There are three different aspects to my working life: report editing for my client in London, fiction writing, and blogging. Although the latter two are related, they are distinct in my mind.
For a long time I was unsatisfied with my filing system, which felt somewhat clunky and ineffective. As a result I looked for a solution, something more streamlined and logical.
I’ve had a satisfactory workflow in place for some time with regard to the work I do for my London client: emails come in with attachments; I save these files to my Downloads folder; when I’m ready to work on them the files are moved to my Current folder. It’s a simple, linear system.
My own work is different, however. I have a variety of projects in various stages of development at any one time: novels, short stories, radio scripts and blog posts. I also have a lot of material related to my published work, such as manuscripts, PDFs, cover art images, interviews and various other bits and pieces.
Generally this older material is not the problem as I don’t need to access it regularly. As a result this resides only on my iMac’s hard drive and backup disks rather than in Dropbox.
It’s the current work that’s the real issue – pieces I’m actively working on at any given time, at whatever stage. These need to be available on either my iMac or my MacBook Pro, my iPad or phone, and be up to date. I also need to be able to access fiction ideas and blog drafts to consider or tinker with whenever the fancy takes me.
The problem I had was organising these various items in a way that was consistent and came naturally to me. I needed a system that was so intuitive that I didn’t find myself either trying to remember where I’d put a file, or trying to work out where to put it.
I tried several different methods and applications – Things, Evernote, Simplenote, among others – but I seemed to end up with duplicates of files like ideas for short stories: I might make a note of a story idea in Simplenote, then add it to Evernote, then change it in one and forget to remove the other. This is not fault of the applications in question, but really more due to my flawed way of working.
I really thought Evernote would be the answer, with its desktop and iOS apps and online syncing, but the app never really worked for me. Perhaps this is because I operate almost exclusively in text, whether writing or consuming. The app is also rather more complicated than a lightweight text editor.
I began to think about how I would physically work with documents and projects. It occurred to me that I would not have one large folder into which I put everything: that’s just not the kind of person I am. Instead, I’d have a separate folder for each project.
I was also drawn to the concept of text files, their simplicity and longevity, being compatible with just about every Word processor out there. Think of a text file as a sheet of paper: if I have different ideas, notes, things to think about, I don’t want all of these on a single sheet – I want separate sheets for each so that I can edit, expand and develop in a more effective way, as and when I want to.
Yet while I like my files to be organised, I don’t like to have too many folders: putting items in folders is like putting them away, and if a project or document is “active”, whether I’m actually working on it or it’s simply being considered, I want it to be available at a glance. This makes it convenient, and also acts as a reminder that it’s something I need to think about.
Less is more
After some trial and error I think I’ve found a streamlined solution that works for me:
General notes, snippets of information and ideas, recipes, miscellaneous stuff like that, I create quickly and easily using nvALT, which syncs the notes as text files to a folder within my WriteRoom folder on Dropbox. I can access these items via nvALT on my Macs, with the application’s fast search function, and via WriteRoom on my iPad and phone. For organisation, if the text in question is an idea for a blog post I’ll name it something like Blog – workflow; if it’s an idea for a story it’ll begin with Development; a note of the process to reset the SMC on my computer, for example, is prepended with Mac. This way, related items are grouped together in a logical and clearly visible way.
Posts such as this I draft in iA Writer on my Mac or iPad. I then finalise markdown and hyperlinks in Byword for export to HTML, which I then paste into WordPress.
Fiction ideas are mulled over in WriteRoom, developed in iA Writer, then moved to Scrivener when they become the current work in progress. Until the iOS version of Scrivener is available I can also sync my projects between devices using the “sync with external folder” feature. As well as in Scrivener itself, these files can then be edited or reviewed in WriteRoom or Writer on my iOS devices.
WriteRoom could easily be used on its own for the above processes, but I’m a fan of Writer’s interface and its iCloud syncing. Creation of and searching for text notes in nvALT is quick and easy, and there is a clear chain of development for fiction texts.
This is all far simpler and consistent than my previous attempts at file organisation, increases differentiation, and is much more intuitive for me.
UPDATE – 27/06/12: I’m now using Brett Terpstra‘s Marked to preview files in Markdown. Marked has a great many output options, including the ability to export to PDF – a feature I’ve already found useful in, for example, creating a cheat sheet for my Keyboard Maestro shortcuts.