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10 Tips for the Disorganized Writer

Messy desk

Here is my work surface after an hour at my computer. I say work surface because my office with a beautiful desk is a mess. I work at the kitchen table. Sigh – this is the story of my disorganized writing life.

I begin each day with sharp pencils, pens (with caps) clean note books, file folders, etc. And kaboom. It devolves into a doodled on, chewed on, and crapped on pile.

Does this sound like you? Are we doomed?

I’m not messy. I’m creative

I’m not messy in the dirty dish, pizza crusts in boxes, and hairy bathroom sense. I'm a clutter bug. The culprit, paper and kids. I can’t blame my kids for my state of mind, but I often find treasures all over the house: hair ties, yarn creations, glue sticks, nail polish, toys, homework, you get the idea. I’m constantly throwing this away. I call it pushing back the tide because it doesn’t work.

But, despite my issues, in the past four years I’ve turned out:

  • 2 novels

  • Dozens of short stories – see my published ones here

  • Press releases

  • Annual reports

  • Blogs for many client sites

  • 60+ fully researched, written and distributed newsletters

  • Scores of email drip campaigns

  • 11 full websites

  • And countless other projects from editing non-fiction books to naming products and companies

I am by no means a super star producer. I realize, if I were organized, I would have fewer distractions, save hours of my life looking for slips of content, and be thinner as I now work at the kitchen table and there’s food everywhere.

Organized People are too Lazy to Look for Things

Yes, I have hired home organizers. I even wrote an article about the subject. I spent a grueling week with a professional work organizer and true to her claim, at the end of the process, I was neat and tidy. And then kaboom, the tide came in.

10 Tips for the Disorganized Writer

1. Find out what type of learner/organizer you are. For years people have been helping me by making file folders and labels and stuffing my shit into drawers and closets. I once had a home organizer walk into my office look at me with an, “Ah ha! You’re a visual learner." She explained, if you don’t “see” it – my stuff – it disappears.

Holy wow! This was the single biggest revelation I’ve ever had on the subject of my personal disorganization. Yes! I forget about earrings, shoes I own, how many cans of corn if any are in the pantry, and all the moving parts and bits associated with my clients and their writing projects and my personal ones.

I now have a white board with notes and to-dos and my files (I do have them) are in an open vertical storage system with labels. Bye-bye unlabeled boxes. Boxes and basket have been traded in for see through ones and frequently used items such as pens sit in cups. I probably have a million pencil cups but I always have a writing stick when I need it.

2. Lefty, righty?

I’m left handed yet my work spaces were all set up on the right. Duh!

3. Keep one calendar

It can be ugly to mix work and home life in one place, but don’t be like me and double book events. Calendars can also be shared with family and co-workers.

4. If you can find it online, do that.

Toss out as much paper as you can. If you can find articles, research, etc. online or store scanned documents in your computer, do that instead of printing paper and filing things into a black hole. Make sure you have a secure back-up.

5. Do you write novels or long documents with sections, research, etc.?

I won’t go into details, but check out Scrivener. It’s my favorite writing tool.

6. Don’t cross pollinate

I keep separate notebooks for each project/client. This works for me, it may not work for you. Trust me, you don’t want to mix a character sketch for your novel with a CEO bio you’re writing for your network security client. Oh the funny stories I could tell.

7. Label, date, and put page numbers on everything

8. Take only what you need

Rarely will I write a chapter, website, or a short story in one sitting. And even if I do, there is a marinating period and rounds of edits. I set up my work time and space only for the piece/section/edits of that project. When I finish, I put all those resources and notes away and set up for the next project. See #6 on cross pollination.

9. Become a traffic manager

In PR and advertising firms, as well as other places like publishing houses, there is a magical being – the traffic manager. This magician is responsible for work flow, time management, production, scheduling and all sorts of work organization issues. The work is more involved than setting and meeting a deadline. Think through the steps you need to complete a writing project.

I’ll illustrate with a fiction project: The first chapter of a shiny new novel. Learn about the setting, interview a real person who does your MCs job, fact check, look up industry jargon, hip MC vocabulary or habits. Draft, edit, edit, edit. Maybe draft, keep writing and edit later (it’s your process not mine). Show to writing peeps or critique group. Send to an editor if you use one or agent, or read aloud to your parrot.

10. Understand you’re human. Continue to improve and organize and try new methods.

Got a tip for me? I'd love to see it. I'm human too.


Sharon J. Wishnow -
Entrepreneur, Speaker & Author
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