Organizing your writing life

Friend and fellow poet Steven Reigns asked me an interesting question this week: how do you organize your writing on a computer, laptop or device? Here's how I organize mine. It's not necessarily the best system, but it works for me.

With the publication of Midnight in a Perfect World coming later this year, those poems are now in their "final" form and live in a Word document that will be transformed into the printed book. That document (in both printed and computer file format) will be preserved for my archive. The poems pulled from the manuscript have been cut and pasted back into a Word document that is currently 232 pages of unpublished poems or various drafts that need more revision. Yes, that's a little unwieldy at times, but it's also easy to search by title and keywords throughout the document so I can keep up with it.

I also have an additional document that acts as a spreadsheet that holds nearly 20 years of acceptances, rejections and withdrawals from various journals, contests, anthologies, etc. There's also a separate part of the document where I keep a running list of open submissions. Since many journals use Submittable these days, it's a good backup for keeping up with poems that are looking for a home.

Every few months, I go through the various folders that live on my desktop and consolidate documents and drafts. I also back up everything to the cloud for additional safekeeping, which is where digital copies of previously published manuscripts (like The Venus Trilogy novels, Better To Travel and Render) also now reside. Various printed versions of those manuscripts – early drafts and those corrected by me and my editor – are currently in my file cabinet, but will soon go to the archive at Georgia State University Library Special Collections & Archives.

For the last couple of years I've been sorting more than 30 years worth of correspondence, papers, periodicals and other ephemera related not only to my writing but to Atlanta and its colorful LGBT history that will also be going to the GSU archive. Last night while doing some more of that sorting, I stumbled upon a folder mashed into the back of one of my file cabinets that contained printed copies of poems that eventually found their way into Better To Travel. Also in that folder were two handwritten poems – hastily scrawled on the backs of printed poems – that I had totally forgotten about. One of them is sonnet called "The Seer" from a long-ago workshop I took with Cecilia Woloch. The other is called "I believe..." and is an interesting little manifesto that references River Phoenix, Princess Diana and living in London. I also found – and this is the one I'm most intrigued with – a printed poem called "The empty bed," which, if memory serves, was destined to be part of Better To Travel but was pulled at the last minute. It has a killer closing stanza, but the rest needs some serious revision, which is probably why I pulled it from the book. There's no date on the poem, but hazy recollection puts it at around 1994 or 1995. Sometimes being a packrat pays off.

I'm curious how you, fellow poets and writers, organize your writing life? Do you use a program or an app? Do you print everything up? Keep handwritten drafts in notebooks? Share your secrets and tips, please.


Dave Bonta said…
Fascinating, Collin. I'm a bit embarrassed by what a shambles my own files are in, but since almost all my drafts after 2003 appear at Via Negativa, I can find them there... after a fashion. The older stuff (and some of the newer) is preserved in a pair of online, private blogs. I don't keep track either of what I've published or of what I've sent out in any systematic way, other than saving all editorial correspondence to a folder in my email, so thank whomever for Submittable.
Ann M said…
For years I have kept three large paper files, one for work-in-progress, one for "finished" (ie, possibly publishable) poems, and one for published work. Then I have the archives of each of my books/chapbooks in paper and in a folder on my computer.

And I also have a folder of "dead" poems, a kind of archive of bad work; why I keep that, I am not sure.

However, keeping track of submissions has been an ongoing battle of disorganization and revised ways to manage...which I have not achieved satisfactorily. I detest spreadsheets. I think I'd need an amanuensis if I were to get truly serious about tracking (Submittable does help, but not much).

I also use your system of one incredibly long but easily searchable document. It never fails that I see a call for a topic, theme, etc. and I KNOW that I've got the poem -- somewhere -- so keyword searching helps!!

Good post, thank you.
Isaiah Vianese said…
I love this post! I am working on my second collection right now and mulling over my back poems--so this is very timely.

My process is very analog. I do most of my drafting and initial revisions long-hand in a notebook. I often write and rewrite poems over and over again in the same notebook, labeling them with a date and draft number.

When a poem is done, I type it up and put in a digital folder I label "New Poems." I keep adding to this folder until I see trends or themes develop. When this happens, I relabel the folder with a working title for the overall project (which seems to change again and again as I continue to write).

As the project emerges, I create sub-folders: Yes, No, Maybe, and Junk. The "Yes" poems are definites for the collection, and "Junk" is for poems that I can't get to work; sometimes I am able to salvage these pieces, but most often they are broken beyond repair.

Often the "No" and "Maybe" poems become the seeds for a future project. I move them over to a new folder--again titled "New Poems"--and the process starts again.

Thanks for inspiring me to think about my process, Collin! Hope all is well.

Pris said…
Hi Collin, a design savvy friend created a three page Excel form for me ....submitted (where, date), accepted, rejected. If a submission is accepted or rejected, I highlight it in submissions, cut and paste to the appropriate folder. Fast and easy. I used to store my poems, many hidden, on my web site but now I keep them in documents loaded to dropbox in the cloud, perioodically copied to my computer where I back up to an external hard drive. Later books, ditto.. earlier books, I just have the book.
Collin Kelley said…
Thanks for commenting, y'all. I am always interested to hear how other poets and writers organize their writing lives.

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