Organization is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up.
—A. A. Milne
As we have learned in previous Editor’s Corner articles, writing is a process that consists of four main steps:
In this article, we’re deconstructing the nuts and bolts of brainstorming. After all, if you can’t think about your topic clearly, there’s no way you’re going to be able to write about it clearly.
Our first and best piece of advice is simple: When you have an idea, write it down. Whether a line of dialogue on a Post-it note, historical dates on an index card, or even an artistic sketch of a main character, literally take note whenever the inspiration strikes.
Once you’ve got one or more ideas down, even just in fragments, it’s time to go electronic. Although you can certainly travel the low-tech route (as J.K. Rowling did¹) and gather everything in a single notebook or file folder, we suggest a computer, which can be an invaluable resource for organizing. For example, short notes can be typed into a word-processing program, larger files and images can be scanned, and self-sent emails and text messages can be stored for future research.
Create a main folder named with the working title of your book, then add as many subfolders as necessary. We also recommend looking into programs that are specifically designed to help with organization, including Evernote, which offers a free basic plan.2,3 These can be especially indispensible for nonfiction projects, because the enormous amounts of research that may be involved require a systematic method to help writers steer clear of madness.
Once you begin putting all of your notes and versions of your manuscript on the computer, you should also begin keeping multiple copies of everything (especially your manuscript) and in different places. This is for two main reasons:
- If you’re disorganized, you’re likely to lose one or more of those copies.
- If a drink spills or a computer crashes, you will have a backup to … well, fall back on.
Ideally, we recommend multiple electronic versions and one hard copy that may not be quite so recent but has the most recent major changes/developments. Also remember to back up often, whether via an online service like Dropbox or an external hard drive.4,5
Lest you get the idea that only novices need to stay organized, please note that even George R. R. Martin, creator of the wildly successful Song of Ice and Fire series, “keeps charts, maps, genealogy and other files on the book series [Winds of Winter]. This helps him to refresh himself about what is going on in the story.”6
With everything right where you need it when you need it, you may find that you’re able to form all the fragments you’ve collected into a cohesive concept before you begin prewriting. This should make the prospect of creating your first draft that much easier – and every little bits helps, right?