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Four Ways To Organize Your Writing (Or Not) Before You Sit Down To Write

typewriterVladimir Nabokov wrote the majority of his novels on 3×5″ index cards. Ernest Hemingway famously carried a Moleskine notebook around at all times. Jack Kerouac just sat down at a typewriter and wrote, first-thought-best-thought.

 How do you write?

It’s easy to think you have to use the same writing methods as your favorite authors, but that can actually be detrimental to your creative process. There is no right or wrong way to plan and execute your writing projects. The key is to find the method that’s right for you.

Here are a few ideas on how to organize your writing, brought to you by the Writer’s Relief staff. Because, hey, we’re writers too!

1. Carry paper with you. It doesn’t have to be a Moleskine (although two of our submission strategists do keep them on hand at all times), but many writers find it helpful to keep some kind of paper on our person so we can jot down ideas as they come. Says Christine: “I have my handy-dandy notebook. I carry it everywhere with me, and whenever I see something that really hits me, I whip it out and start scratching away.”

Another staff member even has a back up plan in case he doesn’t have a notebook handy. “I fill napkins/slips of scrap paper/even my hands with lines of verse and story/essay ideas,” says Joe. “At home, I sit in front of my computer and compile any notes or lines of verse from my notebooks and loose scraps of paper and type them into a Word document. It is only then that any sense of organization takes shape.”

A Writer's Notebook

 2. Construct, then write. For some writers, it’s important to create the world of a story long before the actual writing begins. I’m very measure-twice-cut-once about my writing,” says Jessica. “I create detailed outlines of the plot, write little side stories to develop characters ahead of time, and—as weird as it sounds—create song playlists to get me in the mood of the piece.” 

Another way to construct before you write is to jot plot points and events in your story on Post-it notes and stick them on a flat surface. As you flesh out the structure, you can move them around and re-stick them in different orders until you find the perfect way to present your narrative. This works especially well for nonlinear plot lines.

 3. Consider going digital. With technology so readily available these days, some writers turn to writing software when it comes to organizing story ideas and writing. There are many programs out there that act as mind-mapping tools. One example is XMind, which allows you to create elaborate outlines of your entire story: characters, storylines, plot points, and even locations.

You might also consider WriteWayPro, which allows you to upload profiles and pictures of characters for easy tracking, organize outlines, sketch scenes, and more.

If your specialty is screenwriting, you have several software options that will not only help you format your screenplay properly, but auto-finish important elements like dialogue tags so you can write freely without fretting over margins. Final Draft has a particularly cool feature that allows you to split your screen between your script and a panel of digital index cards.

But even your smartphone can help when the mood suddenly strikes. This is something that Kriste employs: “Sometimes I’ll get a poetic line in my head and I’ll jot a memo or note on my phone.” Is the smartphone the new Moleskine?

 4. Don’t plan at all! Not surprisingly, there are many writers who don’t plan ahead, and simply write when the mood strikes. It’s a common method, and one that has worked for many famous writers over the years. Priya says, “Sometimes I just sit down and write a whole poem. Planning usually messes me up.”  

a writer scribbles

If you are still trying to find the perfect routine for your writing, test out these methods! Maybe one will be the perfect fit, or maybe a combination of all of them will work best for you. Whatever the case may be, just remember: Have fun! If you enjoy yourself writing it, your readers will enjoy themselves too.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Do you use any of the methods above? Or do you have your own unique routine? Share your thoughts below in the comments section!

15 Responses to Four Ways To Organize Your Writing (Or Not) Before You Sit Down To Write

  1. I normally don’t have pencil and paper when an idea strikes, but my phone has a recording mode that is very helpful. I just ‘say what I’m thinking’ and listen to it when I get home.

  2. I love the idea of post-it notes with all the scenes written on them. A few words which define each scene for you. Recipe or index cards work too. Or tape them all to the wall and move them around. Or buy colored index cards, one color for each sort of ‘topic.’ Then it’s like command central as you spend weeks moving them around until you begin to see connections you had not seen before. You begin to see how some ‘themes’ are hiding in there. You can use those and place them strategically to affect the reader at a subconscious level. You can see putting scenes together that you’d never have thought of putting together before, for contrast, or to explore something in a whole new way.
    Joan Didion wrote that she worked at Vogue magazine in New York when she was young. In the evenings she worked on scenes for a book. She’d tape the pages of each scene together in a long strip and hang in from the wall. Soon her apartment had long strips of scenes hanging down the walls. She’d pick one at random off the wall and work on it some more. When she had 10 good scenes, she submitted them and got an advance to work on her first book.

  3. I use Notes on my iPhone all the time to write down ideas or create poems. If I am driving and can’t write an idea down I use the voice recorder on my phone to record the idea so I can write it down later. I also have a paper notebook at home I write in

  4. I’m literally just starting out,with note taking.These are all good ideas.I have discovered that when something comes up in my mind,I’ve learned to get it down straight away,whatever way is convenient in the moment is best.I’ve lost some amazing Poetry in my head because I didn’t get it down on paper and so far have not been able to recall.Its also amazing how creative surges come randomly for me, once while peeling potatoes,I managed to write a whole poem.Its about doing something or nothing even,in order to empty the mind,to allow for a space for creative surges to flow through.

  5. I’m glad to hear suggestions. My basic fifteen notebooks (all sizes) are full; I find myself sifting too much. I like the type it in idea right away. I do need to put all the “pieces” of the puzzle together. HOW do you pick the most interesting..can be overwhelming.

  6. I write like Kerouac, I guess. I carry an iPad or, more recently, a MacBook Air with me at all times and just open my mind and write. This, for me, is the best way to write in a rhythm, making it easier to read. The first thought is usually the best thought. I’m at my best when I’m not anylizing what I’m doing.

  7. I like the idea of typing up the notes I take when I’m out. Makes sense and I have so much written that a lot of times I don’t know where to start.

  8. I will try some of these ideas — working on a YA novel I’ve wanted to write for years. I’m in a stall position right now but this week I intend to get past it and see my story fly. thanks.

  9. Thank goodness for technology. I used to lose a lot of paper notebooks. Fortunately I was able to go back to an old attempt at filing for an article that a magazine wanted–3 years after I sent the proposal.

    My assimilation started with a small handheld computer (about the size of today’s Blackberries but most of that was screen) with a folding keyboard. You can’t get them any more, which means I’ve had to switch over to a 10 inch notebook PC. It’s meant transferring so many files that some writing may have gotten lost.

    After three published novels I’ve started to write screenplays. The program I’m using is Movie Magic Screenwriter 6, which also has the split screen option for notes.

  10. When I have an idea I’ll write it on any piece of paper and stick it in a special folder until I’m ready to sit down and write an article or chapter. I also use the voice recorder on my phone.

  11. If I find myself like now, not writing, I look for a local writing competition, with a closind date about 4 weeks away and open a word doc. and set out to win it!
    Gets me started everytime. And next time I find I’ve stopped writing I do it all over again. Ideas will sometimes sit in my head for years – gradually turning themselves into stories.

  12. I love all these ideas! Sometimes I keep repeating a line in my head until I get a chance to write it down, but using the smartphone is a good idea too. Maybe I could even post something as Facebook status, but only viewable to me.

  13. Great ideas. I’m probably a combination of all of the above. Sometimes there’s no planning involved in my writing and other times I have random bits in notebooks and napkins. And I love that the WR staffers are writers just like us :)

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