BORING PRACTICALITIES, or a Few Tips on File Organization for Writers

Back when I worked in information technology, a co-worker used to like to play a trick on me. He’d sneak into my cubicle when I was out and move one of the countless, neatly stacked project piles. He’d only move it about 10 degrees left or right, then watch from his own cube to see how long it would take me to notice. Invariably, I would walk in and, even before sitting down, unconsciously straighten the pile.

I have always been compulsively organized, but I’ve never resented my OCD. In fact, it’s a huge benefit for a writer. How many of us have bemoaned the challenge of keeping track of revisions? Or discovered that the really good version was the LAST version that you accidentally overwrote? Or that you’d lost an entire story when the computer crashed? Being a little obsessive about how and where you store your hard-earned work can save a lot of heartache and time.

Here are a few tips I learned from working in I.T.:

    If you are old enough to recall having a metal filing cabinet in your office, you know why those little icons on your desktop are shaped like manila folders. Instead of dumping everything into “My Documents”, you can set up your computer filing system the same way, using sub-folders to keep things where you can find them.

    Here’s a snapshot of the filing system I’m using for my current novel:

    I have a folder called “Novels” in which there are several projects (most of them on hold for now). “Eurasian Nomads” is the folder where my manuscript lives. Inside that folder are folders for Draft 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and eventually draft 762! I keep “Old Versions” in a separate sub-folder, though there are actually “Old Versions” folders inside each “Draft #” folder. “Research Materials” are stored separately – an especially vital location for anyone writing historical fiction, non-fiction, etc. Generally, I can find the location of my files for any project in a couple of clicks, but then, which file do I choose?

    Come up with a simple way to name your files and then name them consistently. I started my naming with “Eurasia3_01”. “Eurasia” is the project name. “3” is the draft number. I used an underscore to make it easier to read. Then “01” is the chapter number. I use double-digits for the chapter number so I can click on the “Name” bar and sort the files in order. (Perhaps I should’ve used double-digits for the draft numbers, too?) I can also sort by date, but since I sometimes backtrack when I revise, it’s not the most reliable way to find the most recent version.

    When I get ready for submission, I get fancy and replace “Eurasia3” with “Lindbergh_Judith_Pasture_of_Heaven_”. That way my name and book title are clearly associated with my manuscript before the reader even opens the file. But for simplicity while drafting, stick with “ProjectName_Dr##_Ch##”. Then you can find, sort and open them easily.

    Note that I keep all my chapters in separate documents. NEVER put everything into one document until you’re done with the draft. What if the file got corrupted?!?!?!

    OK, here’s where the anxiety starts to build. When I was learning HTML (Yes, I can still write the code by hand!), I discovered that the smallest type-o could destroy the entire document. So I learned to keep versions. These days, I add “_New” or “_v1” or “_A”, “_B”, “_C” at the end of my latest draft. I sometimes end up with twenty copies of the same chapter, but at least I can tell which one came first. Then, since I’m always worried that something wonderful might be hidden in one of those old drafts, I drag them into my “Old Versions” folder where, generally, I never look at them again.

    Most of you already know that I back up obsessively. Last year, I carried my USB-key everywhere – in my pocketbook to the grocery store, in my jacket when I was hiking. I even slept with it on my nightstand. I was worried about more than my computer crashing. I mean, what if someone broke into my house and stole my computer? What if the house burned down? When my family planned its escape route in an emergency, I already knew my priorities. Grab the USB-key first, then get the boys.

    Thankfully I’ve discovered the wonder of free online storage. I’m currently enamored with They give you 2GB of storage for free. More costs a small fee each month, but if you refer your friends (and yes, this will happen if you sign up using my link, PLEASE), you get 250MB of bonus space. It’s not enough to back up all your family photos, but for your valuable Word documents, it’s priceless. Your documents are secure, private and accessible from anywhere. Just beware that the initial setup MOVES your files to Dropbox. It doesn’t copy them. The paranoid author here suggests you copy/paste, so you’ll have your files on your hard drive and in your Dropbox. (Did I mention I also have a backup external hard drive?)

    After all those technical tidbits, here are a couple tips for managing your work within your manuscript.

    This is basically a table of contents with a quick paragraph summarizing what happens in each chapter. I keep it in a single document that I can refer to quickly and usually find the scene I’m looking for in a minute or two.

    I make a hard page break [CTRL+ENTER in Word] at the bottom of my documents and put all the gorgeous darlings I’ve killed there on a page entitled “CUTS”. I do the same with “HOLDS” though they usually end up as “CUTS”, too. That way I can hang onto my beloved useless writing and return to it if inspiration allows. It’s emotional as well as practical. But I warn, this can be depressing. Most times, the number of pages I have in “CUTS” is longer than the finished chapter.

    Is that a good or a bad thing ? I cannot tell. But I promise, thinking it though and creating a file system and a few extra organizational documents will make it much easier to manage your writing, especially when you’re working on a big, unwieldy project like a novel.

    OK, I hope you’ll all pipe up with more suggestions. As with writing, there’s no right way, only what works. So feel free to comment and share your wisdom.


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