Monday, April 27, 2009

The Organized Writer: The Battle Against Clutter

“Being organized is not an end in itself – it is a vehicle to take you from where you are to where you want to be.” Stephanie Winston

If you came to my house, I’d be embarrassed to let you see my writing space. I have a serious clutter problem. My desk is piled with books, pens, pencils, miscellaneous pieces of paper, and general junk. The bed (my writing space also doubles as a spare bedroom) has stacks of paper on it waiting to be filed, somewhere. I have a box full of stuff on the floor because I don’t know where to put it. The clutter is starting to interfere with my writing because aside from not being able to find anything, I find it distracts me and weighs me down.

What can I do to battle the clutter in my writing space?

For help I turned to “Getting it Together” by Patricia Katz. For desktop disorder Ms. Katz says to start by cleaning everything off your desk. Then be very selective about what gets to return.

I took everything off the top of my desk. What should I pitch and what should put back on the desk?

One good rule of thumb: Keep only the things you work on daily on the top of your desk, the things you work on weekly in your desk, and the things you work on monthly around your desk. Toss or archive the rest.

So that’s what I tried to do. I took back library books (apparently I had exceeded my limit of renewals), and neatly put away books that belonged to me. I pitched scraps of paper and assorted junk (not sure why I was keeping them), and sorted through my bazillion pens, pencils, markers etc., throwing out the ones that were broken or dried up. I put away some things that really didn’t belong on my desk, some earphones and other computer paraphernalia that I’m sure my husband tossed there. Ms. Katz says to avoid desk organizers, especially the tray kind. It’s too easy to turn an “In/Out” box into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Instead I got a stand up file to hold items I’m currently working on. The stand up file limits the amount I can place in it.

The next thing I dealt with was all the paper and “stuff” on the spare bed. I again turned to Patricia Katz and her section on filing tips. Here are some of the tips that resonated with me:

1. Patricia says to keep the titles on file folders brief and always start with the noun, not the adjective. So instead of “The Royalty Statements”, I should file under “Royalty Statements”.

2. Put labels on the outside of the filing cabinets so you know what’s inside.

3. File frequently! Digging repeatedly through a “To be Filed” pile wastes time. Make the time to file every day or every week. I set up a reminder in Outlook Tasks to nag me every few days.

4. When you file a new item, examine and toss papers that are no longer useful. That way your filing cabinet will not be so overcrowded that you constantly give yourself paper cuts while you file.

5. Before you file anything, ask yourself if it deserves to be kept at all. Is this information online somewhere? Then maybe it’s not necessary to keep a printed copy.

6. Adopt the “touch paper once” rule. As soon the paper comes into your space, file or toss, but don’t let it languish on your desk. Still working on that one.

For more resources on organizing and decluttering, the Internet has a myriad of information. I Googled “organizing your home office” and got many hits. One I enjoyed was iVillage

My writing space looks better and I can breathe a little easier. But I still have a long way to go. I still have that box of stuff on my floor that I haven’t dealt with. And I admit I returned a box of old floppy disks to the top of my desk (there might be a hidden gem of writing in there somewhere!). I’ll try to do a little organizing everyday; organizing guru The Fly Lady encourages us to take baby steps to avoid burnout. Maybe someday I’ll even tackle that box of old floppy disks and see what can be tossed.

Do you have a problem with clutter in your writing space? How do you organize your space? Do you have favourite books or websites on organization? How do you deal with “I can’t throw that out because I might need it someday” syndrome? Is there a 12-step program somewhere I can join?


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, I always delay my organizing by telling myself "well, I don't have any good filing folders right now" or "I can't do anything with these books until I get another bookcase anyway..." and so it continues.

When I first started making plans for my novel, I bought a binder and a bunch of dividers, breaking things up into 'general info' 'character info' 'first quarter' etc, and stuffed all my notes and brainstorming in there as it came. Now it's underneath a pile of other things that need to be dealt with, so I don't pull it out. My notes are piling up in a clipboard, but I assume I'll need them all soon.

Thankfully I recently downloaded a great little note program from one of my favourite blogs, and I'm slowly transferring the important information in there, and eliminating some paper. I still keep all the hard copies though. Some part of me imagines the immense amusement some fan (boy I'm getting ahead of myself, eh?) will have years from now to see first notes and how vastly different the story I had in mind then is from the final product.

Books and cds are a whole other problem.. I need to label, organize, store, so many things... but at least I feel confident in saying I can't organize my books until I get another book shelf. Organized piles on the floor are still piles on the floor.

Captain Hook said...

Clutter? Me?

Not at all, but only because I had to seriously scale back on my possessions last year when I found myself homeless and living in my car.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I know exactly where you're coming from. I have the "I can't organize until..." syndrome. For me it's usually until I have time. When the heck is that going to be? I know I should be doing a little organizing every day (for example finding a home for 5 things everyday so I can get them off my floor) but I hate to take the time away from my writing. The trouble is that if you let things pile up pretty soon it's so overwhelming that it just paralyzes you and you don't know where to start. And it definitely affects your writing.

Right now my Word files on my computer are a mess. There's a lot of stuff that should just be deleted and a lot that should be put in folders so that it can be found more easily. That is a piece of clutter that is definitely affecting my writing. That's my next project.

What's the note program you found? Do you think it's better than paper notes? I haven't tried one of them so I'd be curious to know how it works.


Jana Richards said...

Oh my goodness Captain! I'm so sorry to hear of your troubles. I hope the fact that you're writing and keeping in touch with us means things are going much better for you today.

Keep well.

Silver James said...

I recently cleaned my office and tried to organize it when I got the new desktop computer. Uhm...I can't find a thing. *headdesk*

Captain, your resiliancy astounds me.

Karen said...

I try to be vicious when it comes to deciding what papers to keep and what to recycle but it still manages to pile up. I need to adopt rule #6. My whole family needs to adopt rule #6.

I will definitely try some of your tips to help organize myself. Great post Jana.

The following is a link to one of my favorite things. It's a very clever 20 minute video called The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. It kind of relates to your topic today in that it speaks to the global cost of accumulating 'stuff'. It helped me develop a philosophy about stuff or clutter in general.

It follows the cycle of stuff and where it ultimately ends up.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
Nothing worse than not being able to quickly find what you need when you need it. Especially after you organize. Have you thought of creating a sort of "master file" that tells you where you put stuff? This would be an alphabetized list of all your stuff, kind of like a table of contents. For example, mine would be something like "Research: Cruiselines, filing cabinet A, second drawer." Or "Research: World War 2 uniforms, Word folder WW2 Research". I haven't done this yet but perhaps someday I will be this organized (and maybe pigs will fly!)


ban said...

organize ? i organize EVERY day, unfortunately, with two small children and a husband ... you get the idea. if i lived alone, i'd have the tidiest, most orderly house you've ever seen - i'd also be very lonely :( so ... i live with the disorder and try to straighten up during nap time, which is also the time i try to read my blogs, ck emails etc.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
I'm a firm believer that we have too much "stuff". One of my favorite quotes is "The more things you own, the more you are owned by things." (Malkin's Rule) That's why I am currently planning my garage sale. It's not just my writing space that needs a good purging.

They say that clutter is postponed decisions. Like Hayley was saying, sometimes we don't know where to put something so it ends up in a pile. Unfortunately, rule #6 only works if you know what to do with stuff. Patricia Katz suggests a Pending file when you need more information before you can deal with an item. You just have to be careful not to let it turn into a catchall file of indecision.


Erika said...

I am a neat freak when it comes to my desk. It should be paper free except for what I'm working on, God forbid one of my kids has left their crap, er stuff on it. It should be clean at all times. How am I suppose to get anything done with a bunch of junk lying in the way????

connie said...

Jana - Gee, are you ever lucky to have a bed to pile stuff on too!


connie said...

If you cover the stacks of papers or books or magazines with a cloth, PRESTO, you have jazzy new stands to put stuff on or use as a coffee table or whatever!
(I will write a serious comment a little later today)

Karen said...

Jana, I LOVE Malkin's Rule. I'm going to write it down and put it in my wallet.

Jana Richards said...

Hi ban,
Unfortunately, I would probably still have clutter even if I lived alone. I think it's in my DNA. And like you said, I'd be a lot lonlier.

I hate to tell you this but even when kids get older they disorganize your life. My oldest daughter (age 25) leaves a trail of distruction wherever she goes.


Jana Richards said...

I am soooo jealous of you! Imagine being neat! All the time! I think my brain would explode or something.

Seriously though, if being neat and tidy helps you work, then that's what you have to do.

Happy (clean) writing.

Jana Richards said...

Hey Connie,
A girl after my own heart! You should really go on HGTV and give design tips.

But seriously folks, DO NOT write in a spare room with a bed. It is way too tempting to throw stuff on it until the next thing you know it's Mount St. Helen's and ready to blow.

Yours in disorganization,

Helena said...

I've always said that if I put things away, I'll never find them again! But I have discovered that my writing corner, which is in a gable and therefore feels like a small room, needs to be organised for me to feel like writing.

I have enough shelves for my books (at least for now, Hayley, because it is ever changing) and I use a bit of shelf space for the "to be filed later" category. Then my desk, which I try to reserve for things I'm working on, is not too cluttered. But I think that Clutter is my middle mame, and I have not got around to legally changing it to Neat.

Very good topic, Jana. Too close to home for some of us, obviously.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, the program I've crammed most of my writing notes into is Magical Words' Character Keeper. I blogged about it last month I believe. It's a simple little free program, allows you to customize things however you like, and also forces me to fill in gaps in my development.

At present I have a category for the current wip, with character pages, a timeline, and space for plot notes (I don't like to plot immensely so I just note scenes or ideas for later). I also have a section for future ideas, which gave me a place to put some bibliography info for a 17th century idea that requires a lot of research. Then there's world-building categories for the various kingdoms, religions, etc, and every one of those that's sits blank prompts me to fill things in.

Plus it's all in one app rather than scattered throughout word documents, and rearranging is really easy.

Angelique Newman said...

Great blog.

I'm a bit of a neat-freak myself, but being a writer it's easy to get caught in a surge of papers and research books.

Captain Hook said...

Hayley, that Character Keeper looks awesome. I'll have to try it.

Jana and Silver, my life has been getting back on track lately. That's part of why I haven't done much writing this past year though. Well, that and other stuff.

Janet C. said...

We've found that you really cut down on clutter and 'stuff' if you move every 3 to 4 years :)

That being said - we still manage to collect 'stuff' in-between moves. Most of it is really not necessary in our goal toward happiness - and some, as you suggested with Malkin's Rule, actually becomes a burden.

As to my writing area (not really an area), I try to keep files organized and paper to a minimum. I am a school supply junkie and struggle to control my over-purchasing (really, how many post-it notes does a person really need). And I think not having a place to call my own keeps me organized.

Great post, Jana - and some great comments. Nice to see some new people stopping by :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I'm glad I'm not alone in my battle with clutter. But from reading the comments here, it appears a lot of my fellow writers are very particular about their writing space and what gets to take up valuable real estate there. Bravo!

I'm kind of a frustrated neat freak. I want to be one but I never quite get around to it.


Jana Richards said...

Hayley, I agree with Captain that Character Keeper sounds like a great program. Thanks for sharing with us. I'm definitely going to check it out.

Captain, I'm glad to hear your life is getting back on track. All the best to you.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Angelique,
Thanks for joining us. Welcome!

I bow to you and other neat freaks. Keeping papers, books and research materials under control requires real discipline.

Drop in any time.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Yes, moving on a regular basis really does force you to clear out the junk. For a while there we were moving every 4 to 6 years and I got really good at putting on garage sales. But we haven't moved now in almost 11 years and things are starting to pile up.

I think too much stuff really does burden you, not just because of the sheer volume of junk that weighs you down, but also the financial burden. If you don't buy something you don't have to work that much harder to pay for it.

Of course, this rule does not apply to books, ebook readers and post it notes.

Talk to you soon Janet.

Rev said...

For some, organization is a constant struggle. Those are the lucky, and openly anal, who like their space to be clean and neat. The rest of us, however, find organizing to be that moment when you realize, "I have that..." item that you know lies somewhere at the bottom of a pile of To Do that has been growing steadily as new mail, new printouts and new minutiae accumulate at the top. It's that sudden realization that, "I just can't take this any more." A sudden fugue overtakes us and we diligently lose our minds for several hours while everything goes first into two piles, kept and discarded. Then, we narrow the categories, important, not-too-important and I-know-I'm-going-to-need-that. That's when the negotiations between good and evil begin and the fate of the world, or your little corner of it, is decided.

Yes, it's a tale as old as, well, last weeks postal service restructuring, but one that all of us suffer from, I would wager. Organizing doesn't have to be such an overwhelming task, if you're willing to pay attention to two small, but essential, things. First, simplification doesn't mean doing without, it means using what you are already familiar with. If you keep coupons in a coupon file, keep doing it, but do it consistently so that the task doesn't become overwhelming. It's like laundry, eventually you'll actually start considering burning the whole mess and starting over with bearskins and loincloth. If you're living in the woods, you'll actually consider becoming a nudist. If you keep up with your system, the task becomes more a matter of routine and far more manageable. It also becomes so ingrained that not doing it makes you feel just as unwell as that huge pile you're currently trying to keep from toppling over and killing the cat. The second thing to bear in mind is that there are more modern ways of getting all that information organized. Yes, it throws the first one right out the window, along with that electric bill you just tried to shoo that annoying raven away with, but it opens a whole new world. Scanning and electronically organizing your documents and reference materials would make retrieving the information infinitely faster, it's the initial learning curve that requires such an ardent commitment. For those of us more technically inclined, that's not a problem. For those who may resist technology, well, filing cabinets are becoming a common item at yard sales, the Goodwill and corporate liquidation sales, so that's always a plus.

It's worth saying again. Organizing is simplification, essentially. Chaos to order, the opposite of the second law of thermodynamics. So, if you really need an excuse, just tell everyone that clutter is the natural order of the universe and you've decided to become more enlightened.

Yeah, that'll work.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Wow Jana, it's like you're talking right to me with this one.

Yeah, I have a problem with stacking the 'to be filed' instead of just doing it and ditto for the rest. I can't seem to throw out something I've printed off, though. It's like I went to the time and expense of printing it so I should at least keep it. Otherwise, I'd be wasting ink and a tree.

I have books on my desk I needed for a writing challenge last year. I haven't put them away because I'm thinking of writing another story along the same lines and might need them. I mean, I didn't really use the books - but they gave me a good idea.

So, I guess spring cleaning is in order...

Thanks Jana. Good post.