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From Messy to Methodical: How Writers Stay Organized


That title was actually a clever trick. Why, you (hypothetically) ask? Because by and large, writers DON'T stay organized! Surprise! We tend to rest firmly in the category of "beautiful disasters" when it comes to our executive functioning styles, and routines are definitely more of a toss-up than a sure thing.

And you know what? That's okay. Really, we can survive without color coded...everything. It's fine to have twenty-seven (27) unused writing journals laying all over your apartment and thirty more saved on Pinterest or Amazon. Embrace it. Don't sweat the small stuff.

Still, if you really want to reach your full potential as a writer, you're going to need these magical things called systems. Strategies. You know, those weird, somewhat alien things people use to like, plan stuff. You've heard of them, right?

I am the living embodiment of struggle when it comes to this particular topic, which means I have a whole hell of a lot to share about it - my suffering has bred experience. Learn from me, young Padawans, and less of a catastrophe you will be, yes?

Here I am, cheering you on as you get yourself in order!

"Why Do I Have So Much Crap?" and Other Fun Questions to Ask Yourself First Thing in the Morning.

"It's not crap!" You say. You're right! It's clutter!

Look, let's call a spade a spade. Crap accumulation has a measurable effect on our mental health and productivity, which, for us, means it's going to impact whether or not you feel inspired and capable of creating work. There's no getting around it. If you have a cluttered workspace, your writing is suffering.

If you're like me, you've read, researched, and reread every mantra and self-help book out there to help you organize your life and get rid of clutter. You've konmari'd and visualized, you've bought boxes and sharpies, and most likely you've come close to success more than once...but then a few days pass. Then a few weeks. And then, you're back at square zero.

The question isn't "how do I get rid of all this stuff on my desk?" It's "WHY do I have a all this stuff on my desk in the first place?" And no, it's not rhetorical. Really - why do you have all this crap? Is it because you keep losing things and buying more things to replace them? Is it because you don't have a good place to store it all? What the heck is going on, here?

Let's do a fun exercise called Picking Things Up and Putting Them Down In New Places. Pick up the first piece of clutter you see. Stare at it. Squint at it. Judge it for its sins, preferably for about fifty seconds. Where did it come from? Where will it go? Where did it come from Cotton Eyed - never mind.

Now that you've pinpointed this clutter agent's place of origin, follow the path it took to end up where it isn't supposed to be. Where were you at the beginning of that path? What was your focus/mood/energy level? Now tell that past version of yourself to get his/her/their sh** together.

I mean it. "You could have just done _______, moron," you say to yourself. "Seriously [insert own name here], what the f***?" After you're done roasting yourself for a bit, put the previously mentioned item in an FDA approved location (there's a strong likelihood that this location will be TrashcanVille, USA).

Actual footage of me driving into the sunset with my beloved clutter.

Do this with all of the clutter that could possibly impact your day-to-day life as a writer. Think big, think deep. Be discerning. Do those extra pencils and pens-that-you-don't-use-because-the-ink-sucks create a weird subconscious stress response every time you look at them? Does that stack of half-used notepads haunt you in the silence of the night, daring you to look squarely at the flaws besmirching the otherwise pure template of your immortal soul?

Then get rid of them! Take that crap and, as Our Lady of Salvation Marie Kondo advises, say Sayonara to it. Maybe you'll see it again, but it will be in a different world, a world where you can actually focus on sitting down to write, rather than scream into the void that is your mess-induced motivation spiral. This self-questioning anti-clutter system isn't patented: you can use it free of charge. You're welcome, everyone.

It is only now, after the cathartic power of a self-roast and vaguely-satisfying bout of Picking Things Up Angrily, that your boxes and off-brand sharpies will be effective. It's not about the journey, it's about strategizing from a place of deep, frustration-fueled shame.

Drag [and Drop] Her, Sis.

My computer desktop has, in the past, resembled the aftermath of a Boomer-Trying-to-Find-the-Family-Photos level disaster. I almost had to call FEMA for emergency aid. Opening up my laptop to write required the steely determination of a Coast Guard pilot preparing to fly through category 4 winds to rescue some idiot in a yacht.

It just wasn't conducive to progress, y'all. And maybe you're "used to it" and "personally know where everything is," but I can promise you - the mess is making it harder to get started on your work.

Don't believe me? Okay, look at the image below.

How do you feel, looking at that? Is your body tensing? Is your mind quietly going AAAAAAAAAAAAAA within you?

A messy computer desktop is like a shot of sedative right to our productivity wiring, according to the research. And yes, someone out there really did take the time to research this - several someones, actually.

Just...make a folder, for the love of all that's holy. Right or Command click and wow! There it is! All those "pieces of scenes" you keep on twelve separate documents? Copy and paste them onto one. Name it "story pieces" or something fun and edgy like that. Put it in a folder. Congrats, you're one step closer to being less of a manic AI's wet dream!

I know a b**ch loves real-world examples, so here are some of my own writing-related folders:

  • Novel Drafts

  • Completed Manuscripts

  • Piece Outlines

  • Article Topic Brain Dump

  • Characterization Sheets

I put folders in my folders, and I put folders in my folders that are IN folders. They are labeled in such a way that I, an attention-deficit-fueled nightmare, can easily navigate them. Boy, does it make me feel accomplished just looking at all those superficial yet functional filenames.

This system of folders is going to change your life, trust me. Even if it doesn't, you can proudly open up your screen when people come over and smugly point out how well you organized everything, and this is a behavior that definitely makes people like you.

Step Up 2: The Sheets (of Paper Dedicated to Specific Writing Routines)

"Mommy, how are stories made?"

"Well, darling, whenever you see a rainbow in the sky, it's actually a story falling from heaven and landing on a bunch of pages in front of a writer. That writer wished on a star, and so an angel smiled, and then..."

As kids, we all kind of sensed that the "birds and the bees" talk was BS, just like we, as writers, know that the burst of inspiration automatically becomes art theory prevalent with non-writers is also, in fact, complete BS. This isn't a Hallmark movie, where two seconds of lukewarm self-reflection and a softly backlit montage result in a happy ending!

No, writing is a series of steps like anything else in this cold, cold world. And as with the birds and the bees, carelessness regarding these steps can result in...well, results that maybe aren't what you were expecting (or hoping for). Sure, you may sometimes create a "happy little surprise" that you really like, but most work that is created haphazardly will be more stressful than it needs to be.

Whenever people talk about the birds and the bees, I get a very Hitchcock vibe.

Unlike children, your writing is created by design. You decide its purpose, for the most part, and you have a good bit of control over where it ends up. So why is it that so many of us storyboard using about fifty random scraps of paper and three different journals, followed up by shards of dialogue and scenes stuck in journal margins and iphone notes? All of which we continuously forget about until writers' block is kicking our a**es, of course.

I'm not saying that these things shouldn't exist - far be it from me to deny the power of a 4am iphone note - but rather that, well, they might be more useful if you transfer them to the actual storyboarding notes you've set up for your novel. And, catch me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't those research links you saved make more of an impact on your article if you actually opened them at some point?

The steps of the writing process vary somewhat from person to person, but there is a process to it. And that process will run more smoothly if you have, that's right, a strategy for it. I tend to hand-write my storyboarding notes verbally (rather than a visual method, which is great, considering how poor my drawing skills are), then type them up. On the same document I include my characterization sheets, any notes or questions I want to keep in mind, and the overall plot description (find out more about my storyboarding process in this post).

For articles and blog posts, I have a one page document or template with my outline, notes, and goals for the piece. Do you see where I'm going with this? Your process should be physically laid out in an easy-to-access format. You should be able to follow it like a roadmap.

Those scenes and dialogue? Have a sheet dedicated to those, with the story's title in the filename if applicable. Do not leave your process to chance - as I always say (mentally), give a sheet! Give one to this story, to that idea, to this get the picture.

In Conclusion...

These three areas of organization are, in my experience, the cornerstones to an overall functional approach to getting sh*t done as a writer. There are a LOT of other areas and plenty of other strategies, but this ought to get your gears turning. At the very least, it should make you think about the power of an organized system vs. whatever-the-hell-most-writers-do when it comes to your work.

Have any sage wisdom of your own on this topic? Share it with us! Until next time, my gorgeous catastrophes.

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