Whether you’re a doctoral student writing a dissertation or an undergraduate working on a thesis, you’re confronting an organizational challenge as much as anything else. This thing is mammoth. You’re writing something much bigger and more complicated than anything you’ve pulled together before. Conceptualizing a new project, scratching out the preliminary research and findings, drawing up a rough table of contents, or architecture, is hard enough. Just writing the words is hard enough. Working one day and one paragraph at a time, wherever lightening strikes, can help, but if you look up and search out the finish line on the distant horizon, the complete scale of what has to be done eventually can be intimidating, depressing, and make it impossible to put words on the page.
Don’t let your organizational struggles expand into an existential crisis!
What I would recommend is that you use a simple cloud-based file system – like Dropbox – to create a reassuring structure for the organization of every single thing you will be writing.
This means, in short, that you should be digitizing everything and push it into the cloud. No more file cabinets. No more manilla folders. No more stacks of paper.
You should already be doing this, in a way, for your working archive. Here is an example of the working archive for a book on Roger Casement I’m writing. Using this sort of structure makes it easier to find things while I’m writing and revising and also to find my own writing. Because we all write little fugitive pieces, and they tend to go missing. Learning how to be organized with all of this material has taken me a long time, but it was worth it. And by doing so – and by going digital and into the cloud with it – I bring everything with me everywhere. So if I’m in a hotel, or the lobby of a coffee shop, I have everything with me I need to write.
If, that is, the inspiration comes. If a grand idea comes along, you don’t want to wait to try to hammer it into a set of paragraphs.
Now back to the big thing.
You will have to organize all of this stuff eventually anyway. Eventually, someone will want the whole big thing in a rational order. Here, below, is the exact folder – a version of the “Chapter” folder, from my working archive – I shared with my publisher when I finished a previous book. Being organized at the start, then, also means being organized at the end.
The working archive is just indispensable to me now. With the help of an extremely sharp graduate student, I’d created a similar architecture for this same book project. And as the book moved through copy-edits, I needed the archive to make revisions, finish footnotes, and expand a few paragraphs.
One thing: for me, the “Scraps” file is utterly central. I know longer have a dozen drafts of each chapter buried in my email or on my hard drive. The documents in the “Chapters” file are always the most current, and are always the ones I’m working on. And the bits and pieces I cut out or revise away get pasted into descriptively-named documents (“Stuff on Yeats”) in the “Scraps” file.
The reason I think this particular archive is worth taking up right away – and revising as you write – isn’t just because it is “well organized.” The truth it, it also expands our notion of what we are doing on the project. People get caught up in the idea that we need to finish chapter 1 and then turn to chapter 2. They work on chapters as if they were the only discrete unit of the project that matters. But that scale is daunting. A chapter can be 25,000 words! You suddenly have to write 5 of them! And that is more than you have ever written before in your life!
So imagine, instead, that you’re working to fill all of these folders and files, a little bit here and a little bit there. Somedays you write a few paragraphs for “Scraps.” Somedays you work on a chapter. And somedays you discover a new collection and upload a handful of correspondence into “Letters.” The scale has changed – or flattened out, at least a little. And the notion of “progress on the project” has become easier to achieve.
Existential crisis averted! Maybe.
I also recommend sharing this file with faculty advisors, too. Assuming you trust them. It gives them access to the most recent drafts of your chapters. And it also lets them know when you’ve added or revised something.
Also, make sure that this particular archive is backed up to your laptop, your iPad, your phone, and whatever, and that the documents and folders are available when you are offline, too. And, also, back it up weekly using Time Machine or any portable hard drive.
Finally, as always, break down this idea of the working archive and improve it.