In learning to write nonfiction, I’m discovering a beautiful part of it that I wish I’d known about all along. It’s something so dear to my heart that it makes nonfiction a joy, even aside from the pleasure that writing always brings me.
I finally have a worthy reason to use the metric ton of stationary I own to organize all my notes.
Organization when writing a nonfiction book is a whole other dimension than when writing a fiction novel. Organizing for a fiction book is like playing for the farm leagues. Nonfiction is getting called up to play in the majors. If you want to come at me over this, I’ll remind you that I’ve written and published four novels and four novellas. I understand the research, organization, and planning that goes into that process like I know how to make pasta. I’ve simply done it too many times to ever forget.
All that being said, let’s dive in.
I find organization works best when it’s a blend of physical and digital. No surprise, I am a hybrid in all things. So let’s talk first about the physical.
Here’s a quick shopping list to get you started. As you keep your notes and find what works best for you, you’ll likely add to it. But I’ll be surprised if you subtract too much from it.
One dedicated notebook.
Yes, you need a notebook, even if it’s a small one. No, you probably don’t want to keep notes in your writer’s notebook, because that has all sorts of other things in it. If you start keeping notes for your nonfiction book in there it will fill up too fast and make it harder for you to refer back to the info when you need it.
Colored highlighters are a joy. But they’re also useful to color-code things. More on that later.
Finally, there are sticky notes. What can’t you use these things for? I like to mark passages in books with them. I make detailed notes and stick them into research material so I’m not scribbling through the margins. (God forbid it not be my book and I write on it.)
Remember, physical organization has two goals. Capture the information you need and make it easy to find later when you need it. These are the bare necessities and can be had at the dollar store. You don’t have to be a psycho like me and invest way more than is required. (But if you do want to, I get most of my materials at either Stationary Pal or Jet Pens. Not sponsored, I just find that they have good stuff for good prices.)
You may ask, in this digital world, why take physical notes? Well, I have two reasons. One, I don’t have a smartphone. I have a tablet that I love but is sometimes cumbersome to whip out if I’m out doing research. Two, I still do my best thinking with pen and paper. While I even write many rough drafts on Dabble now, I still outline everything in a notebook first. It just helps me get my thoughts together. I’m going to stand by writing on paper with pen until my dying day.
However, there’s just no way I could write a nonfiction book without some serious digital organization. Here’s just a shortlist of things I’ve had to keep track of digitally.
Virtual interviews and email interviews
Notes from e-books
Links to sites
Lists of books to read
Lists of people to talk to
Essays I’ve written
Interview question pages
Source links (Cite your sources, my friends. Cite your sources.)
I’m using Notion to organize all of my information. (I’ll be doing a full review on Notion soon.) But you can use any sort of system that works for you. You can use word documents, google docs, Evernote, Milanote. Whatever software you’re comfortable with. The only important thing here is that when you find one system, stick with it.
This is hard if you’re impulsive like me. Because I swear, I stumble upon a new organization and note-taking software every week. And because they’re new, they’re shiny.
Not one to stick with anything that isn’t working as well as it can, it’s hard to stay with one system. But I’m not doing myself any favors by switching things up mid-project. All that’s going to happen is that I’ll lose precious hours of work time swapping documents and files over. And I will almost certainly lose something vital in the process. So once you’ve chosen your note-keeping system, that’s the one you’re using for the entirety of this project. You can try something new next time.
Finally, I have a few bits of overall advice for organization. The first is the most important. Start out organizing your notes right away, when you have even a single document. Do not organize your notes every month or week. Organize information as it comes in, at the end of every work session.
If this seems ridiculous to you, you don’t yet understand the work you’re going to go through getting info for your info. You don’t grasp how foolish you’ll feel having to ask to re-interview someone. Or how many hours you can waste riffling through audio files for the one you need.
Next, make sure that you’re backing information up regularly and securing it. You never know when something might happen to your computer or your online accounts. I keep everything backed up on a flash drive that doesn’t leave my home. Everything I do online regarding this project is password protected. It’s not that I think I’m writing anything groundbreaking, or that someone’s going to steal my precious work and publish it as their own. It’s that there are assholes with nothing better to do than mess with others.
One final bit of advice I have is to color-code your notes in a way that makes sense to you. And keep your colors consistent from physical to digital. That way you’re not remembering or tracking multiple color meanings. It helps considerably when you’re looking for something in a rush.
That’s it for this time. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about nonfiction writing that you’d like me to cover.
Or buy me a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.