In my editorial work with new non-fiction clients (memoirists, local historians) I am often asked for advice on the best way to organise a large writing project, basically from scratch. The writers have been on the net, they have read a mass of wildly conflicting but nonetheless stridently confident advice about Workflows and Productivity Software, and they are thoroughly confused. Me too: it seems pretty obvious that there is no more one specific way of cultivating ideas and organising interesting prose than there is of creating a nicely landscaped and populated garden, and yet a fair portion of the advice is offered, not as possibly helpful anecdote, but evangelised as The Way. There is quite often some merchandise and marketing considerations in play here, of course.
I’m a pluralist about all of this: there are a thousand way to get your flowers to bloom – there is no one right way. There are plenty of wrong ways, though, and anything too rigid that ties a writer into an unnatural way of working is likely to be one of them. So such web advice is best read in the same way as Homes and Gardens: not as a canonical text, but as a suggestive and sometimes inspirational collection of different visions, and a way of comparing the featured Gardens, for better or for worse, with the kind of thing you vaguely had in mind for your own patch. It is in this spirit that I’m going to sketch a few observations on my own way of organising my writing projects.
Keeping with the bucolic metaphor for just one moment longer, I should note that “organising” is almost definitely the wrong word to describe how it is that I finally get my own thoughts together to write an article, or develop a larger project. There is no Workflow and I am not a Manager of my Ideas; instead I picture myself as being a kindly, slightly lazy, Shepherd. My thoughts are left to graze freely and widely in the field – sometimes well out of sight – long before they are corralled into smaller, more tightly packed pens – and even then there is always the possibility of a breakaway thought, and of straggling and recalcitrant ideas that need time and different kind of effort to be rounded up.
Writing a non-fiction book is actually very simple. You have ideas, you write them down, you organise them, you write them up (you send the results to your editor) thought not necessarily always in that order. I can only comment on the final three (or four) stages, beginning with note taking – the simplest of tasks – and then the value of subsequently getting some of these notes and snippets of prose into a central repository.