By Leslie Colin Tribble
Many of us are writing nonfiction, whether for picture books, middle grades or even lengthier YA books. Nonfiction involves research and lots of it, even for a 1000 word picture book. I've been trying to organize all the research for all my stories and realize I'm probably not doing a very good job. An old manila folder with scraps of paper hanging out might make me "feel" like I'm doing all this fabulous research, but when I go to find that little tidbit that'll make the story sing it takes me forever and I get frustrated. There must be a better way.
Since I'm not the most clever or creative individual, I reached out to others who are.
I asked, "How do you organize your research? Do you primarily use computer files? Hard copy files? Manila envelopes in a filing cabinet or boxes under the bed? What do you do with hard copy pages of critiques? Do you use Evernote or Scrivener or just MS Word? How do you keep track of your bibliography - Easy Bib, or your own technique? Do use you a hard drive backup for your computer/writing? How often do you backup?"
Writers are nothing if not generous and helpful and the replies were just as instructive as I hoped. And I realized what a total slacker I am when it comes to research. Good thing I'm writing this post, because I need the help! But maybe you will also find a nugget of wisdom to help organize your writing life.
In response to my query, most writers responded that they use a mixture of paper plus computer files. I do prefer pen and paper except for actual composition, so that made me feel better.
When it comes to research, several writers said they use index cards. I loved this - let's hear it for the lowly 3x5 index card in our modern age! Make sure to put the resource title, page number and URL if appropriate on the cards. Some writers then store these cards in a box while others often type the info into a computer file. Others lay them on the floor and rearrange the information according to the flow of the story. My dogs and cats love when I work on the floor, so this probably won't work for me!
Index cards were also mentioned being used when writing manuscript drafts. Each card is a page of a picture book that can be easily arranged and moved about on the floor. I thought this was a good way to improvise a picture book dummy.
One writer said she takes the information from her index cards and then types, cuts and pastes them into a Word document so all the information from one source is in the same file. Then these separate resources are again cut and pasted into another document according to subject or topic.
For my research, I lean more toward spiral notebooks. At first all research, notes for webinars, classes, and conferences went into one notebook but that became unmanageable. Now I've got a spiral for each manuscript. If I copy pages from websites or books I staple the pages into the spiral so everything stays together. And yes, I'm first in line at back to school sales when the spirals cost a mere quarter!
Scrivener was mentioned as one way of recording research, as was Evernote. Both these resources are used by many writers, but I am not familiar with either. Maybe that's a topic for another post.
Research can also involve other resources that don't fit onto an index card or in a computer file. Pamphlets from places you've visited, photos, and memorabilia all need to be kept somewhere and it seems that many writers use cardboard or plastic filing boxes. Magazine holders were often mentioned as well - one holder per work in progress. Clear plastic sleeves are handy for organizing information within the magazine holder.
Right now I keep my info in manila folders organized in hanging files in my file cabinet. But I don't see them - out of sight, out of mind. Maybe magazine holders lined up like writing soldiers on a shelf on my bookcase would prompt me to continue working on my manuscripts. One writer mentioned she keeps colorful file folders which are then kept in a wicker tote. There isn't any reason why organization has to be dull and utilitarian!
Easy Bib got several mentions as a way to keep a bibliography, others simply use a Word document. Footnotes are easily created in Scrivener.
I found that many writers make hard copies of critiques which then go into the manuscript folder or within a plastic sleeve to be filed inside the magazine holder. One writer merges all her critiques into one document which is printed out on a legal size piece of paper to be filed with the story. Few writers it seemed keep critique comments on their computers.
For keeping track of submissions and responses, one writer keeps dated copies of the submission, dated revisions and dated correspondence. Rejection letters are printed out (accompanied by heavy sighs) and filed with the story. Another writer notes submission information on the inside of the manila folder. She creates a grid with where she's sent the manuscript, the date and any responses. This information is also cross-referenced with an index card file. Whew! Now that's organization!
I fail abysmally with backing up my computer files - especially seeing how religiously others complete this task. Several responders said they back up weekly, another said every two weeks, while others do it whenever their computer tells them to. Many folks use an external hard drive, others back up to dedicated flash drives (one for magazine articles, one for books, etc.). Other options mentioned included Scrivener which frequently and automatically backs up, Drop Box (also self-maintaining) and Carbonite "for constant effortless backup." I really have to get better at this especially since I have thousands of photos which I use in much of my writing. I'd also be horrified if I lost any of my writing so backing up on a regular basis must become habit.
The art of organization is as individual as the writer. It's a trial and error process to see what will eventually work for you. Let us know what tips and tricks help you stay organized.
Please note: The GROG is taking a break from December 19 to January 2 in order to celebrate with family and friends. We wish each of our wonderful readers the gifts of magic, beauty, love and laughter. See you in 2017!