Keeping Track of Everything

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

It never fails that as autumn approaches I have the urge to get organized. Additional summer activities with family, a squeezed in vacation, prep and follow-up from the busy trade show and conference season have precipitated a file-later pile on my desk. Do you have one of those on your desk too? Let’s clean house today.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that there is no way to completely avoid this scenario from happening each summer, and that has relieved unnecessary guilt. After all, there still are only 24 hours in a day. Getting behind this time of year is inevitable. Yet, when I know my tracking systems and files aren’t up to date, that stack of loose ends haunts me and my mind doesn’t feel completely clear until I have taken the time to deal with it.File folders_380x285-cz5t

Chances are your summer schedule has left you in the same predicament. The interesting facts or ideas you picked up spontaneously, the ones you are holding onto in your memory bank, need to be recorded electronically or in your hard copy filing system. Items you researched for your WIP need to be inserted in their appropriate places before the information is lost or misfiled. Odds and ends on post-it notes need to be logged permanently.

Here are a few systems I’ve learned work for me, not only to minimize the pile but also that provide simple paths to their final filing destinations. Maybe you’ll find them useful examples to adapt for your own personalized systems.

My Daily Journals

I’m a hands-on, visual learner and processer of information. When I’m on the phone at my desk, I’ve found that in the time it takes to create a new document to record information or notes from a phone call, or to locate a specific electronic file to update, I can jot them down more completely in a daily journal as I’m listening and talking.

I also have a smaller version that I keep with me wherever I go. I used this one to record notes in my 20+ meetings at ICRS last month. These meetings were back-to-back, leaving no time in between for recall and catch-up. If I had used my iPad for taking notes, I would have missed recording important information while I was getting situated. I can’t tell you how many times I have been thankful for those hand-written notes. The information I’ve gone back to look for is all there, complete. Sometimes the old-fashioned method is still better.

When I fill a notebook, I write the beginning and ending dates on the front with a permanent marker and store it. Not all the pages need to be filed, but occasionally I want to search for something a few months back. After a year, I recycle it. I use notebooks that:

  • are spiral bound — so they lay flat on my desk
  • are smaller than 8 1/2 x 11 for my desk journal. The notebook I keep with me is smaller yet, but not so small that it becomes hard to write notes rapidly.
  • have perforated pages — which allow for tearing them off without the rough spiral edges that can catch on other papers in a file folder
  • are light weight
  • preferably have an attached band to hold them closed — for those occasions when I slip in an extra note for attachment later.

Electronic Note Taking

The occasion when I find my iPad most efficient for note taking is during appointments with writers at conferences. At those times I am settled in to one location for an extended period of time. When a table is provided, it’s even more convenient. I use the Notes app and record each day’s meetings chronologically by writer’s name, appointment time, details of the conversation, and outcome. This app automatically saves the complete conference Note and also allows me to email it as a Word document to my computer.

Client Files

I keep email folders, computer folders, and hard copy folders for every client. This might seem like overkill to you, but it’s really quite efficient. Emails are saved in the client’s email folder. Thus attachments also are saved as received. But I also save the attachment in the client’s computer folder and date that document to correspond to the date the email was received. That is an invaluable help when cross checking documents.

Since I love trees, I print hard copies as little as possible. But I do make hard copies of my clients’ signed contracts (and keep the electronic copies as well). Those and the hand-written journal notes from phone conversations are stored in my clients’ hard copy folders. It’s quick and easy to determine in which folder I will find the information I need at any given time.

Any organizational method requires applications that work best for you individually. Hopefully, the systems I have honed for myself will provide ideas you can use as you get organized. Efficient systems will allow you more time for writing this fall, before the next busy season arrives: the Christmas holidays.

Which of these systems do you see yourself adapting for your own use? What organizational system do you use that is especially efficient for writers? What organizing tools do you use that you could not do without?


Efficient organization leaves more time for writing. Click to Tweet.

Summer is over. It’s time to get organized and have more time for writing. Click to Tweet.

@marygkeeley lists her organizational systems. Personal adaptations might work well for you too. Click to Tweet.

53 Responses

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  1. Anne Love says:

    Funny, I spent most of the afternoon yesterday filing household things. Now I feel the urge to tidy up my writing space. My question is in regards to research. How extensive do the sources need to be in the files? I took all my research notes on notecards. I’m thinking of just filing them in a card box. Some of the actual source details are in my computer though. Do I need to file that with my notes if asked regarding my source later?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Anne, did you know you and the other Ann (Lamott, that is) both use notecards? I agree, a card box is the best way to keep them in order. I definitely would file the source details with the notecards. I’d even go a step further and write the source reference on the back of the notecard. That way everything is in one place when you need it later.

  2. Great ideas! I also use a ToDo list manager called Wunderlist to keep track of things I need to get done. There are apps for my Mac, iPad, and iPhone so it is very accessible.

  3. I was just thinking yesterday how it was time to get everything back in order. I do my best to stay on top of everything, but summer is tough with the girls and their friends around.

    I already use a filing system and small notebooks for meetings. I was tired of losing notes from Church Council meetings.

    The one way I try to stay organized is to do my best to tackle my Inbox items every day. I try not to read them and put off the action until later. If it needs a response, I try to respond immediately and then file the correspondence in the appropriate folder. If my Inbox is more than one page long I feel flustered.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Cheryl, I’m with you. My level of angst rises proportionately with the growth of my inbox, email and otherwise. It sounds like you are disciplined and have good personalized systems in place. I work at that daily diligence too, because it’s key to preventing the inbox from getting out of control during busy family or travel seasons when it can’t be attended to every day.

  4. Jeanne T says:

    I am fairly organized with some information (don’t look at my kitchen counter right now, though!). For some meetings I take my laptop and take notes on that because I type much faster than I write. I have lots of folders on my laptop so I know just where to go when I need something, whether it’s for my story or for “real life.”

    I really like your idea of having a daily journal though. I think I’d like to incorporate that into my daily tasks because it’s easier to keep for when I’m on the go.

    I’m also striving to be like Cheryl in getting organized with my Inbox. That is one area that needs a lot of work. 🙂

    I love your organizational posts, Mary. Thanks for sharing what works for you!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, it’s ideal when you are able to take notes on a laptop, because you can file that document directly into the appropriate electronic folder. But oh, that lovely inbox. I know what you mean.

    • Jeanne, when I finally got near a real computer after 2 week, TWO WEEKS, not including checking my tablet at coffee shops, I had 566 emails. It took me hours to go through them all.

  5. Mary, your photo of coloring hanging files makes my little heart go pitter-pat. I don’t have the space for a good-sized filing cabinet right now, but we’re building a house. So, in my new writing studio/library, I’m planning a better filing system.

    I agree with you on the spiral-bound notebook. I prefer taking notes at conferences by hand for the very reasons you mentioned. But my husband gave me an iPad for Christmas last year, and I’m still discovering all the things it can do. I’ve seen the Notes app but haven’t explored it. (And the legal pad appearance makes my lawyer’s heart go pitter-pat. 🙂 ) It sounds better than Evernote. If I’m in a location without internet, I can’t access old notes, only create new ones. Thanks for the tips!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, we are kindred spirits regarding notebooks. Taking notes electronically is great when conditions are conducive. But, like your note taking preference at conferences, some of my quick meetings at ICRS took place on benches in the hallways of the convention center. The trusty old-fashioned notebook still is the most efficient for those occasions.

      Have fun organizing your new writing studio. And I think you’ll love the Notes app on your iPad.

  6. I have a big, pink, multi-sectioned notebook, with perforated pages and band to hold it closed, that is my ‘everything’ file. I keep a smaller black notebook in my purse and I transfer any brain waves from the hurried notes I jot down in the black book to the larger notebook. Of course, I don’t do that very often, as one would require brain activity in order to have waves. 😉

    I keep a notebook with me at all times, because one never knows when genius will strike (still waiting…) and I even wrote on the back of a business card, in the dark, while my husband drove us home from vacation last week. I am amazed that I could read what I wrote! BUT, I transferred it all into the MS as soon as I could find the computer in the pile of stuff we extracted from the van.

    Thank you for this advice, Mary!

    And hey, fear not about trees!! Hubby is one of the best tree scientists out there(IMHO) and #1 son planted 133,500 seedlings this summer. Yup. 133,500!! Now I have “The Circle of Life” from Lion King in my head.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Someone needs to write a tribute…Ode to Spiral Notebooks…and you may be the one to do it, Jennifer. It sounds like your pink notebook is your lifeline of organization.

      133,500 new trees is a very reassuring number. Your son must feel satisfaction in that hard work and accomplishment.

  7. I am especially fond of spiral-bound notebooks. When I note something I want to keep, I write it down….and later, if I need to, I can tear it out and file it where ever it needs to go.

    I use a three-ring notebook for each manuscript writing project. This allows me to add photos, maps, or other notes. I find sheet protectors helpful for keeping everything neat and tidy.

    For smaller writing projects, I adore colorful file folders.

    The last conference I attended, I experimented with taking notes on my computer. I found it satisfying, for the most part…because I wasn’t writing in margins or drawing lines indicating where additional info should go.

    A conference attendee suggested Scrivener for organizing a manuscript. I signed up for the free trial, but haven’t invested the time yet to learn the mechanics. Have any of you used this program?

    Thank you Mary for all your wonderful organizational suggestions. A semi-orderly environment is bound to spark creativity, right?

  8. Mary Keeley says:

    Kathryn, do you have a light-weight computer that was easy to carry around with you at the conference? And did you have seating at tables in all the sessions? I sound like I’m pushing spiral notebooks for note taking, but really, I’m not. Ideally, electronic note taking is the most efficient method, but it isn’t always the most convenient.

    Yes, I think an orderly environment is preliminary to an clear mind. And a clear mind is free to think creatively.

    Let us know how you like Scrivener.

    • Mary, I do have a small, fairly light-weight computer…it’s a MacBook Pro. There were tables at each of my workshops…a definite plus!

      My friend has a pull-tote that has a pop-up table, and I’ve wondered if this would work for taking notes when no tables are available.

      Will let you know my feelings about the Scrivener program. Thanks again!

  9. I used to use the 5-section coil notebooks for everything along with a family planning agenda. During the years we owned and ran a commercial greenhouse, I also used daily journals where I recorded the particulars of what we seeded, transplanted, trimmed, or moved from one greenhouse to another. Those journals helped schedule planting dates and seed buying amounts. I stopped the greenhouse journals when we closed the greenhouse operation, but will keep them forever.

    I then went through 4 notebooks when we had our dairy/meat goats in which I included everything from kidding to daily milk amounts – before and after separating. Yes, I separated the milk and cream with a huge separator in my farm kitchen. But then we sold the goats and I went back to my first love – writing.

    In the past few years, I’ve stopped using my paper notebooks and agenda and switched to electronic ones. More of a practical nature than a conscious effort. My Samsung Galaxy tablet uses an electronic pen and I receive great satisfaction in writing notes which can be left as is, or transcribed into the typed version.

    And lo and behold, I found that my tablet Notes app includes a journal which I am beginning to use again – sometimes with my ePen and sometimes without as the mood strikes.

    The one thing the eJournal has that makes it more practical than paper – the search function. I spend too much time re-reading my interesting notes otherwise. 😀

    • Anita, I have a Galaxy tablet as well, where did you find the electronic pen???

      • Found one!

      • Sorry about that, I should have said I have a Galaxy Note 8 tablet. I specifically bought this one for note-taking.

        I remember best when I take notes, but I ran out of paper at a conference once. And usually when I get home, I have so many papers with crammed information and it’s a puzzle putting it together because I’ve flipped pages and written notes with the intent to nbr the pages later, but I’m too busy visiting to do it at the conference.

        I hope to alleviate that this year. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Amazing, Anita. It sounds like Mr. Samsung has topped Mr. Jobs (and his replacement) in electronic note-taking intuition. How long does it take to boot up? Is your tablet small and light weight? Gotta love the search function.

      • The Galaxy Note 8 is the same size as the iPad mini which means I can hold it in one hand – unlike the strain of hubby’s full size iPad.

        The Note 8 cost $40 more than the iPad mini, but for me, the ability to takes notes with the ePen was worth it.

        I wasn’t crazy about the Android vs Apple technology, but it’s won me over. There are only a few apps I can’t get and I’m not missing them because they’re on my iPhone.

      • Oh, and the boot up time is shorter than booting up my iphone from a cold start.

        I just checked and it’s really called an S Pen (and not the ePen).

        Also, I forgot to mention that I can have a divided screen on most apps so that I can read my email on one side and take notes on the other.

        Also, a little notepad pops open anytime the S Pen is pulled out and I can take notes no matter where I am because it’s like a layer on top of my app or website. And I can move it around and out of the way, or save it and make it go away.

        I can take a photo and then jot notes on it which will work well at a conference if I want to remember who the people are in the photo I’ve just taken. I’ll have the original image and the edited one with notes. The camera isn’t the best, but I bought it for the notes, not the pixels.

        Finally, I don’t know the official name, but the tablet ‘knows’ when you’re looking at it. If you look away, the power saving mode kicks in and your screen dims. Look back and it brightens. Kind of creepy, but you can turn this function off if you want.

    • Anita, did you have to download the Notes app?

  10. Ode to a Spiral Notebook.
    By Jennifer Major.

    My darling spiral notebook, how doth thee make me glad?
    Ye lay unbending and flat upon the table, making not my hand feel bad.

    Your finely lined pages tear quickly, gone away from me in battle just like the hero after his quest.
    You leave me all a’flutter, as you mount your steed and cry “Fear not, my dear maiden, these words shall not leave thee all alone, but will return to you their best!”

    You snap shut at each parting, as though your heart is cold.
    But I know thy true commitment, for nary a page is caught in a fold.

    You’ve given me your all, you shared with me your wisdom, and saved for me my best.
    Because one day dear Notebook, my MS will see completion, and upon that day, you may rest.

  11. Being organized is good for the soul. Sadly, my house is the least organized its ever been in my married life…it’s called three year old twin boys. But I try! Every day I repeat the same mantra to my children: “Everything has a home! Put it in its home.”

    I also use a daily journal for taking notes, as well as my laptop for all other files, ideas, research, etc. I’m not good at using my computer to take notes during a conversation or class, so I rely on the old-fashioned method of paper and pen. I’m also starting to use the voice memo app on my iPhone during conversations that I can’t possibly keep up with notes, such as brainstorming with my critique partners. In June I hosted a five day writing retreat at my house with three of my writing friends and we each had a two hour brainstorming session. I used my voice memo app and I’ve gone back to my recordings quite a few times now to remember all the awesome ideas we generated. It’s a great resource.

    • lisa says:

      It is good for the soul, but I think you get a huge out with twin 3 year olds 🙂

    • Jeanne T says:

      Gabrielle, I bought an iPod Touch specifically so I could record those quick meetings I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with at a writer’s retreat. It was one of the best investments I’ve made. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Gabrielle, thanks for the iPhone suggestion. I’ve never used the voice memo app, but I can see where and when it would be the perfect tool.

      Have you used it to record your sweet twins’ voices?

  12. lisa says:

    We’ve been a major organizing kick this week before school starts! I love notebooks. I still do my best work hand to paper 🙂 I also use email folders, it keeps my inbox cleared, but organized.

  13. Mary, thank you for reminding me to look for the spiral-bound notebooks with tear pages that can be placed in a three-ring binder. I like storing my notes in binders, but often find them awkward to use (such as at a writer’s conference where table space may be limited).

    Btw, I so enjoyed having the opportunity to say hello to you in person at the recent Oregon Christian Writers Conference.

    When I returned home, I shared with a writer friend about my need to stay consistent with blogging and how I thought a solid plan would help. She told me about free downloadable blogging planners available online and she sent me some links. I decided to create a Pinterest board with some of these planners here:

    I believe the planning pages will provide the structure I need to stay consistent with my blog. I’ll begin again with the first week of September, so wish me success. Perhaps, these planner ideas can help someone else here, as well.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Susi, I enjoyed meeting you at the conference as well. One more benefit of attending conferences.

      Thanks for your suggestion about blog planners. Sounds like they may save you time as well as help you with consistency. I hope you have great success. And enjoy it!

    • Susi, thanks for sharing your Pinterest site…and I loved all those ideas for blog planning! Don’t ya love Pinterest?

  14. Spiral notebooks and I go way back. I scribbled in them with colored pens (in rainbow color order, of course)from age 12 to 20. A few years ago, I read back through my journals. Reliving the drama of the teen years through my POV was very poignant. My entire courtship with my high school sweetheart turned husband trembles on those faint blue lines.

    I use Evernote to organize links to helpful blog posts, and to prioritize research for my stories.
    Once, undercover of dark, I took up pen and paper by the side of my bed and jotted down lines of dialogue I didn’t want to forget. Next morning I discovered that the pen had been without ink. I used my daughters crayons to do a rubbing over the indentations on the page. Luckily the words weren’t lost. 😉

  15. . . . I just found out my new hound puppy named Dinozzo has an excellent memory.

    At this point, I’m not sure when this will come in handy (with my record keeping) but I’m not ruling it out.

  16. Michelle Lim says:

    I absolutely love the idea of putting appointment notes in a journal, instead of a notepad. That keeps the pages from slipping out and getting misplaced.

    One thing I do as a writer to help myself stay organized, is that I have a 3-ring binder for each book. In that binder I keep any brainstorming notes, research not on my computer, rough draft work, scene charts, etc. This especially helps if I am working on different projects at the same time.

  17. Peter DeHaan says:

    I always have an urge to get organized — and most of the time, I follow through.

    Thanks for the extra encouragement!

  18. Love these. Especially the handwritten daily journal idea.

  19. Reba says:

    Thank you Mary. I am so happy to know I am not the only one who believes that sometimes the old fashion way works better. And there are many times it has proven to work faster for me.
    I too keep files with handwritten notes and such in them. Also, I have a 3-ring binder with tabs for notes taken from certain blogs with writer help information such as this one that I keep near my desk so when needed I can easily refer to it.

  20. Linda Adams says:

    My primary source is Evernote. I try to keep everything online because I don’t have a lot of space and notebooks tend to get lost. Curiously, I also find that I connect less to hand-written notes than I do to typewritten ones.

    I assign a project number to each story (i.e., 13s-14). That way I can tag all the entries related to the story, such as a book I might buy. I group the tags together as much as possible, which makes it easy to find what I’m looking for. So research on Hawaii is HI-Weather or HI-Culture; Writing is WR-Subs or WR-Expenses. I also have tags for the months (e.g. *09September) and I put in a call for manuscripts that’s due that month or a reservation for a hotel for a convention.

    I use an inbox to put new notes in so I can figure out where they go. The big thing is curating notes on a regular basis — reviewing tags for duplication and combining them together, missing tags, etc. I also have to sometimes clean out notes that looked good at the time but that I really don’t need.