The Golden Notebook: Organize Your Writing in 2014

If you want more “gold” from your writing in 2014 (be it money or just the satisfaction of seeing more of your ideas captured instead of left to wander off), try using your “golden notebook.”

(Disclaimer: I once owned Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook but got rid of it without having read it because it was copy I bought at the library’s book sale that was too musty and yellowed to keep. So if I totally misused the title, Lessing fans please forgive me. I really do want to read it.)

I have a writing organization system that works great for me – if I use it! So read the above title as a command to myself. Let me explain my system, in case you need one that you, too, can put into place and promptly ignore.

Because I have ideas for every category of writing you can think of (articles, essays, poems, novels, short stories, plays, movies, hints, blog posts and more!), I recently decided to go back to a system I used years ago. I bought two boxes (I am not kidding) of cheap spiral bound notebooks. My goal (seldom achieved) is to carry one with me AT ALL TIMES. No joke. Beside my side of the sofa (what, you don’t have a side?), in the kitchen, on my bedside table, everywhere.

Here’s where guilt has kept me from pursuing this method in the past: I write JUST ONE IDEA PER PAGE! Yup. Why? Because I have binders for these categories and I put the ideas in each binder. Well, that’s what’s supposed to happen so that when the well runs dry on story ideas (Okay, I actually pin that list to my office wall!)I know just where to go to find one. But I feel so guilty wasting paper. Yeah, there’s the tree killing aspect, for sure, but when I was young a notebook was such a precious thing that I have a hard time not filling every line. After reading Nora Ephron’s essay on revision in which she said she would often go through three to four HUNDRED sheets of paper in the course of writing one article, I don’t feel nearly so guilty.

The most important part of the system is writing the idea down. I have persuaded myself that as long as I write the idea down, I can always get my assistant (I’m getting one in 2014, right? Ha!) to file them as long as I include at the top what category the idea falls into. Just in case I have to be the one to wrangle these ideas, I do it anyway.

Except sometimes an idea really fits into multiple categories. Recently I ran across an idea that I classified as a blog post idea, children’s story, and blues song idea. I don’t generally write blues songs, but if someone needs some lyrics, evidently I have some just itching to be birthed. Sometime. The point is that when this happens, I really should write the idea multiple times and label it for each separate category.

You’re going to ask why I don’t just write these ideas and save them as separate computer files. I’ve tried. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t work for me. In this day of Dropbox (which I use all the time to back up my files), you’d think I’d have adequate access to my ideas no matter where I am.

Ah, but my ideas seldom come to me when I’m in front of a computer. They usually come to me when I’m reading, or driving, or running. Or watching TV or… If I waited to turn on the computer and write a new idea down, it could well be gone by the time I entered my password.

Also, looking at a list of ideas just overwhelms me. I prefer to flip through my ideas and see them one at a time. For one thing, it allows me to remember the circumstances in which I first wrote them, which usually makes me smile, and who doesn’t want a reason to smile?

I look at my list with a pen in hand. Here’s where having just one idea per page is very useful: I write down any ideas I have for that idea, maybe a rough outline, sources to contact, and markets for it, if any. That wouldn’t be possible if I had ten ideas per page. This way my ideas are more likely to be used.

About the paper: I use good ol’ spiral bound (Ugh, with those horrible leftover hangy things. Inelegant, I know.) notebooks. I have toyed with using a binder with paper in it, but it’s not as friendly — I like to fold the cover over and really get into contact with the paper as I write…it helps me empty the idea from my mind better. A binder creates a more formal distance and is not as tactile. Maybe it’s just me.

I have tried legal tablets, but alas, no holes, and I get so aggravated when I flip the page and can’t properly write on the top of the opposite side.

I have also tried beautiful journals, but they’re way too pretty to tear pages from, and they aren’t as conducive to writing my ideas as large as I like to. Those spiral bound notebooks really do have it all. πŸ™‚

(By the way: That list of short story ideas on my wall? It works because they are all ideas for a single collection. Otherwise, forget about it!)

My challenge with this system is going back through and marking when I use an idea so that I don’t reuse it. It’s fine to reuse your ideas, but not for the same market. (Confession time: recently I went to submit a story to a publisher, only, thankfully, taking a moment to look at what else I had out on Submittable. Yup, I’d already sent the same story to this market four months before. At least I know I should be hearing back soon.)

Another downside to this method of organization is that you really do need to periodically go through your notebooks and place these papers into the appropriately labeled binders. Hey, here’s the beauty of creativity: just touching these papers and reading them can often jog more ideas. Which must be written down. Which must be filed. Arggh…! Here’s where I reveal the obvious: I despise filing things. I have three or four bags of papers ready to be filed into our household filing cabinet. I’ll get to it. Someday. But at least my ideas are different: none of them seems a burden. Each is like a gift from my mind or spirit to me, even those I think I will never ever use.

Do I think I will ever use all of my ideas? No way. Writing them down and saving them is just a way of honoring them and a way to amuse myself when I later look back and ask myself how I could have possibly thought that was a good idea. Yet maybe there really does need to be a musical written about Van Gogh. Joking…that doesn’t happen to be one of my ideas. Although, where’s my notebook?

The plus side of having so many ideas? If you ever find yourself fresh out of ideas, just give me a shout. I may not have great ideas (although at the time that I write them they are always “the best,”) but I certainly have enough to share.

How do you organize your writing (or other creative pursuits)? I’d love to know! I’m quite sure there are better and more effective systems out there. Wait, let me get my notebook first. There. Now, shoot.

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4 thoughts on “The Golden Notebook: Organize Your Writing in 2014

  1. Great ideas. I’ve gone back and forth on too many systems. Right now I use composition books, but they don’t have holes, and aren’t conducive to tearing pages out. Maybe I need to use color coded sticky notes and place them on the pages that have ideas. But I hate wasting sticky notes. I used to use binders and put everything in them, then flag certain pages. But then you have to punch holes and file them. I don’t like putting laundry away either.

    • I like the idea of sticky notes, Cindy. Or those reusable flags. It can get so frustrating trying to find an idea that you just know is “here somewhere,” at least for me. Thanks for stopping by! Hugs, my friend.

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