• Organizing Your Files and Pages and Notes and Stuff

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 34 comments


    Discussion questions: When you have work/writing/notes scattered all over your living space and work space, how do you keep it organized, and how do you know where to find what you need? I’m talking computer files, index cards, random scraps of paper, photographs, notes scribbled in margins of books. Or do you have a good way to avoid descending into such chaos to begin with? Let me know in the comments below.


    After last week’s chaos involving my lost chapter, and all of your wonderful feedback on how to avoid future such catastrophes–organizing external storage on Google Drive, flash drives, etc.–I started thinking about organization in general.

    If you’re anything like me, you have work/writing scattered everywhere. If you’re even more like me, too often you don’t know where to find what you need.

    For my novel, I have files on my computer and files on flash drives. I also have handwritten pages and notes spanning three writing journals. I have notes on index cards and other scraps of paper. I have printed copies of early drafts of work, stuff that doesn’t even exist as computer files anymore. I have notes scribbled in the margins of books I’ve read about my novel’s topic.

    I have all of that for my memoir as well, in addition to: voice memos on two phones of interviews and notes-to-self; other interviews on a separate audio recorder; hundreds of photos, both physical and on flash drives; and relevant objects (a particular baseball glove; a particular 1956 high school yearbook; a seventy-year-old business card) in various drawers in my nightstand, my desk, and my closet.

    When I need to find something specific, I often know where to look. Roughly. But just as often, I don’t.

    There’s got to be a better way! But short of creating some sort of card cataloging system, I’m just not sure what that way is.

    What is your way? Let me know below.

    Also, P.S., I’m pleased to report that not more than three hours ago I learned that the Chapter 1 I lost last week has been refound. After I was told on Thursday that it was probably lost forever. This news has set me much more at ease. A huge thank you to Jose at Lincoln Business Machines. If you’re in NYC and ever need data recovery or repairs, they have my full endorsement.

    Now comes the most difficult part: Reading this resurrected Chapter 1 and hoping like hell that it merits all the lengths so many people went to save it.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Barbara Mealer

    “Organization. What’s that?” I ask as I scan my ‘Woman cave’ which is piled with folders, loose papers, scraps of paper, electronic equipment, etc. I’ve made attempts at organizing my paperwork and it lasts for maybe a week before I start shoving things around or adding to it. I did buy some cheap notebooks for notes and some writing exercises and notes along with the normal legal pads I use for ideas and blocking out a book. On my computer, things are much, much better, all organized into folders where I put things, then promptly loose them because I can’t… Read more »


    Barbara, your house sounds like ours, and we’re trying to clear and clean the disorganized mess up so sometime in the future we can list our house and get into something smaller. I don’t know how that’s going to work. We have file cabinets but can’t get to them, because there is stuff (books, etc.) piled in front of them. I’m considering hiring one of those “help you clear out your stuff” pros to help with the job if something doesn’t get done soon. I can usually find what I’m looking for after a few hours of going through stacks… Read more »

    david william lemke

    I feel your pain. Watch out for people that want to organize for you. My garage was always a mess because I never cleaned and seldom put things back in their place. My oldest son volunteered to clean the garage for me. I made the mistake of saying OK. To make a long story short, I never ever got anything done again because, where-as before I had a general good guess where I put stuff, now with everything organized I had no idea where anything was and just gave up looking. Fortunately, a year or so later, I had to… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    organization is for those who have nothing else to do with their time. Hopefully things have gotten better. I can relate after being in a flood, then having all my but a few things stolen afterward while waiting for FEMA to assess what was lost and if the house was safe to move into again.

    david william lemke

    Your flood sound serious, dangerous. We were flooded in 2009 when we had a hundred years rain. We don’t have a basement so the first floor had about 4″ of water in it. Despite everything I did to never have it happen again, we got another hundred years rain in 2010. Insurance paid nothing. I agree on the one and about getting organized almost being an admonition of not having enough to do, I wish I had all the time back, I spent looking for stuff. I’d have enough time to re-paint the Sistine chapel or write all the novels… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    4 feet of water in the house and it was close to 5 feet off the ground. A 100 year flood plus.i guess that’s the reason i moved to the high desert. I don’t spend a lot of time looking for things. I’ll put it on my whiteboard and it seems to materialize in a daynorvtwo.


    Join the discussion…I like that first sentence of yours. You could put quotation marks around it with your name and post it on the quote garden or something–good as anything from Dickens or Mother Jones or someone…

    Barbara Mealer

    We are supposed to be able to to get to the over-stuffed file cabinet? Get real! Between boxes, books, paper and dogs, my little corner is comfortable for me. As for the table, good luck on finding it. Besides, who uses them. We eat while working or talking as the dogs sit a drool on our legs. Haven’t ever used a table while here as it is pile full of papers, guns, knives, flashlights and junk. Good luck on your getting through one box. I can usually find what I need, but like you, it takes time.

    Mike R.

    I can’t recommend Scrivener enough for the writing process, for a host of reasons, including the fact that you can save documents, web pages, even images for reference in a Notes section of each project you’re working on.

    Barbara Mealer

    If you work in sections, it’s a wonderful tool. I use it for certain books as I can integrate my Scrapple mind map with it. you have your character sheets there, settings, research, etc. I do use it but because I’m on a Windows computer, it isn’t as function as a MAC.


    Join the discussion…I like Scrivener too. I downloaded it, though, and didn’t have the patience to get familiar enough with it to use it really well, partly because I was already pretty far along; but I can see it has great potential. I just recommend reading the help files that are online and getting really familiar with it before diving it. I started toying with it and got a little lost.

    david william lemke

    Wanted to post for 2019 goals but the link is broken. As to being organized, I try to put stuff in files I can remember and put shortcuts on my desk top. I have a file called Notes on Writing where titles, interesting character names, plots, dialogue, a small dictionary and a bunch of other writing related lists and notes are stashed. For specific stories and novels that have been progressing, I create a “Notes for Intrusion,” “Notes for Goldilocks,” etc. and put that in a file that also contains the story and other peripherals; such as character profiles and… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I love the online workshops and programs. If you write thrillers, Dan Brown’s master class is a must. He gives so much useful information in a totally upbeat way. I also love Stan William’s Moral Premise class done in video. It’s one of those classes all writers should take as he boils it down into easy bite sized pieces. There are others like James Patterson’s master class, but those first two were the best. Another I use a lot is Carol Hughes Deep Story Workshop she does for STARR, a chapter of RWA. Her hands outs were a book of… Read more »


    Join the discussion…What is the Writer’s Studio? Online classes sound like a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for me to procrastinate some more! Kidding. Sounds like they can be seriously inspiring if done well. WHere/how do you sign up? Is it expensive?

    david william lemke

    Writer’s Studio: Your instructor gives you a piece of a poem or story to emulate in its tense, voice, style, cadence and theme in either poem or prose within two or so pages. Also you write a preamble to say what your aims are for your submission. (I’ve include the first preamble I ever wrote for the class. If you’re interested in the story, ask) You have a couple days to do this before you submit. There might be eight or so people in your class. You will receive the other students submissions (preamble and story/poem) and you have a… Read more »

    Maryann Maxson (Max)

    This group of replies gives me solace. I am not alone.

    Dave L

    I tried to post a picture of my office , but it didn’t work.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I am a fiend for organization…until the hard work starts. I’ve bought dozens of plastic containers, and then bought plastic containers to hold the original plastic containers, and all of them are still empty. For notes and such, I’ve always used one or another application. Right now, I’m using something called Evernote. There is a free version, so you can try it out. There are two great things about it: it can hold just about anything you can lift; and it synchronizes across all of your devices. Have a sudden revelation while you’re in a park? Make a note on… Read more »


    Nice analogy!


    Hi David. That’s a very cool picture of you there. I like it, and that is my idea about organization–your face right there. Remember this: a clean desk is the sign of an empty mind. The human conscious and unconscious mind is a better computer than any computer. I believe in it, and so I don’t organize any ideas. When I sit down and actually put the words on paper for the actual THING (story, poem) I’m writing, then the ideas will come back. I just don’t believe they get lost. If I forgot them, well, then they just weren’t… Read more »

    Brian McFadden

    The organization just isn’t on my drawing board at the moment. It most definitely should be though. My main concern at this moment is protecting my idea’s. I have this gigantic fear that someone will steal my story. It has happened to me before when I was in college some 20 years ago and I couldn’t prove it then. So the periodical that had two short stories of mine but I only got recognition for one! There is another big problem that I am dealing with, I have some pretty dilapidating injuries that have left me out of work for… Read more »

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