When you’re working with a mountain of material, you have one major practical problem. Your brain is not a computer. It is not large enough, not normally, to arrange all the files & studies & references & flow-writes & ideas & drafts you’ve collected.
Therefore, how do you organize and arrange the pieces?
A superfluity of “stuff” in general has caused a need for information about organizing our homes, our closets, and our lives, which has inspired entire corporations, books, podcasts, magazines, and more.
With a longer writing project the stuff, however, is important. You need to collect and keep all the parts you can find.
The principles for organizing material are similar to those for Marie Kondoing your home.
- Create a system of dividing the material into manageable parts. Organize by chapters, by subject, by month—whatever makes sense. Make and label folders for categories and subcategories.
- Put like items together.
- Declutter, if possible. (I don’t throw anything away. I make another folder marked “Peripheral” or “Maybe,” and the iffy material goes there.)
- Train yourself to place info in its correct folder once you collect it.
Many apps have been developed for the sole purpose of solving this problem. Scrivener is best known, and it promises to “help you organize long writing projects such as novels, nonfiction books, academic papers, and even scripts.” In addition, there’s Chapterly, LivingWriter, Milanote, and probably many more.
I resist forces determined to computerize my life, and I hold out for the analog as long as humanly possible. For example, I purchased a mobile phone only two years ago, and still we don’t have cell service in the out-of-the-way place we happily live. Therefore, I am not a subscriber to online writing organizers.
Let me offer up a few alternative systems.
- For John McPhee the folder was a literal folder into which all material on a specific topic went. When he began to write a chapter, he took out that folder only. He writes lovingly about this in his book on writing, Draft No. 4.
- Some writers use note cards flipped out across a table.
- Some clip index cards to a clothesline or pin them to a wall.
- My writing teacher William Kittredge said to put 3×5 cards on a corkboard. “Keep staring at them. Keep reordering things,” he said. Similarly, in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction—lectures by Robert Olen Butler at Florida State University compiled and edited by novelist Janet Burroway—lobbies for a system of index cards that get shuffled and reshuffled.
- Some write out pieces, arrange them on a bare floor in a logical, workable order, then clip them together.
- Some tape scraps of paper together.
- Faulkner’s study has an outline for A Fable (1954) still readable in pencil on ivory-painted walls.
- One of my favorite stories about arrangement came from Kittredge, who told me about a guy who wrote in a derelict Missoula hotel that was scheduled for demolition. The guy set up his typewriter in an empty room and scribbled outlines on the walls. When one room was filled, he moved to another. Although the story sounds like an urban myth, Kittredge swore it was truth.
Outlining and organizing gobs of material is vital for all writers of long works, and this is especially true for writers of creative nonfiction. Pick a system that works for you. It will save your (writing) life.