Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Benefit of *Having Had* a Day Job

For a long time I had to juggle a lot of things: a family, a day job, volunteering, and writing—first a doctoral dissertation, then books for young readers. In the process, I discovered something:

“Organized” is an adjective, and like many adjectives, it’s changeable. “To organize” is a verb, and like many verbs, it’s something you can choose to do.

It irritates me when people say, “Oh, I wish I were organized like you,” as though it were something you’re born with (maybe some people are—I certainly wasn’t!) like being tall or left-handed. Not true; I’m living proof. I realized that in order to be able to do all the things I wanted to do, I couldn’t afford not to organize my life. Choice: don’t organize and give up writing, or organize and have the time to write? Simple. I organized. This decision served me well in the dissertation years and then when I began my real writing career. It’s become a habit, and even though I have more time at my disposal now, it’s one I adhere to.

Even though I’ve ditched the day job, I still have a time-consuming volunteer position as SCBWI’s U.S. Regional Advisor Coordinator. It’s been more time-consuming than usual lately, as I’ve been taking in and processing RA grant requests. But I’m still finding time to write, because I formed the habit of organizing years ago, under day-job pressure.

My top tips for how to organize a writer’s life:

Everything I need is in reach

1. Have a dedicated writing space, whether it’s a tiny computer shelf or a luxurious studio (still pining for that one). Do all your writing, research, cogitating, communicating, etc. in that spot. In an earlier post I said that I never wrote my children’s books at my day job, and never brought day-job work home. (Well, rarely.) Set up your spot so that you don’t have to move from it to get your work done. That way you won’t wonder what you did with something—it’s right there!

2. Don’t write notes on easily lost post-its or little scraps of paper. I have a white board next to my desk so I can turn and scribble something down without interrupting the writing flow. During writing breaks I copy those notes into the appropriate file on my computer.

3. Have a backup system. Back up all your files, all the time.

4. Respond to emails immediately, or at least make a start on a reply. If I don’t, I forget them. But if it’s a sensitive topic or one that you need to think about, save your reply as a draft. I don’t put the recipient’s address in the draft so as not to send it prematurely. Seeing that I have a draft waiting to be sent is enough to remind me to finish it and send it.

I just swivel my chair to see this
5. Label things. You’ll forget what they are if you don’t, I promise. This set of office mailboxes that I rescued from the trash at the day job is one of my favorite things, and the slots where names used to be are perfect for labeling each cubby’s contents.

6. Get rid of dead wood. This is what my math teacher used to say when simplifying fractions, and it makes a great deal of sense. Why poke through a lot of stuff you’ll never need in order to find something? Both on-line and in real life, excess stuff just gets in your way. You can always keep it—just get it out of sight.

7. Lastly, remove “being organized” from your vocabulary, and add “to organize”!


  1. Tracy, this is all great advice! (I write this, though, not in my office but in the living room--my new "office" since we got a puppy and she likes to look out the living room window.)

    1. I have been known to modify my rules to accommodate a dog on my lap!