One Writer’s Journey: Organization Optimization

For me, digging out unknown nuggets of history is great fun. And if these interesting tidbits have something special to offer kids, then I start my search for a story. Every once in a while someone asks me how I organize the information I gather for a picture book, so today I’ll share my method using a 70 page spiral.

It’s surprising how much research goes into a narrative nonfiction picture book with under 1000 words. My research process begins with reading everything I can find online. Then I seek out books relating to people, places, and events mentioned in articles and search for sources listed in bibliographies. I print out the good stuff and copy pages I’ll need. Before you know it, there’s a pile, and once I get started, and ideas for a story begin popping in my head, I need to jot them down before they “poof” into the air, never to return.

Early on in my writing journey, I experimented with ways to organize all the sources, notes, and ideas. I tried note cards, various spread sheets, color coded lists, and investigated some software options. For what will be my second picture book, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT, I had many piles, lots of paper, running lists of this and that. Paper clips weren’t enough to tame the organizational nightmare scattered over the desk. And as I dove back into the research over and over, I realized I needed a better way to organize all the pieces I’d accumulated.

By this time, I had learned a lot about my own writing process and what worked for me. I like to be able to see multiple items at once as I write and have an aversion to keeping all the notes on the computer, switching screens and juggling windows. I needed to have running lists of things like title ideas and questions that I could access easily. So I tried an “old school” teacher method for writing workshop. The spiral.

IMG_1895 copy (1)My first spiral organizer experiment ended up being my debut picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Though I know the significantly lower number of revisions with this manuscript was mostly due to learning and deliberate forethought regarding many aspects of the writing, I think the spiral played a large part by allowing me to organize the process. Since that manuscript, I’ve continued to hone the process and now use it for every story I start. In case you’d like to try it, here’s the basic format of a typical spiral:

The first page is Table of Contents.
Number the pages in a 70 page spiral notebook. (I don’t number the backs.) Then start naming the pages you’ll need and recording them in your Table of Contents. Here are some that I need with every manuscript:
• Pp 2-3 – List of Sources (Sometimes I number these and use numbers in other sections to indicate which source something came from. I mark B when I add it to the bibliography, note a library request, etc. Page 3 might be Sources to Find.)
• 4 – Contacts
• 5 – Title Ideas
• 6 – Pitch Ideas
• 7 – Structure Ideas
• 8-9 – Special words – Imagery
• 10-15 – Notes
• 16 – Timeline
• 17 – Character 1
• 18 – Character 2
• Another if you need it
• 19 – Setting
• 20 – Events
• 21-22 – Arc – conflicts
• 23 – Mentor texts
• 24 – Back Matter ideas
• 25 – Illustration Notes – (important points from historical record)
• 26 – Questions
• 27-28 – Quotes to use (with source)
• 29-30 – Vital Idea brainstorming (I especially like writing by hand for brainstorming pages.)

From there I add what I need for a particular manuscript, and many more pages are available as you revise, rethink, re-research aspects of the story. Even enough for a section when you’re working with an editor on revisions! You can add ideas for an educator’s guide or blog posts – all sorts of possibilities.

I attach labeled tabs to the pages I use a lot (for easy flipping back and forth), and often color code these. With AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET I had one color for Ben Franklin research and another for Noah Webster. I’ve also used color to indicate research vs developing ideas, and when I make a major shift in focus with revisions or begin to work with an editor. The Table of Contents sequence may vary and be arranged any way that works for you. Provide as many pages as you think you might need for each topic you anticipate, then add as needed.

On the last page inside the back cover I list revision numbers with anything I might need to go back to, such as different beginnings or endings or cuts, also who I’ve shared it with for feedback. The spiral goes into an expandable file folder with copies of research, feedback/revisions, and everything else I’ve gathered that’s a hard copy. (At some point, I may put this into a tub with the books I acquired for the manuscript.)

So much happens, so many things pop in my brain as I’m working on a manuscript that this method allows me to jot down a title idea, structure idea, question, or interesting back matter point without losing my train of thought. It’s a way to capture the scatter and carry on.

The spiral method works for me, and I share this in hopes that others might find something useful in it for themselves. I still have multiple projects on the desk, but at least now I have each bit of information for each manuscript organized and accessible.


17 thoughts on “One Writer’s Journey: Organization Optimization

    1. Hope it’s helpful! I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. There were so many times I jotted down something I didn’t want to forget on the back of something else, or a scrap, or … well, you know what I mean. The pages also remind me to keep track of certain things that I know now that I should keep track of 🙂

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  1. I love this idea. It feels a bit like a Bullet Journal in it’s approach, which is something I already use. And I could see this dovetailing with digital record-keeping. (For example in the notebook, list the location of the digital record).

    Alternately, I could see this system being used in Scrivener. Everything could be set up in the research folder just like in this physical notebook.

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  2. Hi Beth. I had to come back to this post to tell you how much your approach has helped me. I set up two notebooks over the last couple of months for projects I’m working on and I love this system! I tweaked your order and dropped some pages (for example, one science project doesn’t have “characters,” so I dropped those pages), but the overall system is yours.

    One page I added that you might like to add is a “market research/Comp titles” page. I also added a teacher’s guide page as you suggested and a school visits ideas page since that’s something that’s important to me and I often get these great ideas for stuff to do with kids when I’m researching.

    I love your system so much! I find that lots (most?) of my research happens away from the computer, so having an organized notebook system is a great answer. And a notebook is so easy to carry around vs a binder system where pages might fall out and the binder is too big to fit in a small bag. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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    1. Yay! so glad it’s working for you! The spiral I showed was the first one where I’d tried it. Since then, I’ve learned more of what to add and how to better organize. I like your idea of comps page. And now that I’ve been through the process (almost) I’ve found the need for some pages that lend to acknowledgements and complimentary copies, and yes, school stuff. Thanks for your thoughts, adding to the page ideas, and sharing that it’s helpful away from the computer. It’s helped me capture, in the least distracting way, all those random thoughts that pop in the process 🙂

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