The Organized Writer: Your Trusted System

by Jeff Abbott on December 9, 2008

Over the next few entries, I’ll talk about how to build a system that will work for a creative person, based on my own experiences.
The first step for a creative’ person’s organization is having one reliable place where ideas are kept. A thousand sticky notes does not count; trust me, I’ve been there. But you need a place where you can reliably record every idea so you can draw on your ideas when you need them while writing or composing or painting or whatever. It’s all right if the bad ideas go there as well. But you want to reliably capture your thoughts and ideas that could have an impact on your creative work.

Now, this can be expanded to what productivity guru David Allen calls a “trusted system”–a place to record not only ideas, but commitments, appointments, etc. This way, you dump everything out of your brain into a place where you can see the big picture of all your tasks and commitments and projects, and you don’t have to worry about remembering them, therefore freeing up your mind for actual thinking.
(Note: David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, also known as GTD, has become hugely popular in the past few years–in fact, it’s become a multimillion dollar productivity empire. Here is an excellent summary of GTD. Also see here and here. I think his system has much merit, although it had a fatal shortcoming that simply didn’t work for me, which I will discuss later when I get to talking about calendars. That’s my problem, not the system’s. Many, many people swear by Allen’s GTD and there are literally dozens of sites on the web where you can read about peoples’ experiences with GTD. There are even software programs geared specifically toward using GTD, such as OmniFocus. I think the best place to start if you’re new to GTD is his book, Getting Things Done. Some of the ideas that I discuss here are directly drawn from my experience in trying GTD. It’s a wonderful approach, just not entirely for me, but I will use some of his terms to describe how I try to stay organized.)
I have two “trusted systems”. The first is my Clairefontaine notebook. This is where every thought and idea about the current book goes. This “master notebook” is full of odds and ends:
–plot ideas/explorations (what if Bill finds out about Mary’s past, what will Mary do? etc.)
–character bios (how did the bomb maker become a bomb maker? why is Joe afraid of commitment to a cause? etc.). I even write these for more minor characters, just for my own use.
–questions to myself that arise as the story unfolds: which could be plot or character issues, or research that I need to do
–sketches of relationships among the characters
–notes on research reading
–ideas for titles
–ideas for future books or stories
–notes on actions I want to take during rewriting
–any random thought that occurs to me regarding writing
In my previous life–as a software designer, marketer, and then as a creative director at an ad agency–I always kept these master notebooks. They were my lifeline and if someone had stolen one, the resulting situation would have been very Jim vs. Dwight. The master notebook serves as a foundation for the book.
The second trusted system is my Filofax (a chocolate Classic A5), where I keep my calendar, my lists of tasks I’d like to get done this week, and a list of ongoing projects that I want to track. It’s open on my desk, all day long. I usually have my Filofax or a smaller notebook or my iPhone with me when I’m out and about, and any notes made there (either on paper or as a voice memo on the phone) that are worth keeping on the review go into the master notebook. In having the two systems, I break a cardinal rule of David Allen’s approach–he says you should have only one–but that’s okay with me. I really don’t want my writing notebook cluttered up with the administrivia of my life–notes on books I want to read, or movies to see, or activities to do with my family, or reminders of phone calls to make. I want to keep that world, those thoughts, separate. If a Filofax isn’t what you want (and they have lots of models to choose from), then there are also excellent planners from Moleskine and from Quo Vadis, among others.
Your trusted system doesn’t have to be on paper: it could be a software solution, such as a single document in Microsoft Word that you pour everything into. Or a program that gives you an easy way to capture and organize information such as Evernote or Circus Ponies Notebook. Or the Project Center in Microsoft Entourage. Or a high-powered outliner like Tinderbox. (I haven’t used a Windows system in five years, so sorry, I only know Mac solutions, although I’m sure there are many good ones for Windows. Evernote, for instance, runs on both platforms.) It doesn’t matter what you use. Just pick a trusted system to get you started and stick with it for a while so you get comfortable with its strengths and weaknesses. (eg, paper is fast and easy–software is searchable and can be backed up). If your first trusted system doesn’t work–if you find you prefer paper over a software solution–then switch to what does work. Just be sure that you use a tool that you will rely on, that you will trust.
Next up: handling your calendar with a writer’s eye, and why GTD didn’t work quite right for me.

    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    Jeanne Ketterer December 9, 2008 at 11:58 am

    When I began my first book, I left my notebook in a coffeeshop. Yes, gone forever with all my notes, resources, contacts … everything. Very detailed notes. So after that (traumatic) learning experience, I never take the main notebook for whatever I’m working on out of the house. Or if I really want to take it out of the house, I make copies about every five pages or so (I think Keith S. suggested this to me, IIRC, after first experience). Also, put your name/contact info somewhere in it.
    I have Clairefontaines (a stationer’s a few blocks from me carries nearly a full line) which work well with fountain pens, but I mostly use yellow legal pads and pencils, a habit from college. And index cards. So one main notebook, the legal pads and index cards work for me right now, but I’m open for different methods. Post-Its get unwieldy for me. David brought home a package of Sharpies (in all colors, ) and sketch pads once when I couldn’t figure something out bec he thought seeing things in different colors — chars/plot, etc. — would help (sketch patch absorbs Sharpie ink). It did and I’ve done this many times since. (He’s a firm believer in using color for notes and drafts, so I have more colored pencils, pens, Sharpies, Post-Its than I’ll probably use in a lifetime.)
    Jeff, thank you for taking the time for these blog entries — they’ve been helpful and I’m forwarding your link to my friends.

    Jeff Abbott December 9, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    First of all, pardon that I had to make some corrections to the entry after posting it. Some verb and phrases fell out of my head but not onto the keyboard.
    Jeanne, here’s a couple of links that might be useful:
    and for Pendemonium, a big fountain pen site:
    I think both contain links to repair services. I’ve never used one, though. I use Lamy Safaris, and they’re cheap and easily replaced.

    Ann Victor December 9, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Another useful post, thanks Jeff!
    I’m a note maker on everything from the back of a cheque to the bottom of a till slip. After reading this post I think it’s time I invest in a good Moleskin notebook (or two!)(and Moleskin are easy to obtain here in South Africa).
    I also use the voice recorder on my cellphone, mostly when I’m driving. I’ve had some bad experiences with electronic diaries so I’ll stick to paper organizers.
    Bought your Panic and Cut and Run for my Dad’s Xmas stocking! I read the blurb on your web and he’ll enjoy them!:):)

    Janet December 9, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    I’m enjoying this series. Thanks.

    Kristan December 9, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Yeah… I use a combo of my calendar (small handheld and Google Calendar) and a writing journal and sticky notes above my desk. But I am a HIGHLY organized person, so even though this seems like multiple systems, I assure you it’s all one giant system only the likes of a crazy Kristan like me could comprehend. ;P

    Liz December 9, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    For inspirations at work or on the road, I like google docs- I can access it anywhere I can get an internet connection!

    Jeanne Ketterer December 9, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for the links, Jeff.
    I used Lamy pens in school, also. Lamy has a neat three-color pen. I have two inexpensive Pelikan (spelling?) f. pens similar to the Lamy Safari.
    I found the Waterman and the workhorse Schaeffer fountain pen in the college store. Didn’t get the f. pens for a status thing, but I needed something that could move fast over paper for notes. (Also, the W/S/L pens seemed more durable and withstood all college angst.)
    And, of course, words won’t appear magically according to which pen you use . Lately, I seem to end up using a pencil …

    Helen Ginger December 11, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks, Jeff. Really helpful post. I clearly need to update my old phone. It does basically nothing but receive and send calls.
    I could use your advice to be more organized. I currently depend on a notepad by my computer, a small notebook in my purse and a Palm. The Palm is one of the first they came out with, but I like that it syncs with my computer.
    Oh, let’s face it, I’m hopelessly out of date!

    Betsy Dornbusch December 11, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    We use the same Filofax. :)

    Sarah Jensen January 2, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Thanks Jeff. These post are very helpful. I have a note book, that I try to separate different book ideas into, I need to get something larger than what I’ve got.
    But this site is very helpful. :)

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