How to Organize Your Writing Projects

organize your writing

How to organize your writing.

I’m a pretty organized person. Over the years, I have spent countless hours reorganizing everything from the kitchen cupboards to my clothes-packed closet. My organizing skills came in handy when it was time to get all my writing projects in order, and now I’m going to show you how to organize your writing projects too.

People look at me strangely whenever I offer to help reorganize their closets or garages, but it’s a process I enjoy. When you organize your stuff and your space, your mind feels calmer and more organized. You can think more clearly, and that feels good.

I’ve spent a lot of time organizing all my writing projects and have developed a few good methods for keeping things in order.

Basically, all of my writing exists in two formats: print and digital. Years ago, I kept hard copies of everything and tried many methods from file folders to binders.

As I tried each organizational method, I would figure out what worked well and what didn’t work. These days most of my work is stored digitally, but I still keep some old hard copies stashed away.

Since I put so much thought into how I organized my own projects, I thought I’d share my organizational tips so you can learn from all my hard work.

How to Organize Printed Material

After trying many different strategies for organizing hard copies, I realized that binders are the way to go. Why?

  • You can purchase thick 3-5″ binders and cram in as much as possible, and the variety in sizes comes in handy. You might use a slim binder for storing ideas and a thick one for storing book manuscripts. Or maybe you use one big binder for everything and then move projects out into smaller binders when you’re actively working on them.
  • Organizing is easy with tabbed dividers. Whether your using them to separate ideas, notes, and projects or chapters and scenes, you can used dividers to make it easy to find whatever you’re looking for.
  • The pages go in and out easily by opening the rings. As long as you have a three-hole punch, you can easily add, remove, and move content around within your binders.
  • Clear-cover binders can be customized with fancy spine and cover inserts. Use the spine to label your binders and never forget what is stored and where you can find it.
  • There are a host of binder accessories available, from bags that hold pens and pencils to folders that you can clip in for holding pages that aren’t hole-punched.

Eventually more and more of what I’d written was digital. The material in my binders became dated and being environmentally conscious, I started focusing more how to organize my writing digitally.

How to Organize Electronic Files

I’ve struggled with how to organize my electronic writing. For some reason, printed materials are easier to group and label. By using subfolders, I’ve been able to create navigable directories that make it easy to find anything and everything I’ve written.

Here are the sub-directories I’ve created in my “Writing” folder:

  • Notes on Writing: Notes and articles on the craft of writing.
  • Ideas: Random ideas that don’t fit anywhere else.
  • Templates and worksheets: Blank character sketches or world-building worksheets as well as story-writing guides, like the Hero’s Journey.
  • Completed Works: Pieces that are ready to be sent out or published. Published works are in a separate sub-directory within this folder.
  • In Progress: anything that is not polished, with the following sub-folders:
    • Fiction
    • Poetry
    • Non-fiction
    • Scripts
  • Journals and Freewrites: Most of these were originally handwritten, and I’ve managed to digitize a lot of them.
  • Feedback: feedback and critiques, separated into sub-directories for feedback I’ve received and feedback I’ve provided other writers.
  • Submissions: copies of work that I’ve submitted along with a spreadsheet for tracking submissions.
  • Research for Writing Projects: information that I’ve found online and have saved because I think it might come in handy someday for one of my projects. Now that I use Evernote to clip material from the web, this folder has become an archive.

I reorganize this whole mess about once a year. I just went through it a couple of weeks ago and did a little clean-up, and I found that this system works well for keeping files where I can find them quickly and easily.

A Few More Tips for Organizing Your Writing

Let’s go a little deeper, shall we?

  • Before setting up a new system to organize your writing, think about how you work and what you need. Consider how much material you need to organize and store. Then develop your system and give yourself plenty of time to set it up correctly.
  • I’ve found that digital files are much easier to use and maintain. They are searchable. It’s easy to move files around. And they don’t take up a lot of space in your house. They can also be backed up; and it’s easy to store a second backup off-site. So it can be worthwhile to digitize some of your old writing material, even if it means spending time typing it up.
  • Back up your digital writing! There are plenty of easy and affordable backup solutions, and it’s worth your time and a little money to make sure all your hard work is protected. I set up a weekly reminder on my calendar that tells me to back up my entire computer once a week. It’s just a click once you’ve got your backup system in place!
  • Let it go! Don’t be afraid to purge old stuff that you don’t need and will never use. Some writers cling to every word they’ve written. Be discerning. Do you really need all five drafts of your first novel, which you never intend to publish? Perhaps you could keep two drafts and shred the rest. This goes for digital and print copies.
  • Use your camera. If you’re not sure about purging some of your print material, use your camera and take snapshots of all the pages (bonus tip: review your images for blurriness before tossing your originals). Then stick the images in a folder with a date on it and come back in three to five years. If you still don’t think you need it, drag it into the trash.
  • Maintenance is crucial. Your organizational system will be useless if you don’t maintain it. Stop saving everything to your desktop and start taking a few seconds (yes, it’s just seconds!) to save your files into the appropriate directories or sort them into the right binders.

Tell me, how do you keep your writing organized? Share your tips for organizing your writing in the comments!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

17 Responses to “How to Organize Your Writing Projects”

  1. CSS says:

    Thanks for the ideas. I’ve been putting off organizing my writing, because I don’t like the structure I have but am not sure how to change it. I’ll put some thought into organizing by stage of completion, though I’m wondering if that would make things harder to find for me. Right now I have everything organized by form: novels, short stories, freewriting, poetry, blog, and writing from college by class. Inside those folders it gets a little trickier to actually lay my hands on what I want.

  2. My writing is an organized mess. I know exactly where it all is so it ‘works’ but I often wonder if there would be an easier way to do things. I’m an electronic era woman too but I don’t backup as often as I know I should.

    My poetry is archived by year, named by title and always in a .txt file. Articles are archived by location or subject. For example I have a ‘Helium’ folder with ‘Parenting’, ‘Writing’, and ‘Health’ subdirectories. I have separate folders for each of my blogs. Each of my books has it’s own folder with subdirectories. Each scene is numbered and my notes are dated.

    It’s the sort of disorganised mess others would find impossible to work with but because I put everything in some sort of place I know where to find it when I need it. If only I could say the same for my desktop. The clutter of paper, notebooks, disks, and trinkets tends to pile up so high I can’t see the monitor.

  3. Annette says:

    It’s funny with the amount of technology we have today and the vast software choices to help us organize our lives the simplest solution is often the easiest and it’s often completely non-technical. I too use 3-ring binders to organize my work – both my fiction and my writing business information. I feel a different mental reaction to a piece of paper on my desk versus a document on my laptop. It’s easier to be creative and productive sometimes. Thanks for the post, I’m always looking for ideas to improve my systems!

  4. Jeffrey says:

    I used to be a software developer. One rule of development is to organize your work in a modular fashion with one subroutine (really: an indivisible thought) per file. Subroutines are named for what they do. I’ve taken to organizing my fiction in much the same way I organized my software files, putting a tentative chapter and section number along with the name of the thought as the filename:

    1.1 The prince announces a Royal Ball
    1.2 The prince meets Roger
    1.3 Roger dares

    and so on. Sorting by name on your computer automatically sorts the files in order. You can create empty ‘stub’ files that hold the place of a thought to be filled out later. In this way, creating files is actually how you can create the shape and flow of your story and see it all at once in the directory listing. Moving a section of a story is as easy as changing the chapter/section portion of the name of its file: this automatically changes its sort order and also its place in the story.

    Some word processors (such as Word) allow the linking in of these files into one master document which can make the printing of it all a snap.

    Cheers!
    Jeffrey

    • Hi Jeffrey. I had to change all my file-naming habits a few years ago for this reason: how the computer sorts is not always intuitive. I’m in the process of trying a writers’ application called Scrivener, which has a lot of power in the area of organizing a bunch of files into a single writing project. I haven’t spent enough time with it yet to give it a final review, but so far, I’m loving it. You might want to check it out. And thanks for these file-naming tips. I’m glad you are sharing these ideas!

  5. Angelo says:

    I make little booklets by folding 8.5×11 paper and then using colored paper for a cover. I use a booklet for every type of writing. The poetry booklets are number as volumes. If poems or writings are about specific event I’m documenting or a specific topic i have a seperate booklet. It seems to work so far. I use a binder for printed information from the internet. I’m still learning, I hope to learn more from this page.

  6. Yvonne Root says:

    Nicely done, Melissa,

    I have a great love for 3 ring binders. They are so useful for so much.

    Because I’m still learning how to do electronic organizing, I’m grateful for your ideas and thoughts.

    Here is the ironic thing about reading this post. I have a great urge to purge my closet. Weird, huh?

  7. Binders are absolutely the worst thing for me. I end up with them everywhere, and often the papers never get inside. I’ve been using an Elfa open top file (from Container Store). Hanging folders in top make it easy to drop papers inside. I use a label maker for the hanging folders — they look so much better and more organized with printed labels. For the research that I don’t have a choice keeping on paper (i.e., maps), I have a very small file box (also Container Store) that I put those hanging folders in.

    Electronic: One folder = one project. Research is in Evernote, also one folder = one project.

    • I have an open-top file from the Container Store, but I use it to store paperwork and documents, not my writing. I have a smaller one too, which I use to store office supplies (paper, folders, etc.). Evernote is awesome! I’ve had it for years but only recently started using it every day. It’s a great productivity tool and I love that it syncs across all devices. Sounds like you’ve found a system that works for you. Thanks for sharing your methods. I’m sure other readers will find them helpful.

  8. Joni M Fisher says:

    After years of conferences and study, I’ve separated writing craft topics into folders: Dialogue, Character, Plot & Structure (includes scenes and transitions), and Description (includes emotions). Whenever I find an excellent example to study, I add it to the appropriate file. I also have a set of folders on marketing divided by social media types.

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