When I started freelance writing, I would write only one article at a time, working on that one thing until it was done to the best of my ability. Only then would I submit it and move on to something else.
There were problems with this work method, however. It was not very productive, and I usually had more ideas for potential articles running around in my head than I could effectively keep track of. I wrote those article ideas down, of course, but as each waited its turn, any relevant information that presented itself during the interim was often lost by the time I got around to writing the article. I needed to get my trainload of article ideas, along with their entourage of jumbled bits and pieces, all in one place.
Hence, my works-in-progress (WIP) filing system. Here is how it works:
I get an idea. When I visited Amsterdam in 2008, I came home with a trunk full of photos, videos, journal notes, cruise guides and other informational materials. I was determined to write my first logistics travel piece.
I open a folder. I write a working title (in this case, Amsterdam) on a manila file folder tab and place the folder, with any initial information I might have -- in this case my trip photos, videos, journal notes, cruise guides, etc. -- in one of the pockets of a larger expandable file folder and place it in a file cabinet in my office. (I use a manual file system because it is more readily accessible than a computer filing system and I often add bulky items -- cruise guides, for example -- to the mix.) Over time, as I come up with ideas for spin-off articles from the main article, the additional pockets of the expandable file folder allow me to keep these separate from one another and the main article while still allowing me to use all interchangeably.
I file the folder by relevance and/or observance to time pegs. As I did not intend to start my Amsterdam article immediately, and had several works ahead of it with deadlines, I filed it behind all the other expandable WIP folders. For example, Life In Action, a publication of the United Spinal Association, had agreed to publish an article I wrote about my son's spinal injury; however, the editor wanted me to make some revisions first. As the revisions needed to be completed as soon as possible, this folder remained in front of all the others until the article was re-submitted. Once an article has been published or I feel doubtful that it ever will be, I close that particular WIP folder file and store it in the basement. In this case, however, as I intended to write an inspirational article about my sonís injury using some of the information from the main article, I simply placed the WIP folder last in the drawer, adding to it over time other information that might be of use for the newer article -- instructions on how to write an inspirational, examples to follow, etc.
What goes inside an expandable or WIP folder will vary, of course, depending on your article, or, if any, its subsidiary articles. When I decide to do a spin-off article (or articles) from a main article, I separate all the information I have accumulated for my original article (all of which is in a smaller manila folder inside the larger expandable folder) into individual manila folders, but keep all the manila folders in the same expandable folder. How I separate the information from the main article depends on which possible spin-off article it pertains to. Keep in mind, however, that all the information in a particular WIP folder can be used interchangeably. A WIP folder on an article on saving money when renting a car that I wrote for The Dollar Stretcher, for example, contained only one manila folder because I had very little to put inside it -- my original car-rental receipt, notes from an interview with a rental-car employee, and research I gleaned from the Internet. There were never any spin-offs from that article, so I never used more than one pocket of the larger folder.
Sometimes a WIP file folder becomes so crowded that you may find it necessary to store it in a special container. A road trip through Big Bend National Park and its surrounding areas found me lugging home an inordinate amount of not only article ideas, but stacks of travel guides, maps, informational guides, newspapers and magazines as well. I keep this WIP folder in a cardboard box in the basement, even though it is technically an "open" file.
I add to the folder. As I acquire additional information or materials relating to a particular article in one of my WIP folders -- research, notes, possible markets and their guidelines, correspondence, possible interviewees, expert authorities, first or second drafts -- I simply add it to the appropriate manila folder inside the appropriate pocket in the expandable folder.
I sort through my WIP folders from time to time. By occasionally sorting through my WIP folders, I often discover other spin-off articles. Once my logistics article on Amsterdam sold, for example, I did another for the same magazine on Lexington, Kentucky. As this article was twice as long as the one on Amsterdam, I was not only left with an enormously stuffed WIP folder, but with nearly everything needed for more than 20 additional articles. So I set up individual manila files for each within the expandable WIP folder.
During this sorting-through stage, I clean out some of my WIP folders. For various reasons, many of my article ideas never come to fruition; thus, during this stage, I extract those particular article ideas, along with all the extraneous information pertaining to them, from their WIP folder and store the materials in a cardboard box in my basement to possibly use for other articles. I seldom actually throw any information away.
I decide to work on one of my article ideas. I begin a new article idea in my WIP folder by first sorting through all the bits and pieces in the manila folder pertaining to the idea, determining what I will or will not use. Thanks to my WIP system and the fact that I have been adding additional information to a particular article idea all along, a great deal of the prep work is mostly there. This gives me a good head start on my new undertaking. It also gives me enough information on a particular subject so that I can begin sending out query letters.
There may be times, however, when another more immediate assignment crops up ahead of one from your WIP files. It may then be necessary to temporarily leave a WIP-file article waiting and go with the new assignment. That is okay. The fundamental purpose of a works-in-progress system is to keep your article ideas and all their pertinent parts in one place.
I close the file. When I am finished with a WIP folder, I tie it and all its contents securely together and store it on a shelf in my basement. (Some of the contents might be used for future articles.) I keep a hard copy of every completed article I write, whether I have a contributor's copy or not, and whether I have a computer copy or not, in a folder all its own at the back of my closed WIP folders in the basement. This way I know exactly where to find a particular article if I decide to send it out to another market.
There are many advantages to using a WIP system. One, as I previously mentioned, is that it automatically sets up future projects. Another is flexibility. If, for example, some part of an article I am currently working on has me stymied or has brought my work to a complete stand-still, I can work on something else temporarily. Most important, however, is that a WIP system permits me to keep track of all my bits and pieces of an article idea until such time I need them or decide not to go with the idea at all.