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'
So what should you keep? And what can you (safely) toss?
Here's the formula that works for me:
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
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-
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
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
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
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
email@example.com). She has been a PWAC member for 20 years, and has
written for hundreds of magazines and newspapers in Canada and the
Published in Sources,
Number 45, Winter 2000.
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Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
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