Organizing Systems for Files

Papers to be filedTurning the calendar to a new year is always an opportunity to establish new and improved organizing systems of all kinds. Over the years, I’ve developed a few of my own, from celebrating Boxing Day by boxing up the year’s receipts to cleaning up my computer by archiving old files on a thumb drive.

I find the systems I have for December into January are easy compared to the filing that must be done day-to-day during the year. And as anyone who has spent any amount of time hunting through a hard drive looking for a misplaced document knows, not being able to find an earlier draft of an article can be a real time sink. So this is what I do:

First of all, I use folders: For this blog, I have a folder marked NHWN Blog. In it, I have sub-folders, one for each year I’ve been contributing (since 2011!). That’s where I park each post as I write it, creating a sub-sub folder if I write several drafts.

I always write several drafts.

And this is how I tell them apart:

I give each draft a title followed by the date. I use the title both in the header on the document and as a file name. The first draft for this post, for instance, is Organizing Principles NHWN2015_0104.

Placing the title and date in the header is especially helpful when I print a draft to work with hard copy.

When I return to a draft and make changes, I change the date. If it’s still the same day, I add a letter after the date. (The second draft of this piece includes a title change: Organizing Systems NHWN2015_0104A) When I’m sending drafts to an editor or client, I often add a time tag to the date, so we both know which is the most recent draft. With drafts zipping back and forth through cyberspace, date and time tags literally keep us on the same page.

Whenever I make substantial changes to a document, I use the “Save As” function. This way, I have preserved my earlier work, in case I do want to return to something I’ve cut. This system also makes cutting less painful: The deadwood is gone from the current version, but it’s not in the trash, and I can always go back and consult what I’ve written and tossed. (The third draft of this post is the last: Organizing Systems NHWN2015_0104B)

While I often write a couple of drafts of a post, I write countless drafts of my fiction, and keeping each draft is quite helpful during the initial stages of discovery – when I’m learning about my characters and what they have to say. I probably cut out at least as much as I save in the course of a novel, maybe more. In fact, I’m wondering if I cut the wrong sections of Ellen, and I’m comforted to know that I can sift through the outtakes and see if there are gems I need to reinstate when I’m ready to return to that novel.

I make no claims that this is a perfect system, but it’s an organic one I’ve developed over time, and it works for me.

What systems have you developed?

M. Shafer, Photo

M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, educator and speaker who lives in southern Vermont and blogs at Living in Place.

23 thoughts on “Organizing Systems for Files

  1. Pingback: Hello, January – franceskraft

  2. Pretty good system but I would suggest one alteration. I write for overseas publications and they don’t always use our US convention of month/day/year or your way which is year/month/day which I find that the US folks don’t use. To avoid confusion for everyone everywhere I spell things out like this: 6 January 2015. Spelling out the month seems to make everyone happy.

    • Hi Larry, Great suggestion! Last year, to avoid confusion and to make it easier to find files, I started dating my files with the year_mmdd, but I can see how spelling out the month eliminates all ambiguity. Thanks for the tip – I’m sure others will appreciate it too.

  3. One of the suggestions made in a writing program I was enrolled in was creating a simple system to organize your drafts in. At first, I wasn’t wholly worried because I did all my writing and editing online, save for the initial first draft which I have always committed to paper and keep in the same binder. When I edited a piece, I simply saved it and moved on.
    It wasn’t until I was encouraged to print off my rough copies and suddenly found tons of paper floating around my apartment that I had to adapt my system. Now, I use file folders in a single foot-by-foot storage box, and when that fills up, I’ll buy another one. All alphabetical and all with a date of the last time I worked on it.
    It makes such a difference, just as long as you find your own way to make it fit you.

    • Yes, a system has to fit the way you work. My father-in-law was one of those people who just had a pile on his desk – but he knew exactly where to find what he was looking for within that pile, so it worked for him. (Ironically, he was a chemist, and precise about everything else.) Thanks for sharing the system you’ve developed and that works for you.

  4. Reblogged this on Nadira's Locs and commented:
    Good Morning Kings and Queens,
    I really appreciated the following post from “Live to Write – Write to Live”. Many people, myself included have a helluva time trying to stay organized, from papers and receipts to computer files. I agree completely with the necessity of creating your own personal filing system. I made it my goal to keep my file names simple and in many ways similar to those referred to in Organizing Systems for Files by Deborah Lee Luskin. I even drafted a word document for with my typical folder and file name tags, and the purpose of each one even if it is obvious. By doing this I do not have to worry about forgetting where a file is or goes. It’s also help when another author needs to save something for the blog– they will know the format and saving location. Here are some examples of how I keep my blog and business organized.
    • NLBlogs
    • NLPhotos
    • NLMarketing
    • NLReferenceDocs
    Blog Post:
    • (NLBlogYY-0103BlogTitleShortForm)
    • NLBlog15-0103WeightLoss
    • NLRef-MLKDreamSpeech
    • NLMark-tsuAD
    Something as simple a detailed file name, which takes all of 3 seconds to type, could very well save me from a 15 minute search for a particular file on my over flowing hard drive. By no means do I have this system 100% dummy proof–especially not in terms of my everyday files and photos. However, trying to operate a blog and/or a computer based business would be all out hell and chaos without some form of File Organization.
    So if you are drowning in unorganized files start today creating distinctive folder in your My Documents folder. Each folder should have a specific purpose; try to limit your double dipping. However, if you choose to make your folders house more than one file type MAKE SURE you name each file accordingly.

  5. Thanks for sharing your system. I’m struggling with word on ipad where you get one shot at naming a document. I’d love to get as organized as you seem to be. I’m afraid I got lazy and like Little Shop of Horrors just grew worse.

    • I’m not familiar with Word for the iPad, so I’m surprised there’s no way to rename a file, the way there is in Word for OSX, where it’s possible to double-click on a file name in Finder, and when the name is highlighted, to write over it.
      You should know that my computer files are more organized than my paper ones, which are completely out of control. But the real issue here is to play to our strengths and not use learning opportunities to beat up on ourselves. I’m sure you’ve got great stuff on your hardrive.

  6. Still learning to appreciate the draft. I put too much emphasis on achieving the final perfect product and not enough on enjoying the process. But I’m getting there.

    So interesting to hear about other people’s systems and work flow – I mostly edit write and edit my blog in WordPress. When I don’t, I’ll have the text in Word or a similar application, but it gets tossed as soon as the post is final. Do you ever find you need to return to drafts after you’ve published the piece?

    • What a good question: Have I ever returned to drafts after publishing a piece? Yes, I think so. In order to get maximum mileage out of ideas while also producing new content, I do sometimes lift sentences, tropes, even paragraphs for new pieces with a different slant. But beyond reusing work, I’m also retentive – and have a seemingly incurable need to hold on to Stuff. I’m working on letting go this year: cleaning out the files and calling in the shredding machine! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  7. I have a similar system as well. I keep things I’m currently working on in folders on the desktop so that I have easy access. I save and name every draft, but if I print it and make revisions, I type the revisions, save them as a new draft, and throw away the printed copies.

    • I’ve succeeded in breaking the hard copy habit when it comes to essays and short work. But with longer work – like a 400 page novel – I print copies as I go along. When they’re obsolete, I feed the typescripts through my printer again, making use of blank side and alleviating some of my environmentalist guilt at being so profligate with paper!

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