Nice work – you’ve got a story on the go. Congrats! Now what? First, celebrate. Second, if it’s your first commission, freak out (just a little, to get it over with). Third, you’re ready to write. Actually, not quite yet… Instead, you’re ready to set up a few systems that will help you keep track of your writing. The systems I use to keep things organised are super simple, yet scalable. They need to be, because at some stage you will nail this gig and have a list of stories as long as your forearm.
So, with that in mind, here’s what I do when I get working on a story commission.
First: I add the story to a list.
Admittedly, if your list only contains one story, this might feel a bit silly. But trust me, this is just the start. Soon your list is going to get longer and longer, as you get better at pitching, and successfully continue delivering great stories to your editors.
Obviously, you can just make a list on a piece of A4 paper, or you could get a bit fancier and make an Excel spreadsheet, if you’re into such things. I’m not, so I split the difference and have a word document called something like “Sue’s current stories“. In this document I add a simple table, and use that to keep track of all my current stories.
The columns are usually titled as follows. (I tried to do this for you in a table, but my WordPress skills aren’t quite there yet. So I’ve gone with a list. But you’ll do this in a table. You get the drift, yes?)
Name of publication/section – Sometimes I write for multiple sections within the same publication, so I like to differentiate here. Remember, the point of the table is that it’s useful as a snapshot.
Story/topic – Just 1-3 words on what the story is about. It could be: “Ita Buttrose profile” or “Yoga, Perth story”. Short and shiny.
Editor – I like to keep the name of the commissioning editor (and his/her email address) in this table, just so I’ve got the contacts on hand and don’t need to dig around for them.
Deadline – Vital! You don’t want to blow a great opportunity by missing a deadline. This will seem like overkill early on, but as you get busier, it’ll make it easier to prioritise and quickly check you haven’t forgotten about an individual story, without fudging around too much.
Word count – Put this here as a reminder, to save you digging out the formal commission. I also add any other important details about my word count here. For example, 800w + a 100w breakout box.
Word rate – I tend to keep track of this here as every publication has a different word rate.
Notes – I like to include a little miscellaneous column so I can sneak in random notes which are actually important for one reason or another. For example, “She wants this by end of March but note it isn’t running till at least November.”
Payment – In this last column I note details I will need when I’ve invoiced. For example, once I’ve sent off an invoice (usually after a story is published – occasionally prior), I’ll write, “Invoice 1213 sent to Mary on 5/5/13”. That’s right, no MYOB or serious accounting programs needed. Just this simple little ol’ table to keep track of who owes me what. Has worked for me for years.
Next: I set up two electronic folders for my story.
I usually set up one folder for each publication and/or section on my main computer, as well as in my email account. Yep, two folders per story.
So on my computer and in my email account each publication or section within that publication gets a folder and then each individual story gets its own subfolder under that. For example, each of my columns in My Career have their own folder on my computer, as well as individual folders in my email account.
I like keeping things in folders. Honestly, I have no idea how people function without them wasting heaps of time. I still use ‘search’ a lot to find stuff, but far better to have it organised too.
If I’m working on a story in a given week, I’ll usually keep a shortcut to its folder in my ‘finder’. You could also do this on your desktop, although I like to keep my desktop as clean as possible. I’m a neat freak like that.
Lastly: I keep everything in these folders.
In the folders go: interview transcripts, audio recordings of said interviews, research papers relating to the story, any useful links to research, leads or interviewees (to keep this all neat I usually just start a word document in the folder called “Contacts and links” and dump all those details in the one document). Some writers use Evernote for all of this. I’m sure it’s great, but for me, this works.
Once that’s all set up, you’re ready to tuck into your research, start interviewing and figure out what should actually go into the story. Explaining that takes longer than a blog post. If you’re unsure of that bit come study with me here. Or if you’ve done that, and want to work on your stories one-to-one, book in for a mentoring session.
Do you do things differently? What systems have you found work for you when organising your stories? Let me know your own tricks in the comments below!