Friday, December 4, 2009

Ask the Teaching Authors Question: Organizing Projects

Mary Jo C. writes, teaches, and works for a nonprofit young writers’ organization. She asks, “How do you organize all of your projects, both the paper files and the computer files, without things falling through the cracks? How do you keep up with markets you’d like to pursue and the deadlines for submitting?”

Thank you for the questions, Mary Jo! They made me take a close look at my own organization methods. My work, like yours, is made up of a number of segments whose relative importance varies over time:
  • writing
  • teaching
  • freelance/work-for-hire writing projects
  • school visits and conferences
  • miscellaneous (blog posts, marketing, publicity, volunteer work, special projects, etc.)
For each type of work, I try to keep track of my progress and my plans. Some systems work better than others. First, the more successful ones.

My calendar functions as my short-term To-Do List. I update it and refer to it daily. I slip notes about important events such as school visits inside the back cover. I also keep a long-term list on a legal pad. I look at it and update it about once/month, when I transfer urgent items to the calendar.

I have learned (the hard way!) to stuff tax-deductible expense receipts and payment stubs in file folders as soon as I receive and record them. I keep the Income and Expense folders on top of a filing cabinet next to my desk where I can reach them easily. I also keep a small notebook in the car to record mileage—trips to the library or office supply store as well as longer research travel. It all adds up. At tax time, everything is right there.

For my classes, I keep records of attendance and grades in Excel charts and report them online. I keep textbooks, handouts, and all necessary daily records in a separate tote bag for each course and grab that bag on my way to class. Sometimes I walk out the door with a purse and several tote bags, but at least I know I have everything I might need. (I also keep library books in their own tote bag.)

For my submissions, I created a Word table that lists manuscript titles across the top and editor names along the side. When I submit a manuscript, I enter the date in the cell where manuscript and editor meet. If a manuscript is returned, I add an R after the date and submit it elsewhere. If it is accepted, I delete the column from the table. I can easily see which manuscripts are out and which editors have something of mine to consider. I keep a copy of the table clipped to the outside of a file folder that holds printed copies of cover letters and manuscripts.

I rely on e-mail to communicate with everyone: students, department chairs, people requesting information about school visits, writing group members, editors, etc. I create folders in my Inbox for categories such as teaching, writing, and work, and I add subfolders within them for each class, publisher, or project. (Documents on my computer are organized in a similar way.) I recently started using a second e-mail account strictly for teaching. I am always trying to clear out my Inbox. I rarely print an e-mail, but I do mark important dates, phone numbers, and deadlines on my calendar.

* * * * *

My explanation for the less successful methods is that I operate under the principle that I remember what I see.

Work-for-hire projects typically require research that results in many pages of printed or photocopied information. Until a project is completed, these papers tend to pile up, so I group them together in one spot, usually on the floor. What I don’t do religiously enough is sort through these piles as soon as a project is completed and file or recycle all that paper. I usually return library books in time to avoid huge fines.

My own writing in progress is stacked on a file cabinet next to my desk in a teetering pile that includes everything from scraps of paper with a few words scribbled during the night to a ring binder that holds a poetry collection I’ve been working on for ten years and several copies of a nearly finished novel. Periodically (usually after I finish something), I sort through this pile, shake my head, feel guilty for not finishing more, and pile it all up again. Once in a while, I find something that piques my interest, and I pull it out to work on. I have tried keeping track of these unfinished manuscripts, but most of them don’t have titles yet, so I probably wouldn’t even recognize the names on a list. (Aha—a revelation! Why is my most important work the least organized? Any suggestions?)

* * * * *

Now my teaching semester is wrapping up, time is running out, and papers are piling up all over my work area. I hope to use some of the coming break to sort, recycle, and file. Much of what is in my filing cabinets is obsolete. I will clean them out. I will be ruthless. I promise!

My goals for a system of organization:
  • to prioritize
  • to stay on top of everything
  • to not allow something important to slip through the cracks
  • to not handle papers over and over
  • to not spend too much time searching for anything
  • to be conscious of my surroundings, especially when papers start to pile up
When my life becomes hectic (as it is now!), I find myself using my Morning Pages to plan my day, and I find I can focus better on my work if I take this step. What I’d like to work on improving next is following up on information I’ve sent out, especially submissions and potential school visit details.

I hope I’ve answered your questions, Mary Jo. You’ve certainly inspired me to take a closer look at what works for me and what needs more attention. I’m looking forward to my semester break and hoping to get better organized. Wish me luck!

P.S. I originally posted this yesterday, but the photos would not upload. I don't know why, but here they are!


Sylvia Vardell said...
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Carmela Martino said...

JoAnn, interestingly, I also organize my classes by tote bags. :-) And in addition to having a bag for each class and one for library books, I have one for my book club material and current book, and one for my writer's group. (I have a LARGE collection of tote bags.)

One way I avoid library fines--my library sends email reminders a day or two before a book is due. I can renew my books online if there are no holds on it. But if I've reached my renew limit or there are holds, I write the due date on my calendar to remind myself to return the item.

Regarding organizing novels-in-progress: I keep a large 3-ring binder with tabs such as: Character, Setting, Plot, Themes, Title ideas, Possible publishers, etc. I also keep a printout of a recent draft in the binder. And I use the pockets at the front and back of the binder for miscellaneous related articles and those scraps of paper I end up making notes on when I'm not in my office. The binder is great because it's portable. If the novel involves a lot of research, like my current historical work-in-progress, I keep the binder in a box that also holds files of historical information and books containing reference information.

Great post, JoAnn. I hope some of our readers will also post their organization techniques, or maybe share their greatest organizational challenges!

Mary Jo said...

JoAnn and Carmella,

Thank you so much for answering my question in such depth. I love the idea of multiple tote bags (now I don't feel guilty for having held on to so many of these!)
JoAnn, my submission tracker is in excel, but has much more detail : follow up date, paid date/ rights, etc. But I think for me, the more detailed, the less I use it!

I will def. be putting some of your ideas into practice this year.
Thanks again!
~Mary Jo