Weekend Writing Inspiration: Use "Systems" to Keep Your Writing Organized
March 8, 2019
In part one of our organization series, we reviewed methods to tackle your writing space organization, along with giving thought to all of the tools we need to keep it organized (it’s more than you’d think!).
Today, we’ll discuss the often-missing piece of the puzzle — the systems you need to keep things organized over time.
Start with your mindset
Something that often gets in the way for writers is the notion that organization, systems, rules, and structure hamper creativity — I used to think that, too! So many creatives want to go with the flow and do what feels right in the moment without limitations.
But what I’ve found is that creating order and structure is actually hugely freeing for creatives. When we have a clear, clean, (dare I say, high vibration) space to work in, order with our writing materials, and a defined writing time, we’re able to be more creative because we aren’t held back by mess, chaos, and wasting time in search of the tools, notes, and drafts we need to write. The idea is to make it as easy as possible to sit down and write, and to create so much spaciousness around your writing, that if anything, you feel freer and more unlimited than you did before.
Use systems to stay organized
Getting organized is wonderful, but it’s not something that lasts unless we stay on top of it.
But what does “stay on top of it” really mean? It means using systems; essentially actions we repeat on a regular basis to keep things in order.
Here are some examples of systems you can use to help yourself stay organized:
A system to manage scribbled notes
In last week’s article I suggested creating a designated location for your “scribbled notes” (Post-its, envelopes, and other scraps of paper with story notes and more). Once they’re there, what happens to them?
Create a system for how you’ll handle them. For example, you might periodically go through the scribbled notes you’ve amassed and take action on each item. If it’s already been handled since the time you wrote it down, cross it off or check it off so it’s totally clear that you don’t need to revisit it. (My favorite way to do this is with a big black marker so there’s 100% clarity that the task is complete, and I can’t go back and second-guess myself — it’s been known to happen!)
If an item hasn’t been addressed yet, either do it now, decide to eliminate it, or transfer it to where it belongs: to your new screenplay ideas list (see below), a regular to-do list, a grocery shopping or errand list, or elsewhere?
As you review, take action, eliminate, or transfer the items on your notes, cross them off the original note so you don’t forget you’ve addressed them. When you clear an entire note, toss it.
A system for tracking new screenplay concepts
You’ll also want to have a place for new ideas, so your brain doesn’t get sidetracked trying to remember (or mentally write!) a new screenplay idea while you’re still working on your current one. If it’s an idea for your current draft, great, add it to your current draft materials. If it’s a different idea, put it on your new ideas list. This will help you focus again on your current screenplay, knowing your new idea is safely stored for future reference and will have its time in the spotlight.
Your new ideas list might be a notebook specifically dedicated to tracking new ideas, a Google or Word doc, Scrivener binder (my favorite), Trello board, or Workflowy doc. The specific method isn’t as important as it is that you have a method, though there is a benefit in using an app or program you can access from any device.
I like to have both a list of concepts (essentially a title idea and draft logline) and a separate place to elaborate on the idea. I use Scrivener’s binder feature to help me do this.
When you complete your current screenplay, go back to your ideas list, add any new ideas that haven’t been recorded, reorder the list if needed, and choose your next project from the list.
A system for addressing screenplay issues
While you’re writing, and especially while revising, you’ll likely have a list of ideas and issues that need addressing. If you’re keeping that list mentally, it can create low level tension or stress, trying to keep track. Writing the tasks down on paper can help, though they may be a bit jumbled coming out in a stream of consciousness.
If you use a paper method, make sure to cross off each item as you tackle it. (See “use a big black marker,” above.) You might also flag items with stars or numbers to help you tackle them in priority order. If you keep a digital list, either use “strikethrough text” to cross off an item, or delete it from the list.
One of my favorite tricks is to use the ScriptNotes feature in Final Draft to flag issues I’m seeing and delete them as I work through the draft.
Once everything is crossed off or deleted, you know you’ve addressed everything. Using a system like this gets easier and easier every time, because you can keep refining what works best for you.
A system for digital file organization
In last week’s article, we covered how to create a place to store your digital files on your hard drive. (TL;DR: I recommend using a system of nested folders.)
But what about the individual files within each folder? How do you keep them from becoming a jumbled mess? I used to use a pretty common naming structuring that many writers seem to use: “Final Draft.” “New Final Draft.” “Final Final Draft.” Ack!
The best alternatives I’ve seen are to name drafts with either dates or software versioning. For example, you might name your drafts with the title and date like this: “Screenplay Title 2019 03 08.” This will keep all of your drafts in date order, particularly when you use the year, then month, then day, so it’s easy to see which one is the most current (and to find older drafts if you need to roll back).
My favorite method is to use a software versioning method: “Screenplay Title 1.0.” Then for each sub-draft, I’ll increase the number, to 1.1, 1.2, and so on. When I complete a major revision, I’ll up the number to 2.0, and so on.
The key way this becomes a system is by you making the commitment not to drop your files onto your desktop or elsewhere because you’re “in a hurry,” but to instead take the extra 30 seconds to put the file where it belongs. And voilà, it gets easier and easier to keep it up.
You may also find that you need to periodically do a little clean-up, which is entirely worth the headaches you’re saving your Tomorrow Self from facing.
A system for completing screenplays
When you finish a script (or a major draft of a script), and before you start the next one, take a few minutes to tidy up and purge your files. Look at your written notes, the papers you have, and the digital files. What don’t you need anymore? What can be deleted or tossed? If you’ve been using my big black marker or strikethrough method, it’s pretty easy to see what can go in terms of paper.
Also look at what you want to save, for future reference for next drafts, or as records of your process. Spend a little time sorting, ordering, labeling, or renaming your documents as needed to make them easy to find next time. Then move on to your new script.
A system for keeping your writing space stocked with supplies
As a parting suggestion, you may also want to think about how you’ll keep your writing space stocked with pens, paper, printer cartridges, notebooks, or other physical materials you might need. I order my next set of printer cartridges when I put the current set into the printer, so I know I’ll have them when I need them. This “backstock” method helps me feel ready and well-supplied, so I’m able to focus on the work at hand.
Your Weekend Writer’s Assignment
This weekend, give some thought to how you’re maintaining order in your writing world. Where are things falling through the cracks? It might be time to put a system in place. Remember, you can use a “from this day forward” method. You don’t have to go back and fix everything you’ve already done, but you can resolve to keep things in order from now on, so your creativity has lots of room to play. Happy writing!
Got Questions You Want Answered?
After working with hundreds of writers over the last seven years, writing coach and Called to Write Founder Jenna Avery has answers for you about how to balance your life and your screenwriting, trust yourself more as writer, fulfill your call to write, and more. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Jenna’s online form at https://calledtowrite.com/final-draft and she may choose your question to answer anonymously in a future article.
Written by: Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter, columnist, and blogger who redesigned her life and career to support her calling to write. She specializes in sci-fi action and space fantasy, and her most recent project is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story for a Canadian producer. Jenna is also a writing coach and the founder of Called to Write, where she has helped hundreds of writers overcome procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance so they can get their writing onto the page and into the world where it belongs. Jenna writes about writing, creativity, and calling at calledtowrite.com, for ScriptMag, for Final Draft, and teaches for Screenwriter’s University. Download Jenna’s free guidebooks for writers when you join her mailing list at https://www.calledtowrite.com/mailing-list