Creating a Filing System for Your First Non-Fiction Book

As shared here last month, I was approached to write a book based on a blog post.  As I move through this process–from journalist/blogger to author, I’m sharing what the steps with RW&G readers. The book is scheduled to come out in 2013. The topic and publisher will be revealed in a future post.

As a journalist, I’m used to having several stories going at once–and to keeping tabs on the related papers and notes that come with the background work.

Therefore, it’s been easy for me to think of my “book chapters” as “really big articles.”  It’s also kept me from freaking out and yelling, “OMG! I am writing a BOOK!”

My approach–“chapters as articles”–also lends itself well to setting up a filing system for non-fiction book research. In fact, before the ink was dry on my contract, I dug out some old office supplies and got busy with some organization strategies, using my book proposal as a guide.

The chief criteria for my system included portability, sustainability, and affordability. I’m also keen on the sights and sounds of old-fashioned writing–paper, pencil marks, dog-eared notecards. (See the “Explore More” section of this post for links to an established author who is sharing his tech-savvy organizational strategies.)

Below are the steps that I took to set up my filing system. If you’ve got advice, suggestions or strategies along these lines, feel free to share them in comments!

Step One:

I started by preparing old file folders, re-labeling each one with the working chapter titles. I also included files for the bibliography, marketing, and the contract.

The nice thing about the folders, even if you don’t have a contract yet, is that they can be shuffled around and relabeled as the flow of your book changes.  Just use a pencil when writing the names or chapter numbers–or keep some of those paper labels handy.

Step Two:

Because I wanted my materials to be mobile, I placed the folders in a portable file holder picked up at Tuesday Morning several years ago, on clearance for $3.98.

Another great thing about the folders? When an idea strikes, I can scribble a quick note on a notecard and pop it into the relevant folder, returning to it later when I have the time to sketch out something lengthier. If we’re out-and-about and I’ve got my iPad handy, I will sometimes email myself a note, printing it later for my files.

Speaking of notecards, I’m going to come back and talk about my notetaking system in a future post, but here’s a general idea of just how messy and wonderful they can look:

To keep my cards manageable when at the library or  in the park (yes, I make notes in the park), I corral them in this cute purple card holder that I picked up for $1.

Step Three:

After a few days of working with this system, I decided that I needed a way to stash my books, my notecards, and files in one portable container. With summer travel looming and the chance that I could always end up spending huge chunks of time at the hospital with my mom again, I wanted a “grab and go” setup.

Tempted by a pricey, linen-covered $20 container at Target, I took a close look around the house and found the perfect thing: a biodegradable burlap bag picked up at Fortnum & Mason in London last year.  One of those reusable bags from the grocery store might have worked, but this one looks pretty adorable and has tremendous sentimental value, too.

Plus, everything fits just great! See?

Explore More:

• We need more women writing and sharing their stories, knowledge and abilities online and in print media. If this is something that you’re called to do, then a great way to get started is to work on your memoir.  Story Circle is a great place to begin.

• My friend–an established, award-winning author–Chris Barton is sharing his approach to book research organization, which is far more tech-savvy than mine.


New to this series? Start here:

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  1. This is so me, Pamela, you can’t imagine. Maybe we were sisters in another life…love these ideas, going to start on them tomorrow!

  2. Great minds think alike, Pamela. Perhaps not-so-great ones, too….. I use pretty much the same system as you, but use a big binder instead of the folders. Started with folders but found things slip out too easily and get lost. Notecards are my weapon of choice, though. c:

    • I actually have a binder, too. It’s not getting much use yet, but that’s where I will put the printed drafts of the chapters and to help me “see” the final product. Still in research mode though!

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