Working in the world of project management, I had to be on point when it came to organization. I handled communication between third party vendors, clients, and internal teams. I managed timelines and tasks in order to keep the project on track to completion by a given timeline and under a certain budget. I also had to manage project risk and help the team minimize those risks as the project progressed.
When I began writing, my brain quickly started grouping my work in a way that mirrored my professional life, something that came naturally for me. Once I started making writer friends; I realized that this internal structuring of information did not come as naturally for others. So what does it take for an author to get organized like a project manager? We could get into sprints, ticket tracking and story points, but I think keeping things simple will be the most helpful.
So, with easy implementation in mind, I’m going to go over the basics of how I used my project management skills to get organized when I started writing at a professional level. I’m going to throw tools at you, too! But if you already have a tool in place that works for you, keep it. The important thing is that you got something. There is a lot of trial and error in discovering the organizational system that works best for you and your writing, hopefully the tidbits below will help you on your path to organized writing.
Workin’ with Your Workspace
Once I started writing seriously, my first target was my workspace. I had story ideas and outlines all over two computers, a pile of notebooks, and notes on multiple handheld devices. This is a symptom you might be familiar with. When an idea struck me, I had to get it down somewhere. Anywhere.
So I started there. I mapped out a terrific plan to get organized. It was so beautiful! It would have a Dropbox account, set up with individual documents and folders, each devoted to a story which I could access from anywhere. Once that was set up I planned to transcribe my journals and then burn each one in a ritualistic pyre to the forgotten gods of writing and titans of contemporary project management.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a Dropbox at the time and didn’t have the time to create a file structure needed to handle EVERYTHING I’d written ever. So, like any good project manager in overly complicated conundrum, I went into triage mode. What did I need? I started out by just dragging all of my writing related files to one folder on my writing computer. With everything in one place, I could at least search for things I needed. I began writing little ideas in emails to myself, with “Writing” as a tag to keep organized. This gave me one delivery method for ideas that came to me when I was away from my writing desk.
As for the journals… I basically broke one of the cardinal rules of writing; I went through them, saved the ideas I liked, and threw the rest away.
It was horrible.
Seriously, it was horrible.
But it was needed for the greater good of getting myself organized. Being both the customer and the vendor in this instance, I had to keep asking myself, whether something was necessary for me to be an effective writer.
Later, when I was writing full time, I purchased the writing program Scrivener. Using the program, I created a project for every book I’d begun writing and stored all my notes in the appropriate project. For each of my smaller projects (Blog posts, articles, social media campaigns, character ideas with no story to put them in, etc.) I created a single Scrivener project and made folders for each area of writing within. Finally, with the organization of my words complete, my next target was my writing life.
Lemmi Check My Schedule
I quickly found with writing part time and working full time, that I would get to the end of a week and not hit my word count. Falling short on my goals felt like nails on a chalkboard to my Project Manager mind! I needed to change my approach, pronto.
So, as with my workspace, I devised a plan. I used Google calendar to structure every hour of my day, including when I went to sleep and when I would wake up; carving out time for eating, social media, writing, outlining, and editing. It was a solid plan and I even mirrored my schedule on a private calendar in my work Outlook so I wouldn’t lose track.
The first week ran like a well-oiled machine; the second week totally fell apart. Out of the chaos, I took a step back and put some flexibility into my life. I still used Google calendar because I found it to be a useful tool for me. I added alerts for things like writer groups, writing pushes, and deadlines, but rather than blocks of time for every project, I planned check-ins twice a week. For example, if by Wednesday I wasn’t halfway through my word goal, I committed to myself (and a writer friend of mine) to write until I was there. By adding structure, flexibility and accountability, I found a system that worked for me.
Things ran more smoothly after I’d organized my workspace and my life schedule. But I found that tasks still fell through the cracks, so I brought over the most important skill I’d developed in the project management work: creating lists. We have SO much going on in our creative brains. Remembering what we needed from the store should not be taking up valuable memory space.
However you are able to adopt making lists, do it. I don’t care if it’s sticky notes, a whiteboard, text files on your computer or harmonizing chimpanzees that follow you around reciting things. Make lists.
Lists on Lists on Lists
For me, I found the best way to make lists is through Google Docs. I have one document, which I can access from any device and is shared with my lady love so she can update it with things I need to do for her (I cannot even begin to count how many times she’s asked something of me while I was writing, I’ve said, “alright” and not actually heard a word she said). On the document, I have bold titles for separate lists and I reference the damn thing probably five times a day. I have my list for groceries, my list for house work, my list for errands, my list for important edits to make to my main MS, and a few temporary lists for projects and other hobbies. If you take nothing else from this blog post, please take the idea of having lists. More than a calendar, more than an organized workspace, ALL project managers have lists, it is the secret cornerstone to the profession and should never EVER be taken lightly.
Some Next Level Stuff
Alright, so, if you think you have your workspace, calendar, and lists under control, here’s some next level stuff you might like to try out: Gantt charts. In the project management world, Gantt charts are basically the visual representations of project timelines. They simplify large projects into bite sized chunks. When I was a Project Manager, there were times when a Gantt chart saved a project from almost certain disaster because I was able to step back to see the larger picture, leading to, “Wait, this timeline looks ridiculous, why on earth did we think this was at all doable?”
Now, I’m not telling you to go out and buy a $400 piece of software just to get some planning done. A spreadsheet can do the job well enough. Just designate your first column for projects, your first row for calendar days, and the bottom of your graph for task ownership. I created an example for you to check out since it’s a little hard to visual through description alone. The only awkward issue with using a spreadsheet is when you have multiple things happening on the same day for the same project. You’ll see how I handled that in the manuscript section of the example.
There is another great tool that works the same as the Gantt chart: Aeon Timeline. Many writers use Aeon to get their story timelines in order, but if you use it to make Gantt charts, it totally fixes the issue about having multiple tasks happening simultaneously. If you do have Aeon (or plan on getting it since it is a great timeline tool AND syncs with Scrivener), take some time to get to know it as a writing program, which is what it was originally intended to be used as. Then, you can start making files to serve as Gantt charts for your projects. Just think of Story Arcs as different phases of your project, Characters as task owners (the yellow bars in my example), and Plot Points as tasks. Whether you use a spreadsheet or a writing tool like Aeon Timeline to create Gantt charts, remember that you want each task to be bite sized, a simplified single task element that cannot be broken down any further.\
I think this encompasses where I started when I began writing more effectively. With an organized workspace, schedule and lists you’re well on your way to decreasing how much time you devote to being disorganized and increasing your writing productivity. If you have any questions or would like more help in any of these areas, let me know.