How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Three: Organising Your Material

Organising your material is the critical step between research and writing. If you have orderly tendencies this should be easy. If, like me, your inclination is to scribble, stuff and scatter this is where you pull things together.
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Remember when you Plan and Research

You want to have more information than you “need” (remember what Hemingway said about the iceberg) but you don’t want to get bogged down in detail. Here’s a few tips:

-Go into every interview or research session with a list of questions
-Take copious notes
-Use a voice recorder
-Take photos (they’re great memory prompts even if you don’t use them in the book)
-Label your notes/photos/etc (e.g. “Jean Smith interview, July 3 2015, recorded and saved as file ‘JSmith 3/7′)
-Collect additional material (maps, brochures, clippings, ticket stubs, etc)
-Gather everything that seems interesting and relevant (within reason) — edit later

Organising is actually a step in the writing process. Imposing physical order by cataloguing, categorising, labelling, filing, etc creates mental order. Organisation starts the writing process before you type the first word. I’m terrified of writing. Organising is a way of conning myself into developing structure and narrative.

Specific organisational tools and techniques depend on your project. For Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers I used a tabbed file folder to hold miscellaneous items like business cards, maps, brochures, etc. I recorded interviews on a Dictaphone (or use your smartphone) and carried a large notebook to scribble observations. Each interview / vineyard visit was the basis for a chapter of the book, so it was easy to bundle information.

The critical step in my organisation process was typing my hand-written notes and transcribing the interviews. I’m lazy, so left doing this till the end. It would have been better to have typed/transcribed immediately after the interviews to A) preserve fresh detail and B) spot any gaps. As it was, leaving it till later meant I forgot some things, and thought “gee, I wish I’d asked…” about other things. That said, imperfection is a fact of life. It is always better to work with what you have than obsess over what you don’t.

On my computer I created a master folder for the book with separate folders for each chapter, plus a folder of “additional information”. For a more elaborate project involving a wider variety of source material you might have separate folders for video clips, music files, databases, etc. Keep a careful bibliography of any source material (books, magazine articles, etc) — this makes it easy to find references while writing and saves you the excruciating task of compiling a bibliography at the end.

Four Steps to Organise Your Material

1. File and/or catalogue all your physical material
2. Transcribe interviews, type hand-written notes, etc
3. Create a file system on your computer that works for you
4. Keep a running bibliography of reference material

Don’t worry about the overall structure of the book at this stage. Work on the level of individual chapters or sections. Your (writing) life will be a lot easier if you heed Jesus’s dictum: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow… Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34)


Share your organisational tips or questions in the comments.

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