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From the Periodical Writers Association of Canada

Keep It or Toss It?

Barbara Florio Graham

I cringe whenever I hear a writer describe cleaning out old files. Which old files, I wonder? Are they destroying original notes they might be able to recycle into a new article, or out-dated newspaper clippings that might be hard to find again?

But I can sympathize with the need to reduce the accumulation that threatens to topple whenever you reach for something. I, too, have file drawers that can't accept a single additional piece of paper, books that are double-shelved, and bankers' boxes on top of bankers' boxes.

So what should you keep? And what can you (safely) toss?

Here's the formula that works for me:

Keep Forever:

1. Back-up disks (both software and your original work) in a fire-proof, waterproof security chest. Every six months or so, copy important new files to disk and store *off* the premises (you might find a colleague with whom you can exchange this service).

2. A "mini" portfolio containing copies of your best articles, a list of everything you've had published (with dates), and your complete c.v. This should also be updated regularly and stored off site. If you don't think this is necessary, just consider how you would recreate a list of what you have published (or what clients you have worked for) after a fire or flood.

3. Original notes and tapes of important interviews. I'm appalled at writers who think they're saving money by re-using audio tapes. There's always a danger that a tape that's been used many times might break, or produce a faulty recording because "ghosted" noise from a previous use leaks through. Audio tape is inexpensive. Use a new tape every time you do an interview (they're checked at the factory, so you don't have to worry about the tape not recording) and always put fresh batteries in your recorder (taking an extra set with you).

I transcribe my raw notes on the computer, then "archive" these on disks which I label with the date. That will usually allow me to find the correct disk by checking the date on the story file.

If an interview tape is very valuable, store it in a labeled box, and put a reminder in your calendar file to fast forward and rewind these once a year (you should do the same with videotapes you want to keep permanently).

Store all tapes in a cool, dry place. My house is air- conditioned, but the basement of a house without A/C is the worst place to keep tapes!

I have often found new markets for old material, sometimes in ways I never dreamed of when I first did the research or interviews.

If you have a metal blanket box (they're often lined with wood), put the blankets somewhere else and use this box to store your most valuable items: portfolios, copies of anthologies in which your work has appeared, disks and tapes, important papers, etc.
A metal box will withstand the kind of minor fire and flood damage that would normally ruin these things. This kind of box can often be locked, and can serve as a bench or coffee table anywhere in your house or apartment. I have a handsome brass one at the foot of my bed.

Keep financial files, including business income and expenses, receipts, income tax returns, pay stubs, invoices, etc. for at least six years.

When you finally dispose of these, keep in mind how much they reveal about you and your business. A small shredder costs under $50, and can sit over a carton or existing wastebasket. Get in the habit of shredding everything sensitive, particularly credit card receipts (except those used to claim tax deductions).


And that brings us to TOSS:

I set the following criteria for throwing things away.

1. Clippings when I'm no longer sufficiently interested in the subject to want to write about it.

2. Clippings, business cards, etc. for people/situations/businesses which no longer exist.

3. Anything readily available elsewhere, perhaps in my own spin- off articles!

File Unread:

There's another category, the pile of newspapers and magazines you want to read, but which you seldom have time to tackle.

I call this my "FILE UNREAD" system.

I keep folders (you may need boxes instead!) which I have labeled:

TO READ: Fiction/Poetry/Essays

TO REVIEW: Writing/Marketing Material (copies of writers' magazines I haven't had a chance to read, notes about new markets I've heard about but haven't yet investigated, magazines I picked up which may be potential markets.

TO READ/FILE: Non-fiction articles of general interest, which I think I'd like to read, and may want to keep in my files for future reference.

TO FILE - CURRENT: This is the box or folder I'll tackle first, whenever I have a few minutes to spare. These are items I clipped or saved because they pertain to current things I'm working on, queries I'm planning, or a subject of great importance to me.
The idea of filing something before you've read it is anathema to some, but a necessity for a busy freelancer. There just isn't time to read everything, and even if you take the time to read it now, you'll have to read it over again whenever you retrieve that file to locate facts or information.

There's an important rule I follow which helps me not to waste valuable reading time. If I'm going to read something - anything - I mark it at the same time, underlining or highlighting significant names or points. If I'm glancing through the daily paper, I either read an article that interests me, and mark it to file later, or clip it to be put in one of the "TO READ" folders. "Looking through" a newspaper or magazine without marking or clipping is a poor use of time.

Magazines get marked and clipped as I first go through them. If I don't have time to do that, the entire issue goes into one of the "TO READ" boxes. The last time my "TO READ: FICTION" box was empty was when I was in bed with the flu last winter...
There are other CURRENT folders, in different colours, which I label "CURRENT - Fillers," "CURRENT - Fiction," "CURRENT - Articles," etc. You may label yours differently.

I use these for clippings, ideas, and scribbled notes (some made in the car at stoplights) for articles I'd like to consider. Every so often, if I have some time (usually with my feet up in front of the TV at the end of the day) I review these and toss out things I feel are now out of date, or which no longer interest me.

Another contains things I'm gathering for a viable idea I'm developing, but haven't yet found the time to query (or write). A separate one is for the new book, another to accumulate snippets that will, eventually, be considered for the short story collection I'm working on, another for bits of poetry that may be completely discarded when I look at them again (but may become something really good, who knows?), another for filler ideas.

I don't know about you, but I never know when an idea will strike, and I'm determined not to lose any tiny thread that might be useful. So I keep a notebook and pencil in the sun visor of my car, in the bathroom (one just outside the shower where I often scribble a few words while I'm still wet!), beside the bed, etc.

I don't like to trust my memory. That fleeting thought, clever lead, great idea, elusive line of poetry - is too easily forgotten in the business (sometimes chaos?) of daily life.
These folders are like a treasure chest that I can open any time I feel frustrated, need inspiration, or feel writers' block descending.

The colour is important to me, by the way, because I'm a visual person, and know - without checking - that the blue folder is the book. The folder system also allows me to prioritize these from time to time, moving the yellow one forward and the red one back.
Once you actually get things into filing cabinets, another problem arises. Eventually, those file drawers fill up, and the "what to keep, what to toss" problem arises again.
My solution is not going to be much help to you if you're already facing this problem. But if you begin to do this with every new file you open, and every older file you sort, you will reach the enviable position of being able to pull old material from the back of each file folder and discard it without even looking at what's being trashed.

The secret is to create two folders for each listing, whether alphabetical or by topic. The front folder should either be a coloured folder or marked with a coloured tab. This is the "permanent, keep forever" folder, into which I place general information about this topic/individual/organization, contact names and numbers, an article or two that provides historical or other background information, anything that is unlikely to go out of date.

This allows me to find these pertinent facts quickly, without paging through the entire file of clippings. The second folder, which sits behind the first, is the "general" file. I place new clips in the front of this folder, so when I open it, I see the most recent article first.

When the folder starts to bulge, I pull our handfulls from the back, which I know, without having to check, is old, dated information. Because I never touch the permanent folder, I know I'm never inadvertently tossing that vital material I may need later.
The colour-coded "permanent" folder is handy to keep by the phone when a story has gone to the editor and you expect the fact- checker to call. There are all the contacts, readily at hand.

Colour comes in handy when you need to cross-reference between files. I put a note on coloured paper into the permanent folder with the location of cross-referenced material. No need to photocopy or worry about losing a small note in a huge, crammed folder.
Reorganizing your files seems like a daunting task, but once you've started a system that works, it will give you one of the greatest gifts a writer could ask for: time to write.

Barbara Florio Graham is the author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing and Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity (information from She has been a PWAC member for 20 years, and has written for hundreds of magazines and newspapers in Canada and the U.S.

Published in Sources, Number 45, Winter 2000.


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