aren’t organized. Measure your organizing skills by how long it takes you to find things, or how often you lose things. Obviously its more pleasant to work in a clean work environment, but that’s a blog post for a different day. As long you are able to find what you need when you need it, don’t be afraid to have things out where you can see them.
Writer Organizing Tip #2 – Use Containers and Labels
The bad news is that being organized requires setting limits on the areas we have to search and flagging items so they can be easily found. The two tools that help us do this are containers and labels. These are also the core philosophies (and the core differences) in the way the Microsoft and Google approach organization.
Microsoft Windows was designed to be a digital desktop replacement. It has a desktop, and a series of containers just like your real office has file cabinets/drawers/file folders, etc. So when you’re done with your manuscript, you file it under MyDocuments/Writing/Manuscripts/2011/RejectedByEveryone/Twice. Later when you go to look for it, you navigate through the containers to the folder “where it oughta be” and there it is.
Google approached organization in a different way. “If we can search through everything to find what we’re looking for really quickly,” they thought, “then why bother to separate things when we put them away? We’ll just tag things with labels to look for later and throw them all in a big pile!” Using this system, we search for [MyDocuments Writing Manuscripts 2011 RejectedByEveryone Twice] and there it is.
Regardless of which you prefer, Containers and Labels serve the same purpose: to help us find things later on. Unless you have a perfect memory, you will need these tools to be organized.
Containers and Labels sound like tools made by left-brainers for left-brainers, but here’s actually where creative people like writers and authors have an advantage. Creative people are able to see containers as an abstract thing instead of a bunch of boxes you buy from IKEA:
- A calendar can be a container for appointments
- Your cell phone can be a container for all your contact information
- A room of your house can be a container for manuscripts
- A computer can be a container for digital documents
- A website you log into can be a container too. For example, gmail.com is a container for e-mails.
In fact, you are already organized to some extent. Your manuscripts are already in a container called Planet Earth. It’s just going to take you a few thousand years to search it, but if that’s not an unreasonable amount of time, then congratulations! You’re organized.
For most of us, a few thousand years is about how long it’s going to take to hear back from our agent, and certainly an ‘unreasonable’ time, so we’ll need to narrow the boundaries on where our important documents are kept (container) and paint them bright orange (label) so we can find them in a more reasonable amount of time.
Writer Organizing Tip #3 – Outsource the Search
Wouldn’t it be great if you had a house-elf (lets call him Dobby) that you could send to fetch your manuscripts, notes and character bios for you? Would you care what the filing system was? Would you care if Dobby had to run down a slippery circular staircase with only a torch for light and fight off a hungry dragon to get your manuscript that was filed underneath the cat’s sandbox?
Hells No! As long as Dobby was able to return it in a reasonable amount of time, you wouldn’t care. You’d just throw all your documents down the laundry chute and be done with it! The best part is that you would STILL be organized!
Well, if you are able to get your info into a digital format, you’re in luck. Because there are Dobbys all over the digital world. They’re called Search. Your operating system has a search feature to help you find files on your hard drive. I think every e-mail program has a built-in search feature, and if yours doesn’t then you need a new e-mail program. If you store stuff in EverNote, WordPress, Gmail, Google Docs, etc… then you have plenty of little Dobbys just waiting around to find things for you. Take advantage of them and let them do the search work for you.
Writer Organizing Tip #4 – Don’t put things where they belong. Put them where YOU will look for them
“I don’t believe it! There she goes again! She’s tidied up and I can’t find anything!”
–She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby
If that sounds familiar, then this tip will help you a lot: When you put something away, don’t automatically put it “where it goes.” Instead, put it where you will go to find it when you need it later on.
Would you store a cookbook in the kitchen? For left-brainers, sure. But for right-brained types, it might just as well be near your desk where you make the grocery list, or in the bookshelf with the other books, or on the nightstand because you like to read the chocolate fondue instructions aloud during intercourse. One of the authors from my writer’s group keeps her dental floss in the living room where it’s easily accessible while watching TV. A good rule of thumb is to put the thing near to where you will actually use it.
This goes for labeling too. When labeling things, make sure to use labels that you will look for later. For example, all the email fan letters I get from Suzanne Vega I tag with:
- Fan Mail
- To be read aloud while making chocolate fondue
So when putting things away, don’t think about putting this thing away. Instead, think about looking for this thing later. That will help you determine how to label it and what container to put it in, which will help you to be more organized.
Writer Organizing Tip #5 – Three FREE Programs To Help You Get Organized
Evernote works great as a container for story ideas, outlines, research, marketing info, and much, much more. Read this blog post about how Evernote rocks for authors.
There are plenty of e-mail clients out there, but a Gmail account gets you a LOT more than just e-mail:
- Use Gmail contacts as a container for all your contact info.
- Use the Gmail calendar to contain your schedule and appointments (Bonus Tip: Set up SMS messaging for important events. I do this for birthdays and appointments, and receive a text reminder on my cell phone.)
- Use Google docs instead of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, then your documents are contained and organized for you.
- Your Gmail account also gives you access to Picassa, Google’s online picture organizing software
- Google Reader makes a great container for RSS feeds and podcasts
- Of course, all of these services come with labeling and search features to help you get and stay organized
There are many free file-backup software services: SugarSync, Dropbox, Mozy and more. But any of them can act as a container for your important documents, manuscripts, photos and other data files. Read my review of SugarSync vs Dropbox for all the reasons why you want this FREE software.
Does this mean you can just throw all your manuscripts, notes, and character bios into a single folder (or a single program like EverNote) and call yourself organized? Does this mean you can have stacks of paper on your desk and still call yourself organized?
Hells Yes. As long as you can find things in a reasonable amount of time, you no longer have to feel guilty calling yourself an organized writer.
So rejoice all you authors, writers and right-brained friends! Putting together a system of organization is easier than you think. It’s keeping things IN the system that’s a challenge. It requires willpower and motivation, which are topics for another day.