Ivory Tower Writing #23: Getting organized, part 1 – database and draft organization

While nobody likes to talk about their work process, especially writers, getting organized is perhaps one of the more underrated things that a writer (especially academics) has to do when starting or doing a writing project. For me, that means organizing my literature (books, journals, and even expert commentary), drafts (from rough drafts to pre-prints), and other stuff such as my notes, pictures, or graphs. Every now and then, I would sometimes have to stop writing halfway just to look up a reference. This constant moving back and forth from article to draft and vice-versa is tedious, although in my case, it helps me think better.

Surely, not all of my recommendations here might work for you. Since writing is a personal process, you should spend some time trying to find your own workflow. My advice here is mostly directed towards undergraduates, who often have to juggle different essays for different courses. In this post, I’ll show you how to organize your literature and drafts.

A quick disclaimer: throughout the post, you will see references to third-party software. I don’t get paid to advertise the software you see. I used them, in my personal capacity, and what you’re reading are my honest opinions of the software.

Organising literature: making a database

Good academic writing comes from being able to interpret and synthesize the works of those who came before you. Often, this involves hundreds upon hundreds of scholarly sources of varying lengths. A literature organization scheme should serve one main function: it needs to allow you to quickly locate a source whenever you need it and for whatever purpose.

One way that I organise my sources is to dedicate a drive (better if it syncs to the cloud so you can use it wherever) as a large library. There, I divide it into several sections. Start from the form of the literature, e.g., books, journals, op-eds, legal documents, or datasets. Then, create new folders specifying the topics of the sources. For example, here in my “Journals” folder, I have subfolders separated by the topics of the sources based on the keywords in their abstracts.

Now, naming schemes are also important. I made the mistake back in my undergraduate study of not renaming PDFs as I downloaded them. The result was me frantically trying to find that PDF which I was reading last week. Feel free to come up with any naming scheme you want. For me, it looks like this:

As I tend to often remember who argued what, I put the author(s)’s last names first, followed by the title of the article. I can then sort it by “date modified” just to see which ones I’ve recently read and which ones I haven’t read in a while.

Use a reference manager!

In addition to organizing articles in your drive, you may also consider using a reference manager. It’s basically software that keeps your bibliographic entries in one place. The paid ones, such as EndNote, are extremely powerful, but these days, the free ones, like Mendeley and Zotero, should be more than enough. They come with plugins that work with word processors, which allows them to insert citations and format bibliographies easily. Zotero, being open source, comes with a huge library of plugins. It does take some time to get used to, but it’s worth it. In addition, journal editors tend to encourage the use of reference managers, mostly for convenience and consistency.

Annotating PDFs

Most PDF readers allow you to add basic text or sticky notes, which albeit simple, could be quite useful. The sticky note, however, is where it’s at. After reading the article, go to the first page of the article then put a sticky note there summarizing what you learned. That way, the next time you need to refer to the same article, you won’t have to read the entire thing again (unless if it’s for fact-checking). Add another sticky note if you discovered new stuff on your second (or third) reading.

Note-taking software for saving websites

Academic journals aren’t the only sources that we use in our research. If you’re an undergraduate student in the here and now, you’ll likely start your research browsing through hundreds of tabs of articles, news items, and commentary. Bookmarking these websites is a useful strategy, but at some point, you’d have bookmarked so many websites and may forget whether you have read its contents. This is where note-taking software, like OneNote and Notion, come in. Just make sure it can sync to the cloud, especially if you’re working on different devices.

I’ve used OneNote for quite a while, but I just can’t get accustomed to its clunky interface, so I made the change to Notion (the free version should be enough for personal use). But the principle is the same: you’re creating a filing system for saving websites.

In OneNote, you could achieve this by creating a new notebook section, and simply dedicating one page to store annotations, excerpts, and links to the websites you’ve read.

As you might see, this is a rather disorganised system, subject to the limitations of OneNote. Notion, on the other hand, has built-in templates, which do much of the organising automatically, saving you the hassle of starting over from scratch every single project.

This the “Sources and Notes” template in Notion. Each entry links to a separate page, which when clicked, opens a pop-up window like this:

You can then customize this entry with the appropriate tags and other relevant information. You can also add excerpts and annotations in the space below the metadata.

Organising drafts

Ever felt the embarrassment of submitting the wrong version of the draft of a term paper to a professor? Or even worse, a journal editor? One way to remedy that is to implement a strict draft organization system so you’ll never send the wrong draft ever. Here are some ways to do it.

First and foremost, you would want a dedicated folder for the essay you’re writing. Ideally, this folder should be synced to the cloud to avoid depressing mishaps in the event your physical drive goes kaput for some reason. In this folder, you would want a subfolder for your drafts. Other subfolders could include relevant articles and source, which you can fill with the relevant articles/sources from the database we covered earlier. Then, you would want to “tag” your documents. In the example below, I tag my documents using square brackets which I use to separate them based on date finished and type of draft. At the end, I usually add a perosnal note in parentheses to remind me the status of the draft. “Reviewed” here means that it has been reviewed by reviewers, but I haven’t made any changes yet.

This will usually result in very long file names. So, you may simply want to label the word documents as “Draft 1” or “Draft 2”. The project file should serve to remind you what the draft is about. I don’t like doing this because when I work on multiple drafts at once and I’m trying to quick-open the files in Word, I might get drafts mixed up with one another.


So there you have it, several tricks to keep your many files organised without resorting to overtly fancy solutions requiring a Computer Science degree and knowledge of 5 different programming languages. Hopefully these tricks serve you readers well in organising your essays and files.

2 thoughts on “Ivory Tower Writing #23: Getting organized, part 1 – database and draft organization

  1. Great post! I don’t really do academic writing, but I find that even for fiction writing, organisation is super important, and I’m a pantser, even. Thanks for sharing!


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