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 #5: I can never find what I need when I need it.
1. Set up an organizational plan as early as possible.
The bigger the project, the more detailed the plan. No other equation works, especially for the writer who is disorganized by disposition. If you don’t know how to draft a plan, ask for some advice, as if you were bringing in a professional to help you organize your closets. Your subject area, no matter how focused, has parts. Make a list of the parts of your story and name those parts. Those parts can become topics, which can become the names of some of your most important files.
2. Make copies of your most important research materials.
This strategy of copying, which can proceed digitally or analogically, will not waste time or paper. Most writers come to know so much through their research that they do not even know what they know. A review of your materials requires you to make decisions about what is essential and what is marginal. The act of copying in this context is an act of learning. I’ve seen some writers actually retype their notes so that the sorting and selecting process can begin in earnest.
3. Surround yourself with your most important reference works.
I keep my favorite or most important reference works near at hand. These begin with my dictionaries, close enough that I can lean over and grab them with my left hand. The plays of Shakespeare and the Bible sit on a nearby shelf. They are always with me. But when I begin a new project, I always clear out my bookshelves. I will remove books from a completed project and replace them with books I need for my next focused period of learning.
4. Work with pixels and paper.
I’ve become an old-school-meets-new-school writer, neither Luddite nor geek. Computer files offer me clean and easy storage, rational categories of organization and the ability to cut and paste and revise with ease. Paper files proved more than simple backup. They help me see the whole body of work at once if I want to. They allow my hands and memory to function as a search engine parallel to the ones in my computer (not as powerful, I admit, but with a little more funk). If I lose my way in paper, I can always return to pixels.
5. Back up your files.
As someone who has lost at least a dozen unpublished stories over the years, I can testify to the need to back up your electronic files. Wherever you work or go to school, make sure you get good advice on the best ways to protect your work. Don’t always be sure a cloud has a silver lining. It is hard to wipe out electronic files, either by accident or intent, but it does happen, so get backup from CDs and flash drives. Secure printouts in two separate locations. No matter how powerful your computer, never forget people power. When I am finished with a draft of a book manuscript, for example, I share a copy with a Poynter pal, my agent, and my editor. “You don’t have to read it,” I tell them. “It’s just for safe keeping.”
6. Index and cross-reference.
Part of creating backup is some redundancy in your indexing system. For example, here’s how I organized my physical space and working materials for the book “The Glamour of Grammar.” Imagine a shelf of books, a small table stacked with the most relevant material, and in my computer, several versions of a working draft. I created a set of hanging files, each one corresponding to a possible book chapter. I had a parallel set of index cards with possible chapter titles. Those index cards were also marked with annotations that point me to additional material I might need.
7. Create a wall map.
For every big project, I create on a wall or bulletin board a visual representation of the project. For a book it may be chapters. For a narrative it may be scenes in some kind of tentative sequence. An investigative team from the Tampa Bay Times took me on a tour of their workspace, a small conference room on the third floor. The walls of the office were covered with stuff in progress: texts, photographs, timelines, key players, revealing documents. Essentially, the room provided a 360-degree view of the story, a circle of narrative.
8. Research it again if necessary.
Do not feel embarrassed by the loss of key research material. Even if you know it’s not lost, only hiding, you may not have time to track it down. When that is the case, bite the bullet and report it again. No need to be confessional. Just tell the source that you are double-checking information that you gathered earlier. Your source really wants you to be on the mark. And so do you.
9. Beware the dark side of technology.
I believe the meaning of schadenfreude now includes taking pleasure in the failures of technology, especially when computer geniuses suffer through glitches during a major presentation of a new product. It’s actually comforting. Not so comforting are stories from frustrated researchers of sound recorders that did not work or Internet connections that failed at exactly the wrong time. There is, of course, an escape hatch. Its name is plan B. The more important the project, the more careful and elaborate the backup plan needs to be.
10. Inventory your materials at key points in the process.
Take a little break at key intervals in your reporting and writing process: after the research, when you about to select your best material, after a first draft….Use your time-out to examine your working materials, perhaps restoring or revising their order. Ask: What have I forgotten? What is still missing? What will I need for the next step? What do I still have to learn? What could make this better?
Previously: ‘Save string’ and 9 other things to do when your work habits are disorganized | 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