Organizing writing projects, semi-projects, and notes
August 3, 2018 8:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm a writer who works on poetry, short fiction, novels, and essays. So I have a lot of writing projects in various stages - everything from multiple chapters of a novel to a few words I thought of that might eventually turn into a poem. Writers of MeFi, how do you organize it all? (I think this would also apply to artists in other fields - artists who sketch, sculptors with ideas - so feel free to chime in.)

I feel very overwhelmed by pieces in progress, so much so that I sometimes don't write something down because I don't know what the heck I'm going to do with it. And I end up putting off writing in a journal because what if I come up with something I want to use and I can't figure out a reasonable way to keep it? Or what if I write something great in a journal and I never look at it again and it's LOST FOREVER (yeah, I know it's already lost forever if I don't write it down). Once I have something that feels like a project, it's workable. I have file folders for poems that feel like poems, and my novel in progress is easy to find (though when I think of things that might go with the novel, I don't know what to do with that).
I know that part of writing is writing a lot, but how do you not end up with an enormous pile of unorganized crap that may or may not contain a few gems? I've never had a problem coming up with ideas - for me the problem is capturing them so that I can use them. How do you manage?
posted by FencingGal to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I use Ulysses. It's like an online writing journal, one that syncs across phone, ipads, and computers. Great for random scraps of ideas. You don't even have to label these scraps or make "new documents" of them.

There's a video here of how it works.

I also use Ulysses to write my novel (and then copy it across to Scrivener for the editing and organizing)
posted by moiraine at 8:29 AM on August 3, 2018

I use Scrivener for longer projects, or collections of related short projects (one has the fic I have written for the Yuletide exchange, for example: different fandoms, different kinds of work, but related in my brain.) One thing I like about Scrivener is it makes it really easy to have a 'this is my working draft' but also to do a 'this snippet has some stuff in it, but does not fit into the current project' and move that bit where I can get to it easily but am not constantly distracted by it.

I use Ulysses for shorter stuff, because the tagging's easy, but there's a ton of similar programs out there. I tag for general project or topic, and then tag things when they are complete or published (and move them to a different folder, which then has filtered lists by those project tags) so that I can easily reference older stuff that's out there, but also easily see what's still in progress.

On a day to day basis, I keep a running log in my one-spreadsheet-to-rule-the-world daily tracking system that notes briefly what I did and how many words, which makes it easier to go "Oh, yeah, that thing wasn't actually done." (My next iteration will include a "Finished this" ticky box type thing, so I can see that more easily.)
posted by modernhypatia at 8:31 AM on August 3, 2018

Another vote for Scrivener. Modernhypatia gave a good summary, just a few things to add. Right now Scrivener is an old-fashioned app that you install on your PC or Mac. It doesn't have "cloud" features. That doesn't stop it from being great, though. The second thing is that at least once a year it goes on sale for half off. Often this is around November for nanowrimo. If you have patience, it is $20 instead of $40.
posted by seasparrow at 8:44 AM on August 3, 2018

Response by poster: Very cool to hear about this stuff. Just to be clear, I'm also very interested in hearing from people who like to use paper or combine paper with computer stuff (do people who use the computer just never take written notes?).
posted by FencingGal at 8:45 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nthing scrivener! Plus physical notebooks which are maybe not all that organized. At least use the divider kind to keep notes separated by project?
posted by little cow make small moo at 9:15 AM on August 3, 2018

For saving handwritten notes, I’ve found Genius Scan to be super helpful. You can use it to take pictures of your notes, and then drag and drop them into categories/pdf-documents.
posted by tinymegalo at 9:18 AM on August 3, 2018

I write and draw comics. It's all Evernote for me. There's a notebook for general ideas, and once an idea becomes a definite Project, it gets its own notebook. Sometimes I sit with a sketchbook to work stuff out but it ends up photographed and dumped into EN.

Scrivener has always looked pretty neat but Evernote's mostly-seamless syncing between multiple devices has been the killer feature for me. Have an idea on the go? Pull out the phone, tap it into Evernote.
posted by egypturnash at 9:28 AM on August 3, 2018

If you are really interested in written notes, and find limitations in word-style electronic note taking, I found the freedom in microsoft one note and organization to be very satisfactory.
posted by bbqturtle at 9:28 AM on August 3, 2018

I do a lot of brainstorming and first drafts on paper. So theoretically: file folders for loose leaf notes and different notebooks for different projects. In reality I get lazy and start using one notebook for different projects, but at least it's chronological. I also make sure to store my older notebooks and folders somewhere different from my current projects, so that I don't get overwhelmed looking for something.
posted by toastedcheese at 9:35 AM on August 3, 2018

Do you forget things you write down? I generally don't. I might forget where I've written it, but if I have written it, I remember it. I keep notes on a whole lot of things (generally art and craft projects, but also life stuff), in pocket notebooks (like Field Notes size). I reserve the front page for "Highlights" from the note book, and then I just scribble stuff in it -- menu planning, collage ideas, sketching locations, cool things I learn about lakes, an interesting thing I overhead someone say, prayers, whatever. When I finish the notebook, I turn to the highlights page and note everything in it that I think I might want to refer back to in the future -- things like a particular sketching location, a trip idea, characters from a book, etc. I don't add page numbers -- these books are so small, that's not necessary. But when I want to refer back to something, like "that list of characters in the Master and Margarita" or "that funny thing someone said at the beach about the smell of dirty dishes" -- I can quickly look at the highlights pages of my notebooks and find it.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:38 AM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I use Google Docs - one folder per project and subfolders as necessary.
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:42 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

My system's similar to OrangeDisk's, but I do number pages. I don't do actual bullet journaling, but their idea of keeping a running index of page numbers in a notebook was revolutionary for me.

I throw all my writing for various projects in a single notebook (technically, a series of single notebooks, but I fill them up one at a time), but I try to separate clearly unrelated stuff on to different pages. I number each page as I use it, and add that page number and a general vague title/reference/subject/tag/mental reminder to a running index at the front of the notebook. (For that purpose, I keep the first two pages blank when I start a notebook.) I don't do it neatly or prettily, but it works for me. For example, I have "mystery plot template," "The Good Place notes," "alien invasions???" as recent entries in my index, and just having the page reference and the quick content summary (that may make no sense to anyone but myself), I have a trigger to remind me what it is and where I can find it. Sometimes I use actual phrases from what I wrote, which might work for your scraps of poems, etc. Once, I went back and used a highlighter to color-mark the index where the various pieces for a specific project could be found. The jumbled but loosely-kept-track-of-as-you-go system works for me, because immediately determining how to singularly file away something potentially ambiguous doesn't work for me and is more stifling and anxiety-provoking than helpful.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 10:38 AM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have a similar problem: I write across science, fiction, poetry, travel. I used to have a different notebook for each category, but it was annoying to deal with so many notebooks especially since invariably the idea on hand didn't match the notebook I had. I am now using the Midori Traveler's notebook system; where one meta notebook has several inserts, one for each field. So in this way I can keep the notes organized.

On the computer, I use Scrivener, and recommend it highly.
posted by dhruva at 12:14 PM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

To answer your question on handwritten notes, I never take any.

I carry a super- portable iPad mini with a keyboard, and all my notes go on Ulysses. Random diary entries, observations, cool ideas. It syncs to the cloud, which syncs to my phone and MacBook, which makes me feel like I have not lost anything.

I used to write in journals but I could not bear the thought of losing them, or not having all my notes on hand, so I now only use Ulysses and Scrivener for longer-form projects.
posted by moiraine at 10:52 PM on August 3, 2018

On the handwriting: I take notes on paper in meetings, but then I type them into something (Ulysses for personal stuff, email or a GDoc for work stuff) and file them appropriately. I am very very good at losing things on paper.

I use 3x5 index cards for random thing I actually need to jot down, but they are transient. (I'm a librarian, so a certain amount of my life is 'what's the call number I need to go find in the stacks' or 'quick note about this question I just got' and then I flesh it out in email for a response.)

I am playing with doing more in paper, but it's for 'this is a finished thing, here are my thoughts on it, well organised and deliberately presented a certain way', not for the in-process stages.

Besides the fact I tend to lose paper, I also type much much faster than I handwrite, so handwriting is just horribly inefficient. When I don't have a full-blown computer handy, I have an iPad with a keyboard (and use that for some meeting things where I know I need to take notes, or refer to past information.)
posted by modernhypatia at 7:46 AM on August 4, 2018

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