How to Organize Your Assignments, Research, Interviews & All the Rest
This is an excerpt from my new e-book Get Unstuck! For Freelancers: A 6-Week Course to Boost Your Motivation, Organization, and Productivity—So You Can Do More Work in Less Time, Make More Money, and Enjoy the Freelance Lifestyle. If you think the name sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the name of my popular 6-week e-course. I decided to turn that $200 e-course into a $9.95 e-book so that you can get my best tips for becoming a productive writer at a fraction of the cost.
If you’d like to buy a copy of this 64-page e-book, please order it from the e-book page. When I get your payment, I’ll send you the e-book via e-mail. I’m not using an automated shopping cart right now, as I want to make sure I’ll be selling enough copies to make it worth the expense! So please bear with my old-fashioned delivery system for now.
Working Your Work
When you’re working on several projects at once, as most of us writers do, the result can be a typhoon of information. On any given day, you may create interview sound files, receive contracts, gather research for your novel, receive rejections (or acceptances!) on queries you sent six months ago, follow up on queries and proposals, send e-mails to editors and agents…okay, I’ll stop there because I’m going a little crazy just thinking about it.
Luckily, if you have systems in place that work for you, you can streamline how you handle and store these bits of information. Let’s get started!
Curious about how setting up systems can help a project flow from acceptance to payment? Let’s say I get a new article assignment. Here’s how I organize it. (And keep in mind that this is what works for me. You may find that software like Evernote or some other system works better for you.) I:
1. Enter the assignment due date into my iCal calendar and mark it blue (to separate it from interviews, which are red).
2. Enter the name of the assignment, the magazine name, the amount due, and the due date for payment into my Excel income spreadsheet. This spreadsheet tells me how much I have coming in, how much I’ve already been paid, and what’s overdue.
3. Create a folder on my hard drive called NameofMagazine-NameofArticle, and move it to my “Articles in Progress” folder.
4. Create a Word file called NameofMagazine-NameOfArticle-NOTES and store it in the project folder I just created on my hard drive. This is where I’ll put the assignment specs (word count, instructions from the editor), enter in contact info of potential sources, and dump any bits of research I come across online.
5. Create a Label with the name of the magazine an article in Gmail so I have a place to store e-mails related to the article.
6. Start finding sources and trying to set interviews right away. This is the one part of the process you can’t control, so it pays to start early in case you have trouble nailing people down for interviews. Whenever I call or e-mail a potential source, I enter the information into the NOTES file I created. I go over the file every day so I know who I need to follow up with.
7. Enter interviews into my iCal calendar. I include the name of the interviewee, the name of the magazine, and the source’s phone number so I don’t have to look it up come interview time.
8. When I do an interview, name the sound file NameofSource-Interview-Date and save it to the article project folder. I then send the file to my transcriptionist. When I get back the transcription, I name it NameofSource-Transcription-Date and save it to the same folder.
9. Write the article! There’s much more on this in the lesson on researching and writing faster. I name the article NameofMagazine-NameofArticle-Formichelli and save it to the project folder.
10. Send the article (attached and in the body of the e-mail) and immediately send an invoice. (I say immediately because otherwise I forget.) I give the invoice a number and name it Number-NameofMagazine.
11. Enter the invoice number into the Excel spreadsheet with the rest of the assignment information for easier tracking if I have to follow up on an overdue payment.
12. Move the article project folder from the Articles in Progress folder to a folder titled Articles Completed. That way, when I open up the Articles in Progress folder I’m looking only at current projects and am not distracted by old assignments.
13. Wait for payment. Every once in a while, I go through the Excel spreadsheet to see which invoices I need to follow up on. When the payment comes, I enter it into the spreadsheet by moving the amount from the Owed column to the Paid column.
By now this routine is so ingrained that it’s second nature. I don’t have to think about what to do next—I already know what to do. I’d use a similar system if I were writing a book.
And I repeat that this system is what works for me. Another writer I know swears by the much more streamlined Evernote (or OneNote) software. I tried it and just couldn’t get into it, but you may find that this (or another system) works better for you. The point is just to have a system.
My querying system is a bit less organized, but still workable: I save queries to a folder on my hard drive called (duh) Queries, and also create a Word document to drop in notes, contact info for potential sources, etc. I handle query interviews the same way as I do for an article assignment, which I discussed above. When I e-mail a query to an editor, I title the e-mail something like Query from Writer: Name of Article: Linda Formichelli and save it to an e-mail folder called Follow-Up. I may also enter the follow-up date into my iCal calendar.
Now on to the nitty-gritty of how you can create systems that work for your needs.
As a writer, a major part of your job is generating ideas. But how often have you come up with a great idea in the car or in the shower, had no place to write it down, and then forgotten about it?
I always have a notebook and pen next to the bed to jot down my fabulous ideas, and I also carry a small notebook and pen in my bag. My Renegade Writer co-author, Diana, keeps a voice recorder in her car so she can simply record her brainstorms and listen to them later. As for the shower, try using kids’ tub crayons to scribble your ideas on the wall. If you have glass doors on your shower or tub, you can use dry erase markers on a part of the door that doesn’t get wet.
When you’re out and about, don’t forget that your PDA will let you take notes, and your phone may, too (my iPhone has an app that came with it called Notes).
Oh, and when I’m actually in the office and come up with a super idea? I have a Word file on my computer desktop called Ideas.doc that I can just open whenever I need to record a flash of inspiration.
Wherever you come up with your ideas, you need to consolidate them so you can actually use them. Your wonderful brainstorms do no good if they’re scattered in your shower, in your car, on your PDA, and in various notebooks. This is where the Ideas.doc file comes in handy—you can transfer all your ideas there, and whenever you’re ready to write a query or a proposal, you can go over the file and pick the best ideas.
Queries and Proposals
As I mentioned above, after I e-mail a query to an editor, I save it to an e-mail folder called Follow-Up. I save the Word document to a folder on my hard drive called Queries. (If I were a little more organized with my queries, I would divide up this folder up into subfolders sorted by magazine.) I may then enter the follow-up date into my iCal calendar if it’s something I really want to be on top of; normally, I simply go through the Follow-Up folder every few weeks and, well, follow up on old queries.
You can track queries and responses by creating an Excel spreadsheet, developing a template in a contact management software program, or even using ye olde hard copy form. What’s important is that you’re able to track where you sent each query, the date you sent it to each magazine, the response you received, and any follow-ups.
Whatever method you choose, be sure to enter the info as soon as you send a query so you won’t forget.
You need a consistent way to store your research so you know how to find it when you need it. Whenever you start a query or proposal, create a Word file where you can drop in bits of information, URLs, and so on when you find them. (Or, if you prefer, do it in OneNote or Evernote.)
Then there are the follow-ups. Whether you send a query to an editor or a proposal to an agent or publisher, you may want to schedule follow-ups so they don’t fall by the wayside. One magazine writer I interviewed for another project told me that 90 percent of her acceptances come after following up!
But maybe you want more of a nudge than a plain-Jane calendar entry can offer. In that case, you can set your calendar to sound an alarm when it’s follow-up time. If your calendar doesn’t have that option, try signing up for Google Calendar (www.google.com/calendar), which lets you schedule a pop-up or an e-mail before any event you create. You can also try something completely different: MemoToMe.com (www.memotome.com), a free reminder service that’s meant to let you know that Mom’s birthday is coming up, but that you can also use to get reminders of anything you want in your e-mail or on your mobile phone. I’ve been using this service for birthday reminders for several years and it’s never failed me.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to schedule your follow-ups for two weeks (or whatever) to the day. To stay organized and in the flow, it may work better for you to batch all your follow ups on one day of the week.
Articles and Books
Most of the techniques I use to organize articles are outlined in An Overview above. It’s pretty detailed, so I won’t rehash it here. The important thing is to tweak the system so it works for you.
If you’re more of a paper person, you can create a form in Word that you print out and fill in with every article. The form should include space for the assignment specs, and then blanks for entering information on your sources: their contact info, the dates you contacted them, and the interview dates and times.
The day or so before an interview, I create a Word document with the source’s contact information and the interview questions. When I do the interview, I double-check the spelling of the source’s name and ask for any information I’m missing, such as the source’s mailing address.
Again, details on how I organize interviews are in An Overview above. To recap, I enter interviews into my calendar along with the phone number so I don’t have to dig it up. I give all sound files standardized names and e-mail them to my transcriptionist, and store the sound files and transcriptions in the article project folder. (The same process applies if you transcribe your own interviews.)
One client of mine told me that she wanted to send thank you notes to the sources of a particular article, but it took her twenty minutes just to pull together their contact information. Doesn’t really put one in a thankful mood, does it?
There are a couple of ways you can organize your source info. One is to use contact management software such as Filemaker or ACT. When you create the layout for your sources file, you can include fields or checkboxes to indicate the sources’ specialties, so when you’re looking for, say, a podiatrist for an article or an archery expert for your novel, you can search on those parameters and all the appropriate experts will pop up.
You can also opt for an old-school Rolodex, which is something I’ve done in the past. Instead of categorizing your sources by name, sort them by expertise.
Finally, an editor at a national general interest magazine once complained to me that most writers don’t include source info with their articles. Always collect your sources’ contact info (including mailing address) wherever you store your article notes, and if any of the information is incomplete, ask for it during the interview. You can include the source list at the end of the article under the header SOURCES, or create a separate file to send along with your article. This is convenient not only for the editor, but also for you if you’re the type of writer who lets sources know when an article in on the stands or online (which I do). [lf]