The Zen of More Organized Writing: 5 Steps You Can Take Today

    How can you organize your life as a writer so you can spend more time writing?

    What’s the best way to manage writing alongside other projects?

    Why is it so hard to balance the act of writing with the day-to-day demands of life?

    I think you’ll agree most writers have to achieve more than write every day–we have to do things like plan our research, market our writing, find a quiet place to work.

    The question is:

    Can you do all of this without losing your mind?

    In this post, I’ll give you five organizational tips for more organized writing.

    1. Capture Your Ideas Like Roald Dahl

    Inspiration is nice, but it’s not much fun if you’re facing a deadline and you can’t think of anything to write.

    Organize your way around this problem by getting ideas out of your head and writing them down in a safe and accessible place.

    My favorite story about a writer who wrote things down involves the children’s author, Roald Dahl.

    One day, Dahl was stuck in traffic. Suddenly, he thought of a breakthrough for a story he was working on. Having no notepad or pen, he grew afraid he’d forget his idea before getting home.

    Dahl got out of the car and with his finger, he wrote the word “chocolate” into the dirt on his vehicle. This act was enough for Dahl to remember his idea, and later it became Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

    He later said:

    You work it out and play around with it. You doodle… you make notes… it grows, it grows… – Roald Dahl

    Today, it’s easier than ever to keep a portable notebook for recording ideas on the go. You can use digital tools, like an app on your smartphone, or you can buy a small notebook that fits in your pocket.

    2. Take Charge of Your Unruly Research

    As a serious writer, part of your job description is to read outside of your comfort zone and research the next thing.

    The Kindle makes research easy because you can highlight and annotate the important parts you go.

    Here’s the best part:

    Using the Kindle Cloud Reader, you can search books and find your annotations faster than if you were thumbing through an old paperback.

    Evernote is great for non-fiction writers too. This app enables you to tag articles with terms like ‘ideas’, ‘fiction’, ‘copywriting’ and whatever else comes to find.

    When I need to find a note about a particular topic, I search Evernote using the relevant tag (voilà: instant personal library).

    3. Get A Room of One’s Own

    Virginia Woolf wrote:

    “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

    A warm and quiet room with a desk, a chair and a computer or a pen and notepad is enough for most, but I also recommend using a whiteboard and hanging this next to where you work.

    This whiteboard will help you visualize your ideas and brainstorm.

    When you’re finished writing for the day, take five minutes to clean your desk and workspace and to prepare your writing room for the following day’s work.

    This habit primes your subconsciousness to work on your project even when you’re resting.

    Wait, I don’t have space for a writing room!

    That’s OK.

    You don’t need to go out and rent a larger apartment or buy a bigger house.

    A room of one’s own is as much a metaphor for having a place where you can go each day to write as it is about a physical location that you own.

    This could be your car, a coffee shop or even the park.

    For example, when the short story writer and poet Raymond Carver was starting off, he often wrote his drafts alone in his car.

    He told the Paris Review:

    I used to go out and sit in the car and try to write something on a pad on my knee. – Raymond Carver

    4. Own Your Writing Tools, Don’t Let Them Own You

    Today’s digital writing tools may be powerful, but (if you’re like me) you can easily spend more time looking for the perfect set up than writing.

    I try to remind myself Shakespeare and Tolstoy did just fine without a computer or the internet.

    Your digital writing tools should support your writing, and they are almost always less important than turning up and doing the work.
    In Tribes, Seth Godin writes:

    “The tactics are irrelevant, and the technology will always be changing. The essential lesson is that every day it gets easier to tighten the relationships you have with the people who choose to follow you.”

    It’s good practice to use only as many tools as you need and to concentrate on improving your craft and building relationships with your readers.

    That said, Scrivener is the ideal software programme for managing complicated or multiple writing projects. It enables you to organize the chapters or sections of your book using a drag and drop interface.

    Want to know the best part?

    You can use Scrivener to create various versions of your book for almost all of the major online writing stores.

    Mary Jaksch provides an introductory lesson to Scrivener, while I’ve written an Ultimate Guide To Using Scrivener for Blogging.

    5. Attend to Your Published Work

    If you’re having trouble keeping track of your work, create a master list of all your writing projects. This master list will provide you an at-a-glance overview of everything you are writing.

    You can keep this list in Evernote, write it on a whiteboard or pin a paper-based version of this list next to where you write.

    If you’ve entered several different writing competitions, save the submitted versions of your stories in a dedicated folder in your computer.

    It takes time to hear back from the organizers of competitions but if your story is rejected, you’ll be able to pick-up from where you left off and rework the latest version.

    If you’ve written for different magazines, set up a page on your website and link to your best work around the web.

    More of your visitors will be able to find your stories, and this will show them you’re a serious or professional writer.

    If you’ve written a book, keep the images, book cover and marketing materials of your book in the same place as the book itself. This way, if you have to make changes to your work, you won’t have to waste time searching your computer for these assets.

    Now Spend Your Creative Energy Wisely

    Organizing your writing life doesn’t have to be a frustrating chore.

    If research is time-consuming, have a trusted system for managing your notes and ideas. Remember, your writing environment should be conducive to your work. And you should pick the right tools for your craft, but only as many as you need.

    Finally, at the end of every writing project, spend a few minutes filing your work so you can find what you need, when you need it.

    Here’s the kicker:

    Take care of the day-to-day demands of being a writer, and you will spend less time worrying about how you’re going to write and more of your creative energy filling the blank page.

    What tips do you have for organizing your writing life?  Please share below.

    About the author

      Bryan Collins

      Bryan Collins helps writers become authors. This post is based on his new book The Art of Writing a Non-Fiction Book. Get his 101 Writing Prompts for free and kickstart your writing today.

    • lacie says:

      very interesting blog!!

    • pat says:

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for great reminders of using simple paper and pen in a car or park–though I also appreciate a digital means of where to keep organized lists or ideas for referencing my ideas. Pawing through piles of paper notes or napkins takes forever. Anyway, eventually the writing goes its way via computer.

    • Nicole says:

      Great tips! I think that learning the rules and then breaking them applies to more than just grammar – it applies to structure, to headline writing, and beyond. Especially in blogging. Freedom, flexibility and creativity in writing are so critical, as is variety. It’s so easy when you write often to come up with formulas that work – and then stop looking beyond that for what could be better, or even just more interesting. That’s why I loved this challenge from Brian so much. Glad you participated!

    • Thanks for the tips and links on Scrivener, Bryan – both for blogging and for book writing.

      I bought the software a while ago but have not had time to get into it. I’m going to check out both Mary’s and your resources.

    • Susannah Brewster says:

      Like others I am a hybrid – I write my “morning pages” in long hand and make notes and outlines both on the computer and written form. I am using Evernote more for notes and spots where research is needed and keep a note open that is a running list for the particular project I am working on. Tags help me tie all of that together.

      Scrivener is the tool I draft in as I can use the documents to write scenes or blog posts and the folders for chapters, keep track of word counts and so on.

      Lastly, I keep stats on my overall word counts, etc just using an excel spreadsheet.

      But even with all the digital stuff I keep pen and paper around in case it’s needed. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will do!

    • I like the idea of having a writing space, even if it isn’t a specific “room.”

      When I was attending university and studying for my first exam, I was told to simulate the conditions in which I studied, to perform better. It worked.

      I’m sure that working in an inspirational space would help many writers perform better, too.

      Great tip!

    • Bryan, a lot of writers are visual, and so I’d like to make the suggestion to use sticky notes on a whiteboard (or other) calendar.

      They help!

      • Hi Lorraine,
        I’ve a large whiteboard near where I write. Somedays it’s blank and other days it’s covered in Post-it notes and index cards. I like your idea of making this space inspirational.

    • Karen says:

      When I am “cut and paste” editing I colour the entire text of one and label it with dates May 19 A and May 19 B so that I don’t start, the next day, working on A. I’ll know that B requires the next editing. I then make all of B black and date it May 20. Very frustrating to realize that I’ve been working on an old edition. This problem occurs when writing more than one story at once, and significant time may pass before I re-open the file.

      All of my stories, articles, poems have their own folders so that all versions are there including one called “As submitted to…”

      I keep a table that includes Date; Name of Work; Genre; Location(this might a mag, an anthology, a publisher, a contest, an event, and would include contact info); Submission or Contest; Follow-up date (if appropriate)or likely response date; contest date, Remuneration or Prize. The final column is Yes/No. Of course it’s mostly No.

      • If you’re up for learning a new programme, Scrivener can help you do this.

    • Kimsea Sok says:

      Thanks for sharing…! 🙂

      Honestly, the above is really nice tips about organize writing and workflow.

      Actually, when I want to start writing. I always put down the problem and brainstorming outline of my topics. I break the problem down into small piece, and the I 5W1H for finding solution.

      I start outline the content, and then gather support resources for writing. I love you mentioned about evernote, that sound really interesting…

      Have nice weekend…

      • Hi Kimsea,
        Good to meet another writer who outlines before putting the pen to the page. It’s a time-saving practice.

    • Joe Kovacs says:

      I am not a Luddite by any means but I do think one has to take care about the intersection of writing and technology. Maybe I’m too old-school but there is something visceral and meaningful to scrawling in a notebook that one cannot find within the best piece of technology. Writing in a notebook also allows you to get through the draft phase of a piece of writing without the temptation of too much editing…which I tend to struggle with, hence I DO like a notebook. I just plow ahead and can get a couple thousands words written in hardly any time at all.

      With that said, this is not a criticism of the post or its intent. This is, in fact, very helpful and I am a huge fan of Evernote. Every writer has their own personal style, and Bryan clearly is a writer you can go to, to learn more about how technology can help with writing. I hardly find that to be a “shill”. I find that to be a choice. Joe

      • Hi Joe,
        That’s a fair point. I start a lot of projects on paper before progressing to digital. I mentioned some of the digital tools I use in this post as lots of online writers ask about them.

    • Using Scrivener and Evernote mighta saved Tolstoy and Shakespeare a lot of crossing out, rewriting, and paging through notes. 🙂

      Meantime, the point is to use the tech tools that WORK for you. I, too, have to delete some, just because I thought they’d work, but they don’t actually.

      • Hi Voni,
        That’s a great point. I like the idea of Tolstoy using Scrivener!

    • Great post, Brian.

      As a memory fanatic, I’ve always loved that story about Dahl.

      I still find old fashioned index cards to be my favorite organizational tool ever. They’re compact, force you to make note of the essentials and easily ordered and reorded. I’ve never found a technology that trumps it. For me, Evernote is chaos in comparison.

      As for a room of my own, I have that, but also like to have a moveable feast. I write a lot in cafes and restaurants using PlainText app on my iPhone.

      Yes, I know … no Evernote, but lots of ninja thumb movements with paradox nunchucks and stars of irony.

      Thanks for the great post!

      • Hi Anthony,
        I use index cards for planning larger writing projects e.g. fiction and books. I like to keep my ideas in Evernote though.

      • HI Anthony,
        I use index cards for planning books and for outlining fiction. Use what works.

    • Thanks Bryan!

      I am going to delete unnecessary apps from my phone and computer. They clutter my emotional and creative space 😀


    • Pat says:

      Great post. I like the story about Roald Dahl writing on his dirty car with his finger. My takeaway from that story is confirmation that if you get an idea, just write a word or two of it and you’ll remember the whole idea. However, write all of the idea you can. Ideas are flighty stuff.

      • Hi Pat,
        Roald Dahl is one of my favourite writers. His work is an inspiration to us.

    • Don Karp says:

      Another suggestion: proofread before publishing your post.

    • Juliar Nur says:

      Yes, i do have my own space to make me feel good to write. My special superprivate room. I’m not enter to the room except for write article.

      • Hi Juliar,

        Good to hear. Not everybody has a writing room but it’s great to have a place you can call your own.

    • This did help me. I now have to stop complaining about lack of privacy and quiet and go out to the garage.

      • Hi Susan,
        Or the car, or the coffee shop, or a park! Happy writing.

      • Or the car, or the coffee shop, or the park! Happy writing.

    • Great tips. I’ll definitely apply them.

    • James says:

      I have never seen a writing column shill so many apps and software.

      The writer reflects that tolstoy and Shakespeare did fine without the Internet or computers, and immediately goes on the flog Scrivener.


      • I’m sorry you didn’t like the post James.

        • Steve says:

          No one would mind if you deleted James’ comment. Haters are gonna hate!
          Great tips!
          Thanks for a very useful post.

          • Margaret Nystrom says:

            I mind. He made a very valid point, and I agree. I thought the same thing while reading the article. Because someone disagrees with you or the author they are a “hater” and you make a flippant remark, “haters are going to hate”? Seriously? It’s called a discussion.

      • Krystal says:

        “It’s good practice to use only as many tools as you need and to concentrate on improving your craft and building relationships with your readers.”

        Evernote is listed as a tool next to a whiteboard and paper. They re suggestions. The writer means make do with what you have–don’t feel the urge to search for the next best tool and remember people have made do with less. Sure they may be plugs, but they are also just suggestions of software for people who may have been searching with no luck.

        I really did enjoy this article. Maybe I’ll get a bulletin board to pin all my plot snippets & forget-me-nots like I keep thinking but putting off.

        • Thanks Krystal. I talked about Evernote and about whiteboards because I know some writers veer away from digital and towards the traditional.

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