Ya Gotta Have a System

A step-by-step plan to keep track of everything when you’re writing a book

I was commiserating with a friend of mine about what how hard it is to keep all the research and drafts organized when you are writing a book. “You should see my office I confided,” as I took in the files and piles associated with my latest project. “Oh, I know,” she said. “My stuff is all over my table, the ten-foot island in the middle of my kitchen, and all of the steps leading down to my den. I can hardly walk around this room.” I formed a mental picture of her kitchen and suddenly felt a lot better.

On my five-by-two-foot table on wheels, which I have pulled up alongside my computer, I have two stackable sets of file folders with all the interviews and drafts of my book. On the floor, in five neat piles, all labeled, is my research. Of course, there are papers here, there, and everywhere while I’m writing, but, every night before I close up shop, I make sure everything is in its proper folder or pile.

“If I had to find something in this mess,” my friend confided, “I’d be in big trouble.” I couldn’t second that thought because I was certain I would be able to find any piece of paper I needed in less than a minute. If not the piece of paper, itself, then, definitely the exact place I had filed it.

It occurred to me, after I finished the phone conversation, that I had never seen a chapter in any book for writers on how to organize the mountain of notes, articles, interviews, and assorted other materials that accumulate in the process of researching and writing a book. (That doesn’t mean there isn’t such a chapter, only that I have never seen one, and I have read a lot of books about writing.)

Like the song from the Broadway play, Gypsy – “Ya gotta have a gimmick,” when you’re a writer, ya gotta have a system for keeping it all together; or you will go stark, raving mad before you get to chapter three. I have always had a system, but I can’t remember if it came about intuitively or by trial and error. In any event, it works, and I am happy to share it.

Set up the filing system

1. There are two parts to any filing system for your book: paper and electronic.

That means for every tangible paper file folder, you should have a corresponding folder on your computer hard drive. Everything that goes in your electronic files should have a duplicate in your paper files. That’s it in a nutshell.

2. The kind of file folder you use is a matter of personal preference.

Because chapters tend to expand and files take a lot of punishment, I like sturdy classification folders with at least two dividers and places to attach several sets of two-hole-punched papers.

3. Create a folder on your computer with the title or nickname of your book.

Inside that folder, create a folder for each chapter. Label them with the chapters’ nicknames or, for simplicity’s sake, Chapter 1, 2, 3, etc. Then, label a set of cardboard folders exactly the same way. Keep the headings simple because the point is to easily remember them.

4. Whatever you put in your electronic files should have a duplicate in your paper files.

For example, if you download something from the Internet that applies to a particular chapter, save it to that chapter’s folder and, unless it’s huge, print out a copy for your paper files. Save anything you write for any of the chapters to the proper folder, and put a hard copy in the corresponding paper folder.

5. The only exception to that rule would be if you have printed material with no corresponding computer file, and chances are you will accumulate quite a bit of paper as you do your research.

6. Did I mention books?

I always seem to refer to books, which I already own, buy for a particular project, or take out of the library. Where do they go? Preferably, all in one place – on the desk, under the desk, or in a conveniently located bookcase. The idea is to be able to get to them when you need them and remember where you put them when you don’t.

7. Of course, save your work often.

ALWAYS back up all your files to another hard drive, iDisk, cloud server, or whatever back-up method you use.

Those are the basics, but chances are you will end up with all sorts of things that don’t fit neatly into existing categories, which are your chapters. Then, what? More file folders. Besides my chapter files, on my desk, or under it, are folders labeled Sidebars, Interviews, Contacts, Correspondence, Newsletters, Notes, Stories (to plug into the chapters), CEO Speeches (over a twenty-year period), and Baldrige (which stands for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award). Most of those folders are full of printed material, but in some cases there are also electronic files, which are filed in duplicate folders inside the book folder on my hard drive.

Is this complicated? Not really. So what’s the big deal?

Well, first, unless you are an extremely organized person or an experienced writer who has done this for past projects, you may not have given any thought to setting up a dual filing system.

Second, this whole process should take place the minute you decide on your main subject areas or table of contents, and before you begin any other aspect of your book.

And, finally, every piece of information you handle – electronic or paper – should be filed in its proper folder, on the computer and in hard-copy form if possible, as soon as you are finished with it.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and, actually it is. But it’s worth it for two reasons:

(1)You will always be able to put your hands on anything you want in less than a minute.

(2) Whatever room you work in, you can confine everything related to your book to a very manageable space.

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