November 18, 2015
There's a story in there somewhere. (Deposit Photos)

There’s a story in there somewhere. (Deposit Photos)

Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.

Problem 4: My work habits are so disorganized.


1. Clean out the clutter in your writing space. Stash or hide anything you can’t use on your current projects.

You need a dedicated work space for each writing project. It’s worth the time to do some spring cleaning because too much messiness wastes time and saps energy. I once saw a tweet from famed nonfiction author Susan Orlean: “Boy,” she wrote, “if I didn’t have a book project, I would never get my closets organized.”

2. Index and date your notebooks and place them on a shelf according to project and in chronological order.

If you aspire to write enterprise projects, you need at least a modest system that helps you find what you need when you need it. For the largest project I worked on, a serial narrative called “Three Little Words,” I had a stack of index cards that described one of more than a hundred scenes that might be in the month-long series. I placed them in chronological order. Then I cross-referenced the scene to its description in an interview transcript. So that IV-17 meant I could find the scene in booklet IV of the transcripts on page 17.

3. If your project has an obvious beginning, middle, and ending, divide your working materials into those categories.

If you are not a sophisticate organizer, try the three-box solution. Three is a powerful number because it communicates a sense of the whole. It encompasses everything. So get yourself three boxes or three computer files. Mark one Beginning, another Middle, another Ending. Sort through your notes, clippings, and source materials with these boxes in mind. If you come across an anecdote that summarizes key points, perhaps it belongs in the “Ending” box.

4. In your journal or daybook, write down your mission for that day’s work.

A day mission asks, simply, “What would I like to accomplish today?” Don’t make it too general: “I want to be a better writer today.” Be specific: “I want to make progress on the last chapter of the book.” Or: “I need to learn more about the meaning of rhetorical grammar.”

5. Under your day mission, list the tasks necessary to complete it.

Sometimes this comes in the form of a to-do list, which can then be ordered by priority. “Write a series of experimental leads for the last chapter.” Or, “Get recommendations from Professor Matalene on what I should read as an introduction to rhetorical grammar.” A mission statement of any kind must be expressed in strategies and tactics. It cannot be frozen in time. It will change. Expect it to melt and flow into something else, a list of tasks.

6. Place your tasks in a practical and meaningful order.

Some writers perform the easiest task first to get a running start on the day. That often works for me. I can liberate myself from the inertia of morning and get things rolling. I have to be careful, though, because it can also serve as a form of delay for the larger, more important, more arduous chores ahead.

7. Cross out the tasks as you finish them.

Nothing satisfies a writer more than completing an important task – unless it’s cashing an advance check. Look for opportunities to mark off significant accomplishments: when you’ve drafted and revised a book or project proposal; met the deadline for a first draft, completed a significant revision, responded to a set of inquiries from copy editors, read the page proofs, and much more.

8. Leave one task for the next day.

Unlike some of my co-workers, I do not need to leave the office with a pristine desktop. If I faced a clean desk in the morning, it would be hard for me to get started. This is why I will leave on my desk a token of one thing I want to do the next day. It may simply be a book I’ll want to consult. Or a name and phone number I need to call. Uncluttered works for me. Empty and bare do not.

9. Keep files or boxes in which you “save string” for future projects.

Saving string is an old-school idea that still works. If you are working on a long-term story, it helps to have a physical place to store your string. “String” is a metaphor for tiny bits of material: clippings, photos, tweets, phone numbers, blog posts, URLs for websites – all the raw material that will help create the content for your project.

10. Save the tools you have used to organize your best work.

I like to save and store the most important pieces of a finished product, especially if they don’t take up much physical space. I save, for example, the spiral notebooks that contain the earliest plans for a book and my first efforts at turning ideas into language. I save index cards that helped me capture the discrete parts or chapters. I use these tools to demonstrate my methods to others writers. I also need them to remind me that the best work takes time, a set of reliable tactics and routines that can serve the productive writer throughout a lifetime of labor and delivery.

Previously: 10 things to do when you can’t think of anything to write | 10 tips for making that assignment your own | ‘Talk to Shirley’ and 9 other tips for reporting and research

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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