Organizing My Writing

If computerization has done anything over the last 40 years, it’s made it harder to find what I am looking for. This is anecdotal, of course, but prior to computerization, people seemed to have a much easier time organizing what they wrote. I am always impressed when reading essays or letters by E. B. White, or Will Durant, or Isaac Asimov, or Dumas Malone, or a dozen of other people who wrote in the pre-computer era, how they always seem to have carbons of their letters and manuscripts neatly filed away for easy reference. It’s as if they have a chronological history of everything they ever wrote at their fingertips! Then computers came along, promising so much, and, for me at least, they have made it incredibly difficult to keep track of what I have written over the years.

There are reasons for this. I started writing on an Apple ][e, and my files were stored on floppy disks which have long since vanished. It wouldn’t matter since I was using AppleWorks, which is about as easy a file format to open today as a Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5 document; it’s not that easy and requires a text editor and some dexterity. I moved from that to an IBM and WordPerfect, and then to Word for DOS, Word for Windows, Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, plain text files, etc., etc., etc.

Word for DOS 5.5
Word for DOS 5.5 running on my Mac using DOSBox

Thirty years have passed since I began writing on that long-vanished Apple ][e. Files have been stored on dozens of computers (to say nothing of all those long-gone floppy disks) and many of those computers have also vanished, along with whatever files were on them. Once again, paper proves a more durable form of information storage, or so it would seem when looking back at pre-computer writers.

Cloud storage services seem to offer some persistence from one device to the next (always assuming the service sticks around). But if I store some files in Dropbox, others in Evernote, others in Google Docs, and others still in iCloud, I still have an organization problem.

I’ve been giving this problem a lot of thought lately because I’d like to attempt to organize all of my writing in a single place. How best to do that? A few things seem clear:

  1. The documents should be readily accessible.
  2. The system should work for the long haul.

Of course, one solution would be to print everything I write and stuff it into a filing cabinet somewhere, but my experience going paperless rebels at this thought. I should be able to do this within an electronic medium. Doing so, however, requires a few changes:

  1. All documents need to be stored in the same cloud environment. It doesn’t work for me if some are in Dropbox and others are in Google Docs. I am referring just to things that I write, not all electronic documents.
  2. All documents should use the same file format.
  3. That file format should be something that will be readable a well into the future.

But there is more to it than that. Different documents are often in different states of completion at any given time, and the organization system should make it easy to know if a document I’ve written is still being drafted, if it has been submitted for consideration, if it has been published, or if I have archived it. This suggests a fairly simple structure of folders that would look something like this:

  1. Drafts. Things that are “in progress” whatever they may be (essays, blog posts, short stories, correspondence, etc.)
  2. Completed. Things are are finished. For me these are typically “second” drafts.
  3. Submitted. Things that are out on submissions. Sometimes, a submission draft might differ slightly from the completed draft, but usually in cosmetic ways. This would allow me to preserve those differences.
  4. Published. Things that have been published as they appear in their published form. Editors sometimes request changes so the published versions differ from the submitted versions.
  5. Archived. Anything that (a) was never published and I decided to retire, or (b) was not intended for publication (a letter, for instance) and is being archived.

The documents within each of these folders would require a naming convention that would make them relatively easy to find.

  • Documents in the Drafts folder would have the title followed by a -1, -2, etc. as needed to represent the different drafts prior to completion. I typically go through a total of 3 drafts, (1) telling myself the story, (2) telling the story to an audience now that I know it, (3) post-feedback changes.
  • Documents in the Completed folder would simply be named whatever the title of the thing is.
  • Documents in the Submitted folder would need three things in the filename, the title, the market, and the submission date. Something like: “Gemma Barrows Comes To Cooperstown – IGMS – 2015-05-01”
  • Documents in the Published folder would be named with the title and market where it was published. Some titles would be repeated when a story appears in multiple places (like reprints).
  • The Archived folder is tricker because I suspect it would contain more than just things I wrote for publication. I still have to give this some thought.

With a structure in mind, I need to make two decisions:

  1. Where do I put these folders?
  2. What do I use to create my documents?

I’m leaning toward implementing this structure in iCloud, because that is where I have a lot of documents already. Google Drive would be a good place for the documents as well, but as you’ll see in a moment, I think Google Drive is too complex a tool for my purposes these days.

I’ve hopped around word processors the way a minor league baseball player hops around teams. As I’ve said before, my favorite word processor of all time was Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5, but it is no longer practical to use it, and even if it were, it uses a dead file format. Recently, I’ve been using plain text files which are good for many reasons, but they are just not conducive (for me) for writing. I need to see my text double-spaced. I need to see my emphasized text with underlines. And every now and then, I need to be able to print something out.

I’m leaning toward using the TextEdit app that comes on all Macs. There are several reasons for this:

  • It can default to Rich Text Format, which underneath is just a fancy version of plain text rendered on screen as a minimal WYSIWYG. RTF will be around for a while, and it is easy to parse. This is better for me than Markdown which is tricky to configure to appear on screen the way I want it to look.
  • It is about as minimalist as I can get without sacrificing what I want to see able to see on the screen when I write.
  • I can easily print out what I’ve written, should I need to.
  • I can store the files on iCloud directly from the app.
  • I can access the files from my iPhone or iPad if needed.

There are some sacrifices here. I’ve always love the rich features of Scrivener, and the ease of Google Docs. But when you get right down to it, the tool doesn’t do the writing, I do. Short of a typewriter, I can’t get much simpler than TextEdit and still get what I need out of the system.

Ultimately, I hope to get as much of a backlog of the stuff I’ve written into this organization system. I’m sure there will be some refinements along the way. In the meantime, I can stop worrying about where to store everything and what to use for my writing and actually focus on the writing itself. I’ll keep you updated on how things are going.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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2 Comments

  1. Have you thought about keeping your documents in a version-controlled environment? In theory, you could keep ‘1’ document for each work and commit the work to the version-control system in a way that makes the naming structure unneeded. Most systems even track file moves, so as you move it from Draft to Completed for example, it would keep the versioning intact and in the folder that mattered at the time.

  2. I used a version of Flashbake to automatically check in my text files to Git every 15 minutes if there had been a change to the file. But I found that all I ever really cared about were the four or five instances I mentioned in the post. The rest was just noise. I suppose I could identify and tag files within the new structure using Git in a similar manner. Let me consider…

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