How to organise writing projects

A key part of novel-writing is rewriting, revising, editing, and reediting, so organising writing becomes a skill in producing your final, polished manuscript.

Here’s how to organise a book writing project.

Step 1: Collate fragments into one writing space

Consolidate your story material. Jottings may be a collection of inspirations scribbled on the backs of receipts, first draft files in random locations, links for research, a mix of all this and more, but collect and combine everything, even what might seem odd or silly.

Look after your ideas – they’re yours – and bring them together where you can access them easily. You could see two apparently unrelated ideas, penned in unrelated moments, and suddenly a new connection forms in your mind for your novel-in-progress.

It’s easy to be haphazard when jotting ideas down. There’s your desktop, your laptop, external hard drive, journal, desk drawers, etc., for storing bits and pieces. Treat writing like it’s your profession (we’re guessing you’d like it to be) and when you can, gather your fragments, files and first drafts together to bring your story out of vagueness and into shape and being.

Doing this also frees up time for real writing (e.g. not rummaging for scraps of paper you’ve written on in times past, stuffed away in bags or bedside table drawers). If you know you’ll need some healthy chaos around, to best write – if this amasses to reams of papers at a desk – at least pop all your musings and material in the same space.

Step 2: Love your writing space

Dylan Thomas’ writing shed. | (c) Alamy

Once you’ve settled on where and how you’ll store everything, create yourself a positive, comfortable writing space.

Dylan Thomas’ writing desk was by a small bookcase, facing his shed window, with art prints on the surrounding shed wall. Maya Angelou rented a hotel room. Jane Austen, who had no writing room, had a table she preferred to write at, and wrote as close as she could to natural light.

We’ve written already about creating a writing space you’ll love to work in, and it’s quite the boost to look up desk accessories for yourself. (It’s easy go overboard with writerly coasters, mugs, pen pots and mouse mats, but frankly, it’s unlikely you’d regret a thing.)

A fancy box file you’ll pop research or chapters into gives whatever project you’re working on a certain sheen of significance, since it’s not something (hopefully) you’ll now want to neglect. The same’s true of magazine files, lever-arch files or dividers to store up character sketches, backstories and so on, depending how much you like to plan.

Find a comfortable chair, too.

Roald Dahl had his writing shed in the garden, writing in notebooks from his comfy armchair to protect his back (he also needed back surgery).

Make yourself comfortable to avoid mogigraphia or ‘scrivener’s palsy’ with plenty of home comforts, like a wrist cushion, chair cushions, etc.

Step 3: Consider Scrivener’s ethos for organising

J.K. Rowling creates plot charts. Stephen King, by contrast, never plots at all. Some writers hate plotting. Others require plot as an anchor to their story material.

Not every writer is a ‘planner’ – and ‘pantster’ writers (the Stephen Kings of the writing world) may wonder what all the Scrivener-fuss is.

If you love writing in flow on a computer, or in notebooks, collating papers and chapters before writing up later – or if the idea of so much organising makes you sick – then keep doing what you love.

It’s no good doing what doesn’t feel intuitive to you.

If you’re a ‘planner’ and relish this side of novel-writing, Scrivener helps you divide a draft into chapters and stores ponderings, research links, plot lines and subplot lines, etc., safe in one ‘project’ space. Its ethos is all about organising thoughts, research and plots, so you can fast-track inspiration.

Scrivener’s also formatted so you can choose how the outline of your novel-in-progress looks. If you need, you can write a draft novel with your research ‘sitting’ alongside in the same screen. There’s a ‘corkboard’ interface where chapters appear ‘free-floating’, i.e. you can drag them like post-it notes into position if you feel scenes are sequenced poorly.

Scrivener screen | (c) Scrivener

Some writers don’t think as well in linear plotting and need to join up ideas later. Scrivener is ideal to help you organise more random bursts or of inspiration.

If you prefer using real papers, real notebooks, or real post-its, but still need to swap scenes and fiddle with chapter ideas, why not use post-it notes to play with the order of events, to sense out how your rising action looks? Why not keep separate notebooks for research, mind-maps and so on?

Fundamentally, create as loose or tight a framework as you need to keep tabs on your ideas. Scrivener’s organisational ethos could be good to consider.

Step 4: Keep a mini notebook for on the go

Roald Dahl wrote ‘chocolate’ into the dirt of his car one day with his hands to remember an idea. All turned out well when he then wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but you may prefer yourself to keep a mini notebook when you’re on the move, to transfer bigger ideas later back to your work space.

Alternatively, if you’re a scribbler and your novels are all handwritten, to be typed up later, consider two journals (one for your novel, one for ideas) to keep by.

Treat yourself if it’ll help boost productivity.

In time, you may also just like our self-editing course to help hone your first draft into shape for literary agents, as well. This is also true if you’re self-publishing and want to be sure you’re sending the best version of your book out into the digital world, too (your best hope of success will always be the quality of your book, after all, whether traditionally or self-published).

Happy writing!

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The Writers' Workshop is the world's leading consultancy for first time writers.
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