Organizing Chaos: Reclaiming My Research

I live in a state of organized chaos (don’t most moms of toddlers?). I am not a person with an empty desk at the end of a workday (or pretty much ever). My folded clothes reside on the floor for several days before they find their way into the drawers. And my piles of papers survive until I can’t stand to look at them anymore.

But here’s the thing: as disorganized as it looks, it is organized to me. I can find things. It all makes sense to me on a basic level. So there is a method to the madness. And the things that seem most disorganized are the things that are lowest on my priority list—things that can wait a while before I get around to them. My folded clothes can wait until I finish my blog posts for the week, for example.

And I am meticulous where it counts. Appointments on my calendar are not only written down, but color-coded. My finances are computerized and updated. My writing projects are ordered and backed-up regularly. My editing changes are tracked via spreadsheet and color-coding (and sometimes graphed for good measure). My queries are tracked similarly. To-Do lists are kept and updated daily (or as needed).

You see, I can only keep so much in my mental organizer before I get brain fatigue. So I focus my organization skills (which are pretty sharp when I bring them to bear) on the most important things in my life: keeping my family and writing obligations. Other things can wait until I have time to get around to them.

Unfortunately, I failed to bring my organization savvy to bear on my genealogy research. I have been doing genealogy for about 15 years, and have amassed a huge amount of data. When I began, I had no idea how complex genealogy could get, so established only a rudimentary organization scheme. 15 years later and over 2,000 files later, I have no idea what I have, or where of several places I have it. I know I have duplicated research, thus wasting time. I have just started a database, where I can sort everything out, find and delete duplicates, and then re-organize the files into a cleaner and more intuitive organizational scheme that will make things easier going forward.

I learned a great lesson from this genealogical tidal wave: Start a database from the moment you start researching a topic. When I research for future books, I will definitely do this, and thereby save myself a great deal of time and headache trying to find or confirm research.

How do you keep your research in order? Any tips to share?


  1. Scrivener is a great tool to organize a variety of research, including online links and articles.

  2. Scrivener is a good tool. Good product at an affordable price. I recently switched to Mac and I’m going to buy that version. I think it originally started as a a Mac product and then expanded to a Windows version.

    Another good tool I use to organize my pictures for my characters and for plotting out chapters is

    That’s got a free version that will allow you to make lots of bulletin boards. I have more than a dozen depicting everything from character emotional arcs to pictures of ppl who represent my characters. I did map out 24 chapters of a novel I’m working on. Very colorful and fun.

    And you can have a group board so that your writing group can use it as a central message board to arrange meetings or share info.

  3. Kerry,
    As a pen & notebook fanatic who writes longhand drafts, I’ve become organizational mainly courtesy of Levenger Circa notebooks. I suppose these are somewhat pretentious notebooks designed for the true office junkie. They aren’t cheap either (although Staples now produces the “Arc” system, which is identical in terms of design, so you can swap elements, and it’s less of an investment).

    The advantage for me as a writer is, they allow me to build individual notebooks for individual projects. Each novel has its own project notebook, where everything goes for the duration of the work. The novel I’m working on right now involves so much historical research that it’s enormous, and fortunately this flexible system accommodates up to 300 page notebooks.

    When it’s done, all the pages disassemble and can be put away in a container with other finished projects, and so you have all your notes, images, sketches, chapters, etc. for each book in one location for future reference…for instance, if you suddenly think of a sequel, or it’s the first book in a series.

    Like others, I’m a Scrivener user as well–for many of the same reasons. I like the organizational capacities of the program. I gather there are people who swear by Circus Ponies Notebook program as well, though I cannot speak to that from experience.

    • Thanks, Greg! I used to love being a longhand writer, but I couldn’t swing the time it took once I got into my Master’s degree program while working full time. I may check out the Circa and Arc systems for my genealogy, though, as I have a ton of papers that could use better organization than I have.

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