Organize your story drafts: a 3-step tutorial

Julia Joppien on Unsplash

When you're writing short stories or essays, your work exists in pieces and layers. There's your freewriting, your first drafts, your second and third drafts, your semi-finished drafts, and your submitted and/or published stories. You with me?

Where does all of this live in your computer? How do you keep from feeling overwhelmed when you sort through it?

It’s time to build a filing system for your work-in-progress.

This tutorial will show you how to create a tidy, powerful, and (dare I say it?) FUN filing method that will clean up your computer, make writing easier, and get you published faster.

Why published faster? Because you stop wasting time when you have an organized system. You work smarter.

This particular file naming idea was given to me a long time ago, but I can't remember the source (if you know who thought of this first, let me know). It works. Plus I love the cooking verbs. You can use any kind of metaphor you like, though.  

 

Step one: Make new folders + give them good names.

1. Start by creating and naming a big folder to hold everything. I call mine WRITING. I made it bright red, so it shouts when I see it.

2. Save this folder using Dropbox. (Presto! Now your writing is backed up.)

3. Inside your WRITING folder, create the following 5 folders: Fresh Ingredients Cooking Ready Published Leftovers Use colour to highlight the important ones. Fresh ingredients and Cooking are the ones you’ll use most often — tag those folders with two sassy colours. Here’s how it will look:


folders-1


 

Step two: Put your work in the appropriate folders.

Fresh Ingredients: This is where your work goes when you first transcribe it from your notebook into a Word doc. This is for raw materials, nonsensical freewrites, ten minute daily prompts, and random story ideas. The Fresh Ingredients folder is beautiful because it is full of possibility and amazement: there is no judgment or criticism allowed here. It's a farmers' market — it's where you go shopping when you want to write something new.

Cooking: For your story drafts. When your raw material becomes a piece of writing with some form or structure, substance and weight. When you have given a piece of work its first title. When you've sent a story to a reader or workshop for a critique and you are working through the edits. When your story needs to be shelved for a few weeks so you can get some perspective. This folder is for your story drafts. You'll probably be working within this folder most of the time.

Ready: Finished work. When you've worked on a story so long that you know it's as good as it gets. When it was in the Cooking folder for a few weeks or months or years, and you came back to it and still thought it's the best it can be. When you've submitted it to a magazine and you're waiting for a response. When your story is ready, file it under Ready. This is a fun folder! It's like a cooling rack for your bundt cake.

Published: Stories that have found a home. This is where you put your work after you get an acceptance letter. If you don't create a folder for published work, how will your stories ever get published? This was my logic when I created my first Published folder. If it's empty at first, that's fine.

Leftovers: Stories and edited pieces of writing that don't have fresh energy anymore. You don't want to look at them right now, but you don't want to delete them either. They live here. You might never look at them again: that's okay.  

 

Step three: Maintenance and sub-folders.

Fresh Ingredients: Create a folder for every month of your freewriting and collect the bits there. If you are doing daily writing prompts, create a new document for every piece you write. Title these daily pieces by subject, and file by month. Say you’ve been writing every day this week. You’d have four pieces so far. Give them wee titles, like this: pincushion list of stars canary Zelda Then put all of those into a folder called [MONTH] [YEAR]. It would look like this:


folders-2


Even if you file your Fresh Ingredients away for years and forget everything you wrote, you’ll be so curious about those little freewrites later, when you come back!

Cooking: First create a folder and title it for your story. Say your story is called GOOD LUCK. The first folder you create inside the GOOD LUCK folder is called DRAFTS. This is where you put every version of your story except the current one. Title each draft of your story by date. When you work on a draft and make changes to it, click “Save As” and give it a new date. I keep my most recent draft outside the DRAFTS folder so it’s easy to find.


folders-3


Ready: This is an easy one. When you get an acceptance letter, just click your story folder from Cooking and drag it into Ready. Done.

Leftovers: This one’s easy, too. When you’re tired with a draft and want to archive it, click the folder and drag it here. If you cut something out of a draft, create a new document for it, and then drag it here. I don’t date my leftovers — but that’s just a personal preference.

That’s it!


Please invest a bit of time to organize your work in progress. This nifty little system will last years and save you headaches and overwhelm. And when you get your acceptances and confirmations, you’ll know just what to do.

Novelists must have similar issues with their chapter drafts, but I'm no expert on novel writing, so I've just given you my short story folder method. It might work for novel chapters too -- novelists and memoirists, please leave me a comment and let me know!

Now it’s your turn. Don’t just read the tutorial — do it! Leave me a note in the comments and let me know if this system works for you.

Also, can you help me think of another cooking term for “Published?”

xo,


Photo credit (top): Julia Joppien on Unsplash


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28 comments

Kathy Martens

How bout “Yum!” or “Dinner is served” or “Come and get it!” Or “dig in!” or “Bon Appetite” This is SO helpful Sarah! I always start off with good intentions, but inevitably it gets messy. Simple and consistent = game changer. Thanks for sharing this little bit of genius! Xo
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Gini Grossenbacher

Thank you, Sarah! I will definitely share this with writers in my cohort! Gini Grossenbacher, Author
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks so much, Gini! I hope they find it useful, and fun. Let me know!
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Sarah Selecky

LOL I love "Come and get it!" Thank you, Kathy -- I've been using this method for a long time, and it seems to have stuck. Occasionally when I get busy, files do get messy again, but having the system in place makes clearing my desktop easy. :)
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I was organizing my stories this morning! Instead of Ready, I used Plating and instead of Published, I used Recipe Box.
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Fantastic system! Love it! My suggestion is the same as Anouchka's: plated for published. It's an old printing term from when plates were used to print pages or books. And we've got a lovely double entendre with the modern culinary definition.
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I love this article. I've done everything you suggested here. I've struggled on how to set up my writing folders and this has helped me a great deal. May I make a few suggestions? Or, at least, tell you the modifications I made when I implemented these ideas? Dropbox (and all the other storage services) tend to automatically show you folders in alphabetical order. When I created the first folders, I put a number in front of them. This way they would always be in order of how the work flow would be. 1-Fresh Ingredients 2-Cooking 3-Ready 4-Published 5-Leftovers Within the 1-Fresh Ingredients folder, you suggested calling folder by month, then year. On this one I put year first. Truth is, if you don't, you will be forced to move your various years into folders of their own. Else the years will mix with each other. And I like the name of the month, too. But included the numbering as well to allow for natural ordering by the Dropbox system. Here is an example of how I named them: 2020 05 May 2020 06 June 2020 07 July Thanks again for this article. Loved it!
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Donna McKamy

Sarah like others I echo the inspiration I’ve had and abundant encouragement and after months and months and months I am doing “it”; it being writing. Glad this organization piece came along before I’m too deeply mired. My intention to start today!!! I like Pantry for published. Pantry is for storage of sealed goods after you have acquired them. I.e. acceptance letter. Freezer is mundane, however that is where good things to preserve are placed. Thank you for the fun today!
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Hi Sarah, For Published, how about "a table!"?
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Diane Douiyssi

What a great system! Thank you Sarah <3 I cant wait to try it out. My current writing folder is a dizzying array of files that sometimes asks me to remember what i was thinking of when i named and filed something there such a long time ago. What about "On the Table" for published? Like its been chosen to serve and is being shared.
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Thank you for these ideas. I like things to be easy to find, too.
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Thank you for sharing your system Sarah. I’ve been wondering about this after the workshop. I haven't transcribed much from my notebook but when I do, I know how to file it digitally.
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Sarah Selecky

Yeah, Julie! How did it go? ("Served" is a good one. It fits!)
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Gail. "Baked" is great -- especially if I changed "Cooking" to "Half-Baked"!!
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Anouchka! Great question about Dropbox. I did some research -- it isn't currently an available Dropbox feature, but you aren't the first one to ask their customer forum about this. Fingers crossed their developers are beta-testing colours now. I also found a site with a little coding hack that someone made, but it was from years ago, and it's a 404 file now. Boo. I've synced Dropbox to my Mac, so when I use my laptop's filing system, it automatically updates Dropbox. You could try doing that to make it easier? I really like "Plated" -- but "Sur la table" is adorable!
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Kim! Oh, thank you so much for the kind words. I'm really, really happy the programs have been fruitful for your writing life. Yes: we write by hand, because it helps us access that quality of embodiment that can be hard for us to get to, because we're in our heads all the time. Good question about transcribing. I don't transcribe all of my freewrites -- often my writing practice just stays in my notebook. UNLESS: a) I'm working on a story (and the freewrites are connected to those characters) or b) I'm actively trying to generate new material for a collection. I find writing first drafts difficult, so if I want to write a few stories, I transcribe several freewrites over time and then use those as sketchy story drafts so I don't have that "making something out of nothing" feeling. I'm working on another novel now, and so far I'm keeping everything in longhand in a notebook. I'll transcribe it all at the end of the first draft. I know it will be messy and full of holes -- that's okay. The first stage of editing will be later, when I transcribe the handwriting. In the meantime, I do use a highlighter in the notebook to mark those pages that feel like they have energy in them, to make sure I won't miss them when I go back.
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Kim Edison

Thanks for the clarification. I'm looking forward to incorporating your process. Thank you for sharing.
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Julie Gabrielli

I've set it all up on Dropbox. Still moving files into the folders, but I love the upfront simplicity of it.
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks Sandra! I hope the system works for you. When you click with a good system, there's no going back. :)
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This was very helpful. Thank you . How about "BAKED"
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Published = Plated or Published = Sur la table Thanks for the organizational tips, Sarah. I'm going to try this. As for colour coding your folder titles in Dropbox... is there an insider sous-chef trick for that?
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Hi Sarah, You are an inspiration to all of us struggling writers. Thank you. How about Baked as the term instead of Published?
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Jule Gabrielli

Love this! I'm totally doing it RIGHT NOW. How about "served" instead of "published"? Thank you!
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Sarah Selecky

Cindy, these are brilliant fixes! Thank you for sharing your strategies -- I'm going to add the numbers to my files too. Love it.
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Karen Mace

This is great, Sarah! I have stuff everywhere and this looks like a great way to organise it. I've started already :). You have been an inspiration to me since we first met back in Tuscany and I've appreciated everything I've learned from you and the wonderful programmes you offer. I'd like the colour option to be available too. I hope Dropbox is listening :).
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Kim Edison

Thanks for the article. I'm enrolled in your programs and they have been life changing. Much or your writing instructions specify to write by hand. Your system will work digitally as well in hard copy format? When do you transition from writing by hand to computer? Should all handwritten work get copied onto our computers?
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Sandra Margolese

Thanks for the fantastic tips, Sarah. I will start organizing this week. What about, “Served,” instead of “Published?”
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks Diane! Good luck, and have fun going through all of your files -- I wish you many happy accidents of colliding characters and settings and stories. ("On the table" -- like "Sur la table" -- I like it!)
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