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by Julie Hood

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Day Two:  Your Master List

Sample chapter from 
"The Organized Writer: 30 Days to More Time, More Money and Less Frustration"

What should writers do?  With so many ideas floating around in their minds, it's impossible to keep them all organized, right?  

Maybe not.  Today we are going to take a major organizing leap, and create a cheat sheet of the types of information you use.  The Master List Cheat Sheet is your organizing bible—it drives nearly everything you do.

The Master List is based on a pyramid scheme. At the top of the pyramid are only a few Main Categories. They can be subdivided into Subcategories. At the lowest level are your Ideas and Topics. You should have lots of these.  

For example, a main topic could be Parenting. Subcategories include Safety, Infant, Toddler, and Discipline. Ideas and Topics under Infant include Feeding Formula, Bathing, and Bonding.

You can see how easy it is to work your way up or down the pyramid when sorting your information. Did you find a newspaper clipping which describes bonding between an infant and his father? You instantly know it should be in the Subcategory of "Infant." Did you find a guideline for a new parenting magazine? Under Parenting, select the subcategory called "Guidelines."  

The beauty of this system is that the categories and subcategories are predefined for you, and stored on your handy Master List Cheat Sheet. What could be a thirty second (or longer!) decision about where to file has just been reduced to a couple seconds. You will be using these categories everywhere—in your filing cabinet, on your computer, in your notebooks—so make sure you like your choices and they do not overlap.


Grab a piece of scrap paper, and draw three columns. List six or seven Main Categories you actively pursue in the first column. Sure, you may have written brilliant articles on Horse Racing, but if you no longer write or sell them, select a more current category (remember Rule 6, Work Forward). The second column is for Subcategories, and the third column is for Ideas and Topics.  

Take your time with this exercise since it will be the basis for the remainder of your organizing tasks. Think carefully about where you focus your writing. Use short nouns, and avoid adjectives and adverbs. Use the list below to inspire you.  

Main Categories

Here is a list from which to choose:

New Age
Small Business
Science Fiction

You can also review the categories in Writer’s Market.  

Listed below are some additional main categories every writer should have:

Other – contains a few unusual ideas that won't fit into your Main Categories.
Accounting – contains all your financial records.
Queries – on Day 22 you’ll see how to use this category to easily track the status of your queries.
Manuscripts – on Day 23 you’ll see how to use this category to track your completed manuscripts
How To – contains instructions like “How to Write a Query” or “How to Create a Mail Merge.”
Reference – contains reference material such as statistics, grammar, punctuation, or online dictionaries.
Cheat Sheets – store your pre-made forms and templates in this directory.

Your subcategories should be short and should be nouns. Make sure they subdivide your Main Category into logical areas. Spend some time with this. The more accurate you can be now, the more time you'll save going forward.  

You need enough subcategories to address all your ideas and topics, but not so many you fill an entire page. In our Parenting example, "Infant" is a short and sweet subcategory, but it may not be detailed enough. If you've written fifty articles on parenting infants, you may need "Infant" to be a main category. 

Include a subcategory called "Guidelines" for market information you accumulate.
Ideas and Topics

The subcategory for an idea or topic should be obvious. If not, rethink your subcategories. Make them clean and simple. Scratch out, rethink, and pull out your thesaurus. You want the shortest words you can find since they will be on your file folder labels and in your computer directories.

More than Seven Categories
If you have more than seven Main Categories, you may be a packrat of ideas (see the description of a packrat on Day One). Try to focus more. Play a game with yourself to see how few words give you the same meaning. Or instead of using three columns, group your thoughts inside circles like a Venn diagram.

Start with your seven favorite categories to keep your tasks manageable during the next 30 days. Then, once you are an expert, expand your Cheat Sheet.

Ten or Less Ideas and Topics
If you have more than ten ideas or topics under a Subcategory, try to create a new subcategory.

Save it
Once you’ve completed your Master List, use the cheat sheet on the next page to make a nice copy or print it on your computer. To keep the Master List from becoming too cluttered, only the Main Categories and Subcategories are listed. However, if it will work better for you, create your own three column list with Ideas and Topics. Put it onto brightly colored sheets of paper and insert them into page protectors. Then place a copy everywhere you work. Until you memorize the list, you want to keep it handy. 

Two days down...and only 28 to go. Stay with me. 

Tomorrow we will learn the one secret tool every writer needs to stay organized. 


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