July 7, 2020

Organization…for Our Creativity and Our Career

Rainbow of neon markers with text: How Can We Get Organized?

You wouldn’t know it by looking at my desk, but I have a natural organizational system. That system is called organized disorganization. *grin* Everything looks disorganized, but I can find what I need…most of the time.

Wherever I am, I tend to accumulate piles of “things” I need to deal with: things to file, things that need follow-up, things I want to dig into, etc.

In person, those “things” build up into literal piles covering the top of my desk. In fact, I still have one massive pile that I haven’t yet unpacked and put away after the chaos of our house flood. And sometimes I’ll have rows of sticky notes covering the edge at the bottom of my computer monitor.

On my computer, I’m not any better, as my browser explodes with 400+ tabs…as I once again accumulate things I need/want to deal with: articles to read and share, advice to try, programs to check out, etc.

Yet for some reason, people assume I can help them with their organizational skills. (I guess I fake being organized well?) So I’ve often received emails asking for my advice or what I do to keep myself organized. *coughs* *waves at the disorganization that’s organized just enough for me to find things…usually*

But that’s not terribly helpful, I know. So let me share a few insights into why we might struggle to find a system that works for us, as well as some resources I’ve come across that might help us keep organized. *smile*

Where’s Our “Perfect” Organizational System?

We’ve all heard tons of organizational advice before, yet many of us still suffer from disorganization. With all that advice, why do we struggle to find an organizational system that works for us?

Stumbling Block #1: Our Brain

A huge reason is that we all have different brains. That means we—and our brains—all have different strengths and weaknesses.

  • Some of us love checking things off our to-do list so much that we’ll write down already completed tasks, just so we can check them off. Others of us hate the busywork aspect of endless lists that repeat themselves, such as keeping track of “daily tasks.”
  • Some of us feel better if we stay on top of the little things, so endless tasks like “clean desk” or “clear kitchen sink” motivate us by making us feel accomplished. Others of us prefer dealing with tasks in bigger chunks, when we can focus for a longer period of time on one to-do item.
  • Some of us are stronger with visual motivation, such as colorful bullet journals. Others are stronger with checkmarks or lists.
  • Some of us want tangible organization. Others want the convenience of digital/mobile organization.

There’s no one “perfect” system because what’s perfect for someone else would likely drive us crazy. Or what motivates others would just feel like silly busywork to us.

Others can give suggestions, but they can’t tell whether a system will work for our brain or our lives. Only testing, time, and our experience will let us know whether a system will work or not.

Stumbling Block #2: Our Goals and Obstacles

In addition, we all live unique lives. Our goals and priorities affect what kind of organizational system we need:

  • An organizational system that focuses on story planning won’t help us if we struggle more with keeping track of our publishing progress.
  • Or if our goals don’t prioritize sales targets, we might not want to spend a lot of time on a marketing-focused organization system.

At the same time, our life’s obstacles can affect what type of system will work better for us:

  • If our family responsibilities don’t leave us much time for prepping our organizational system, we might want something more streamlined than a system that requires a half hour (or more) every week just to put into place.
  • Or if most of our free time happens during a commute, we may get more out of a digital/mobile system that we can work on whenever/wherever we have time.

The issues with our goals, priorities, and obstacles can also work against our brains. For example, while our brain might prefer a tangible system, the limitations of our day-to-day life might find a digital system more convenient.

When that happens, we can…

  • see if we can make the system our life demands work for us (such as using a digital system with extra-appealing motivation triggers)
  • experiment with a compromise (such as a portable bullet journal)
  • or we might need to reprioritize our life to make our brain’s preferred system work (such as shifting our family responsibilities or giving up an occasional exercise session to clear a half hour every week to work on our tangible system).

Stumbling Block #3: Elements of Organization

As writers, there are many different aspects of our creative life and career that we need to organize. Not counting our home-life or day job, we might need to keep track of…

  • details of our story (character, structure, worldbuilding, plot, subplots, etc.)
  • revisions/edits to make in the future
  • how stories in our series connect/overlap
  • future story/character/plot ideas
  • feedback we’ve requested or received
  • craft advice we want to remember
  • craft advice we want to try
  • places we’ve submitted/want to submit
  • agents/editors/cover artists to research
  • editing/publishing timeline
  • drafting/editing/publishing project flow for multiple stories in pipeline
  • publishing details (ISBN, links, etc.)
  • marketing advice we want to remember
  • marketing advice we want to try
  • marketing schedule
  • ads to run/update
  • analysis of marketing (what worked/didn’t work)
  • social media schedule
  • writing-related income and expenses
  • self-employment taxes
  • future blog post/newsletter ideas
  • newsletter subscribers and funnel system

And that list is just off the top of my head. *smile*

Why is it so hard to get organized? How can we improve? Click To Tweet

Obviously, some items on that list are more craft, story, and creativity oriented, such as keeping track of our characters’ details. Some of the items on that list are more career oriented, such as keeping track of where we’ve bought ads and how they’ve performed.

In other words, the system that works well for us in organizing our story might not help us organize our marketing efforts, and vice versa. So we might need multiple organizational systems for the different aspects of our creative and career needs.

Organizational Options

Rather than share a single piece of end-all-be-all advice for what organizational system to use or try, let me share a list of different approaches I know others have used and had success with. That way, we might learn of a system, approach, or technique that we’ve never tried before, and that system might be just what we need. *smile*

  • Text documents, such as Windows Notepad or MS Word
    These might be good for templates or forms to complete, like fill-in-the-blank character sheets or worksheets (such as my Story Development & Revision Worksheet or my Beta Reading Worksheet). They can also be used for just quick notes or simple lists, such as ideas of character names or book titles. Some text document programs can also include images, or create outlines, etc.
    In addition, text documents are often used for sharing manuscripts for feedback, editing, and formatting purposes.
  • Spreadsheets, such as MS Excel
    With their ability to include formulas and multiple sheets, spreadsheets can be used for many flexible and varied purposes, such as my story structure beat sheets. The math and formula aspect can also help us with income and expenses or tracking ad spending. Some writers have even used spreadsheets for tracking worldbuilding info, with a sheet on each world’s planet or cultural group, etc.
  • Cloud-based documents, such as Google Docs (or placing normal documents in a cloud-shared folder, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft’s OneDrive)
    If we want to access our documents from multiple computers, cloud-based solutions are helpful. Many cloud-based solutions also offer mobile apps for us to access our material from any device.
  • Digital notebooks, such as Evernote or OneNote or Notion
    These digital notebooks have many of the same abilities as the platforms above, but they might come with built-in folder and sub-folder organization and mobile apps. If we keep all our notes in the program, not only will the platform’s organization help us find everything, but these digital notebooks often also have the ability to search through everything we’ve ever copied into the program.
    In addition, Notion includes the ability to create a private wiki-style database, like for character, story, or worldbuilding details, and it can also handle project to-dos.
  • Scrivener
    In addition to being a text-drafting/editing program, Scrivener has the ability to save and organize our notes. Many use Scrivener files to keep track of story-related research, character images, etc. Some writers who blog also use Scrivener to plan and draft their blog posts, especially if they later want to turn their posts into a book.
  • Other Writing-Specific Programs
    There are programs for just about every aspect of writing, from timelines to ebook formatting. Some I’ve heard recommended include:
    • One-Stop for Writers: includes character builder tool and character templates, story maps, timelines, worldbuilding templates, etc.
    • Plottr: includes timelines, story bible templates, story structure templates, etc.
    • Campfire: includes character info, plot info, and worldbuilding info
    • Dabble: goal-focused writing program with ability to mark days off
    • World Anvil: complete worldbuilding program, including interactive maps, world history, character development, etc.
    • Storyist: story writing environment from notecards to prose
    • Aeon Timeline: create timelines for our stories or for our projects, such as our publishing schedule
    • Vellum: ebook and print formatting for Mac users
  • List Programs, such as Trello
    These can be used to organize our plot, our to-do lists, or anything else that uses “cards” for organizing. With the digital aspect, our lists can follow us through mobile apps.
    Here’s an example of using Trello to track and encourage productivity through the Kanban method:

What Else Should We Keep in Mind When Deciding?

Not surprisingly, many of those options cost money, so that might need to be part of our decision process as well, especially if we’re just experimenting with a technique. For example, we could easily sink over $100 in a fancy planner and stickers and whatnot, but that’s a lot of money to spend if we’re not sure a physical planner will work for us.

That said, we don’t need to spend money to get access to powerful tools. Personally, I use OneNote for most of my record-keeping, and that’s free.

My Organizational System (Such as It Is…)

As I said at the outset, I’m just organized enough to be able to find what I’m looking for most of the time. For my to-do’s, sometimes that just means that I keep stuff I need to do in front of me somewhere, either on my desk or on my computer monitor.

What are our options for getting organized, with either our story or our career? Click To Tweet

(Yes, that gets me in trouble many times, as the thing gets buried, my computer crashes, or whatever. My to-do’s in my inbox are forever getting buried by new emails, as I receive a ridiculous amount of email a day, and so on.)

Other than that problem with my to-do list—or lack of one—my organization isn’t too bad. But the vast majority of my “organizational skills” comes down to using just three simple techniques:

  • I keep my files (Word, Scrivener, Excel, etc.) organized on my computer with writing-specific folders and subfolders:
    • business stuff (income, expenses, taxes, etc.)
    • craft stuff (worksheets, craft lessons, etc.)
    • images and fonts I’ve purchased
    • publicity stuff (logo, avatar, lessons, etc.)
    • publishing stuff (submission and agent info)
    • self-publishing stuff (templates, lessons, etc.)
    • folders for each story (with subfolders for steps of self-publishing process: cover, editing, formatting, etc.)
  • Those folders are all saved on my computer in cloud storage (Dropbox and OneDrive) so I can access them from mobile and any other device.
  • Information that doesn’t exist in its own file is saved into OneNote, where everything is searchable. *cue Hallelujah Chorus*

My OneNote Organization

OneNote is essentially my worldbuilding, research, and series bible repository for my stories. In addition, because OneNote is all searchable, I’ve used it to supplement my brain for everything I’ve learned over the years, from craft to self-publishing advice. *grin*

For example, when I come across advice I want to remember, I can write a sentence or two about the main point of the advice in OneNote and include a link to the source for when I want to reread the advice. Or sometimes I’ll just copy and paste a whole article to a page in OneNote with a link to the source, just so I have the whole thing to reference. Either way, if I do a search on, say, “romance tropes” within OneNote, the system will bring up the page where I save links to trope lists.

My OneNote set up includes:

  • a notebook for each series (worldbuilding info, future story ideas, future character inspiration, etc.) and a “tabbed” section for each story with pages for:
    • research notes
    • brainstorming notes
    • character notes and images
    • setting notes and images
  • a notebook for self-publishing production notes (promo schedule, ISBNs, relevant keywords, metadata info, links, publishing to-do list, account information, etc.)
  • a notebook for craft notes (includes sections on Word Lists, Pitching, Editing, Characters, etc., where I save references to advice)
  • a notebook for publishing/publicity notes (includes sections on Finding Your Audience, Spreading the Word, Distribution, Discoverability, etc. for references to advice, as well as lists of promotion resources)
  • a notebook for business-related information (including Front/Back Matter advice, Launch advice, Money advice, Website notes, etc.)
  • a notebook of miscellaneous quick notes that don’t fit elsewhere (blog post ideas, other story ideas outside current series, to-do lists, images of potential character or story inspiration, etc.)

Final Thoughts

All of those notebooks and sections probably make me look more organized than I am. However, many pages in each notebook are “unsorted” and not placed into any section. Someday, when I have nothing else to do, those pages can be moved into the appropriate place. *snicker*

Also, while OneNote is great for acting as my back-up brain (and is automatically saved/backed up to the cloud), it’s not so good as a daily to-do list prompt for me, but that’s just because I’m not in the habit of checking it. Currently, that day-to-day productivity to-do-list is where I’m lacking a habit…of any kind, as I tend to focus on the squeakiest wheel first. I hope with my new blogging schedule next week, I’ll have more time to plan my tasks, whether with OneNote or something else.

And maybe that’s the best advice I can share. The system that works best for us is the one that we’ll use and the one that’s flexible enough for our needs. Only we can know what technique(s) fits that description for us, but hopefully this post gives us a few ideas about the possibilities. *smile*

10 Year Blogiversary Reminder!

My blogiversary is coming up next week, and that means 2 things:

As I announced a few weeks ago, after 1000+ posts and ten years of publishing articles every Tuesday and Thursday, I’m giving myself the gift of an irregular schedule. So this is a great time to make sure you’re signed up for my blog-post newsletter so you don’t miss any of my new scheduled-when-I-feel-like-it posts! 😉

My blogiversary also means that it’s time to enter my 10th Annual Blogiversary Contest! The more comments we get on that post, the more winners we’ll have. 😀

Do you have an organizational system? If so, what do you use, and how does it work for you? If not, what struggles have you had with being organized or finding a system that works for you? Does this post include a few ideas you hadn’t encountered before? Do you have any other insights or suggestions?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Jennifer Barricklow

I, too, am what I’ve learned is called a horizontal filer. I haven’t finished setting up my office the way it needs to be to make that work, but discovering One Note has positively affected both my physical and digital work spaces.
With my phone, I snap photos of text, images, graphics, anything, and save them in One Note. I’ve even (slowly) begun to eliminate paper files by scanning and saving material to One Note, again using my phone.
On my computer, I’ve taken back control of my inbox by clipping posts and articles to One Note. When I have time, I read and file them. (Like this post.) When I don’t, I clip and save them in a To Be Read folder.
Because One Note is completely searchable (even images), I will be able to find something even if I misfile something (or never get around to filing it). Theoretically, I suppose I wouldn’t ever have to file anything; I could just search for it. As I like to pretend I possess some degree of organization, however, I do have some files.
Several years ago, a friend recommended a book about organizational style. When I took the quiz designed to identify that style, it told me that the only thing I needed was a personal assistant, that no system or technique would help. So for years, I’ve comforted myself by saying that I’m not disorganized, I’m understaffed. That’s not likely change, but One Note definitely helps.


I’m just organized enough to be dangerous.
I keep everything in folders.
I’ve folders for each of my clients, a client info for client information that needs to be used multiple places, a folder for my online magazine contributions and then I’ve folders for my financial info and of course there are folders for all my writing projects.
I probably have something ridiculous like 3 or 4000 documents, but I can find what I need fairly easy.
During my staycation I took an hour each day to do some cleaning out of files, getting rid of double files, and moving all of my regularly used photos into one new folder so I could get to them quickly when blogging, creating ads, or posting onto FB or Twitter.
If anyone looked at my computer they’d see a disorganized pile but to me it all makes sense.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as one organization system fits all but I do think that we must have some sort of system.
I don’t tend to plan my writing, I don’t make character lists and all that stuff, but that’s just me.
I love Excel sheets for email contact lists and for sending out The Writer’s Grapevine monthly magazine I produce because it lets me keep track of who’s reading.
Great post.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

And make sure to back up your computer weekly….

Traci Kenworth

My desk sounds like yours, lol. Everything within reach, but no certainty of what piece of information I might need.

JoAnna Lamb

Great post, Jami and now I’ll find myself checking out some of your suggestions in my never ending quest to find the perfect organisation system! I think it’s a form of procrastination on my part to be honest. I’ve tried to build in a regular tidy up on one note and print out a table of contents which helps but as you say, it’s highly searchable so it’s a good place to store things. For ‘to be read’ articles I use Pocket to read them first, then will link to One Note if I think it could be a useful article to refer back to, like this one!


OMG, I am such an organizing freak, so thank you for the list of organizational options. :0)

Though I’m great at organizing, I’m not always so good at follow-through. Some things I put on my to-do spreadsheets I just don’t want to do. And yes, I meant to pluralize spreadsheets. I have a spreadsheet document for overall goals, weekly goals, a list of things that needs fixed in each novel, publishing tasks, marketing tasks, and these are the ones just for my writing. The marketing tasks is the to-do spreadsheet I tend not to follow through with the most. 😛

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks Jami!
Since starting college I had to get a lot more organised using my phone for calendar and reminders.
I always wrote a list of tasks to be done and have returned to that method, with a written list for each month and ticking off the items. College assignments have a separate work sheet on the computer.
No time has been available for much else. But this summer I have got three books published so far, as the lockdown helped. Photos online have had to be organised in any spare hours and it’s worth doing.
All my business files are pigeonholed as they come in, and once a year I absolutely have to tidy my desk, as a way of putting off doing my accounts.


Someone mentioned backing up their computer.
I use Microsoft 365 and so all of my documents are on my One Drive, and this makes it handy.
This means that I can go into my One Drive from any device and grab files.
Nothing ever disappears.
I learned this the hard way after having two major computer meltdown issues in one year.
Flashdrives are also a must.
I also now make certain my editor/publisher has at least one copy of my working manuscript.

rae longest

Very helpful…AND very well organized!

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