Friday, November 7, 2008

Getting Organized

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Randi Miller, the only female U.S. wrestler to win a medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Randi is considering writing a book about her experiences as a woman who’s succeeding in a traditionally male sport, and she asked me for tips on how to get organized. As I e-mailed her my thoughts, it struck me that getting organized might also be an appropriate topic for this blog.

Organization is really important when I write. I do a lot of library research, and before I start writing, I make folders dedicated to different aspects of the story. One example: for the biography I just finished about journalist Nellie Bly, the folders included: About Nellie, Nellie’s Writing, Other Articles, Quotes (Nellie's), Back Matter, Possible Photos, and Memos and Correspondence (mine, about the book). I organize my research by putting everything that I have into the appropriate folders so as I write, I have all the notes and photocopies where I can find them. I keep the folders in a vertical file on the floor next to my desk, within arm's length of my computer keyboard.

I go through this research several times, including once to try and come up with an outline for the book. Will it be chronological or thematic? How will each chapter flow into the other? For a biography, the decision to approach the story chronologically is almost automatic. For my book on women’s sports history, Winning Ways, I originally planned to focus on themes until my editor convinced me otherwise. In the end, I used chronological chapters, but I made sure to touch on ongoing themes such as the media’s reaction to women in sports in different eras and the evolution of the clothes and equipment available to female athletes.

No matter what I plan to write, doing an outline helps. After it’s finished, I sometimes have to make adjustments in my file folders to better match the chapters of the book. I also figure out what additional research I need to do. I may want to interview experts on my topic, and I'll probably need to do more library research. These days, the Internet is an increasingly important research tool. Just last week, I learned that my weekend subscription to the New York Times makes me eligible to download up to 100 articles each month from the paper’s 157-year archive—-for FREE. What an invaluable resource for someone who writes about U.S. history! (If you don’t have a subscription, you can still download articles at a rate of one for $3.95 or 10 for $15.95.)

When any additional research is done, I start writing. Each time I come to a new chapter, I look through its folder and list topics or anecdotes I want to include. I check these off after I write them into the narrative. Sometimes I forget to include one. If that happens, I have to determine if it really needs to be in that chapter, if it can go somewhere else, or if it's not necessary at all. Another alternative is to set aside the anecdote to use in a caption. This process continues until I've written the whole book.

Occasionally, I’ll take an initial stab at a book topic by writing an article on some aspect of it. I did that several times with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League before starting on my book, A Whole New Ball Game. I wrote about the league for Scholastic Search magazine (an article on how World War II led to its formation), for Scholastic MATH Magazine (an article on women's versus men's batting averages), and for the Sunday magazine of the California Daily News (profiles of several California players). It’s an excellent way to delve into a subject without having to plan out an entire book, and the freelance fees help pay some bills along the way.


teacherninja said...

Man, I love this blog.

Jane Heitman Healy said...

This post is a keeper--a great method for organizing any kind of material. Thanks so much.


Notes from a Virtual Easel said...

Great post! Many practical hints. Thanks : )

Anonymous said...

Regarding the New York Times and other archives/databases, be sure to check what the public library offers. Seattle Public Library (my local library) offers that New York Times historical archive to all patrons; I can get all the articles I want at no charge. It's truly wonderful.

Thanks for this fascinating glimpse behind the books, Sue.

Cheryl Reif said...

Thank you for your orgnization ideas! This is a struggle for me whenever I work on a big nf project. I have a question, tho: do you decide what folder categories you need before, during, or after your research process? ~Cheryl

Sue Macy said...

First I do some initial research to come up with an outline for the book. Once I've got the outline, I label the folders and put my notes and photocopies into them. If there is research that doesn't fit into any of the chapter folders, I make other ones--for example, the Nellie Bly folder of "Other Articles." I just have to remember to look into those extra folders occasionally. When I'm searching for something I know I photocopied, but can't find, it's usually in one of those.

Linda Zajac said...

This is a timely helpful post for me too. My stack of research is getting larger and larger with each project and I feel like I'm getting inundated with paper that is too precious to lose. Instead of folders, I may use rejection envelopes (which are certainly not in short supply).