Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Behind the Books: Getting Organized

Back in December and January, I wrote a series of posts about how a book project begins for me—getting the idea, deciding if I really want to pursue it, the different kinds of research I do, etc. But I didn’t go into specifics about how I organize my research.

This is a question third and fourth graders ask me all the time during school visits. Well, actually, it’s usually their teacher or librarian who asks. But the kids pay close attention to my answer because they are working on their first reports, and many are struggling to sort and arrange the material they’ve collected. Recently, a fellow children’s book writer asked the same question, so I thought I’d attempt to answer it here.

There was a time—not that long ago, actually—when I took all my notes longhand. Then I hunted for the bits I knew I wanted to include in my manuscript and sorted the information using a system of index cards. Sure, it was cumbersome, but there didn’t seem to be a better way.

Remember, I grew up in the era before computers. I typed papers on an electronic typewriter until my junior year in college. Then I switched to a word processing program offered on terminals connect to a mainframe. I had to go to another building to get my printouts.

But those days are over, and when I describe them nostalgically to elementary students, they look at me like I must remember the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth. They’re looking for a twenty-first century solution to their problem, and so I give them one.

For the last few years, I’ve typed all my notes directly into the computer as I read source material, as I interview scientists, etc. Eventually, I end up with 20, 30, 40 or more pages of notes typed single space in no particular order. I save that research file, and then I open a new file and start to cut and paste.

First, I move all the bibliographic information to the bottom of the document. Eventually, I’ll use it to create the sources section or for further reading list, depending on the publisher’s house style.

Then I start moving around the information from various sources, adding page breaks to create visual separations between the material that will be discussed in different chapters or sections of the book. As I’m re-reading the information, I am also tinkering with outline ideas, which I’m writing longhand on a piece of paper. The outline helps me stay on track. Without it, I’m sure all the information would overwhelm me

As I cut and paste, cut and paste, I start to notice redundant information, so I delete it. In some cases, I see statistics that disagree. If no source seems more authoritative or up-to-date than the others, I look for the best possible source elsewhere or I contact an expert and ask for clarification.

Eventually I’m left with perhaps half or one-third as many notes, and that information is lumped into what I expect will become chapters or sections of the books. (No worries if I realize I’ve accidentally deleted too much. I still have a separate file with all my research that I can go back to. Thanks to Word’s search option, it’s easy to find exactly what I need.)

Then I begin writing. During this phase of the process, I usually discover some holes in my research. After all, it’s hard to anticipate everything I’ll need ahead of time. When that happens, I stop writing and do more research until I have the information I need. Sometimes I discover the information I’m hoping for isn’t available. Then I have to rework my outline to work around the problem.

There might be better, more efficient ways to organize research, but this is the system that works best for me right now.


  1. Thanks for this post, Melissa. Reading how others "do it" is helpful for me. As I read about other writer's systems, I file all of the ideas in my brain and then use the ones that suit me best when I sit down to work.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Melissa! It's always interesting to read about how others do it. I've experimented with several systems, but my favorite is very similar to yours. There are fancier tools out there, but this way is simple and straightforward and works for me!

  3. Michelle and Laurie,

    I'm glad to hear that you found the post useful. Organizing reseach materials can be challenging.