How to Organize Huge Copywriting Projects

We often get requests to write ebooks, and most of them are a fairly moderate 5-10 pages in length. Little ebooks. About the amount of information you’d get in five decent-lengthed blog posts.

But we also get requests for huge ebooks – upwards of 50 pages. We’ve also had requests for manifestos, white papers, and from one particularly memorable client, three books. Actual books. For publication.

These are all extremely lengthy projects. In an online world, such projects are not exactly commonplace. Usually copy comes in nice bite-sized chunks: a webpage, a blog post, an article, a press release. The short ones tell a nice concise story.

The long ones tell an epic.

It’s more difficult to organize a coherent train of thought through 50 pages than it is through 5. For one thing, there are more possible sidetracks for the train to take, risking it getting lost.

I thought I’d share my personal method for organizing much longer projects just in case one of you gets hit up tomorrow for a ghostwriting project.

First, Get Some Rope

You think I’m kidding, but I’m so not. Clothesline is perfect. Twine or string works. Don’t try to pull this off with anything thinner or less strong than twine, though. Doing this with embroidery thread will only end in tears.

Now get yourself a bunch of clothespins, some thumbtacks, and a stack of index cards.

Await further instructions.

Now, Get Some Paper

Or a computer document. I am indifferent. We’re going to be brainstorming here, and whatever works best for you as a brainstorming medium is okay by me.

Pull out all the information you have on this particular topic. This can be material the client gave you, material from the client’s website, independent material you’ve found during your own research (please, please tell me you remembered to charge for research if you had to do your own), and it also includes your own brainpan.

Using the materials as a guide, write down everything that might need to go in this project. Absolutely everything. While you’re at it, jot down any ideas you have along the way. One piece of information might suggest an analogy to you, for example. Write it down.

Take a Break

Go eat something. Take a walk around the block. Find an unoffending tree and kick it if it makes you feel better. Then go home and brainstorm some more.

The Break is Critical

If you skipped the break, go back and do it. Do not skip steps. This is your captain speaking.

Get Your Index Cards Out

Transcribe (yes, by hand, I’m very sorry) all your notes onto individual index cards – one index card per insight.

Let’s say, for example, you’ve written down that male penguins are the ones who warm the eggs (I’ve decided that we’re writing a book about penguins) while female penguins are the primary hunters (I could totally be making that up), write those two facts on two separate index cards. They may be part of the same sentence in the source material, but they are two separate bits of information, and you may want to use them in different parts of your book.

You could also print out the information, cut out each snippet with scissors, and tape it to the index card, but this seems like unnecessary work. I know some of y’all do anything to avoid seeing your own handwriting (I’m looking at you, Jamie-boy), so that’s an option if you prefer.

Back to the Rope

Get out your ball of clothesline or string or whatever. Run a length all the way across the biggest room you have available and secure it with your thumbtacks. If you work in an office and your boss wants to know what you’re doing, tell him you’re thinking outside the box. That always works.

If you need an alternative to thumbtacks because you don’t want to put holes in the wall, try those hooks that have adhesive on the back. (James says to be careful when taking them off, though, because they might bring some paint along.)

The Awesome Part

Using the clothespins, hang up all the index cards in the best order you can think of. If you have colleagues, get them to come in and help you organize.

Move the cards around. A lot. Consider. Move again.

When you have them into an order you think works, start at one end of your clothesline and walk to the other, muttering to yourself all the way. You want to tell yourself the story of how these cards bleed into one another.

If you find yourself at a point where you have a new card but you can’t figure out how to make a transition, you need to re-order your cards or find some new information to bridge the gap.

Could you do this without the clothesline? Yes. But you’d need a really big table and less sense of humor.

Go forth! Create lengthy documents! I’m going to take my rope down and see if I can still jump to 100 without missing. I may even try to convince the high school students down the block to do double dutch with me. That’s if I can persuade them to stop smoking long enough to turn the rope, of course.

Up to now, how have you been organizing your big projects?

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. I rely on my Wall of Whiteboards. Similar approach to yours, but less risk of deciding to hang myself with the twine right after the mandatory break.
    .-= Carson Brackney´s last blog ..What You Should Know about Content and the Long Tail of Search =-.

  2. My big projects you would call tiny little piddling things – compared to writing books they sure are! Whatever, they still needed me to organise ideas and topics.

    I’ve used excel – that was a pain, figuring out how to sort data easily. Index cards on the desk – ran out of space (and I am so going to use the clothesline idea next time). The best way that worked for me was signing up on TaDa List http://tadalist.com/ and using their reordering function to get things in order.

    I love the index cards on the clothesline idea. And I have previously been known to print out a list and cut it up, because I hate, hate, hate handwriting.

  3. DiscoveredJoys says:

    When me and my guys were planning to take on computer support for a system run by someone else we had a brainstorming session to identify all the things we needed to do.

    Each ‘thing’ (typically an action) was written on a Post-It note and stuck higgledy-piggledy on a blank wall. We identified more than a hundred things to be done. We then re-sorted the Post-Its into sensible groups (like ‘Documentation needed’ or ‘Identify resources required’ etc.). As we did this gaps were identified and additional Post-Its written. Post-Its were moved between sensible groups as the complete set of activities became clearer. Finally the whole wall was ‘recorded’ in a formal project plan (and I took some photographs too!).

    I guess that this would translate quite well into organising a huge copywriting project – Post-It notes = index cards, sensible groups = chapters or web pages.

    Oh, and yes, the computer project went very smoothly.

  4. @ Melinda – I think people like you and me tend to scramble around looking for the perfect system that helps us sort out all the thoughts in our brain. I know I’ve tried over 25 various systems, managers, applications, softwards, and yes, even boards – just to try to get SOME WAY of helping me have a nice, neat, easy to-do list. Something that feels like I have something else saying, “Okay, here’s your task, James. Go!”

    Ugh. When I have to think about the tasks and order them and set dates and ohmigod… there MUST BE something out there to help!!

    I’ve actually had the most success with a simple wall calendar hung a foot from my head. Left glance, go. Left glance, go.

    @Discovered – Post it notes on a wall actually sounds stupendous. More hierarchal and pyramidlike than Tei’s method of linear and step by step, but… yeah. And I have colored post it notes!!!!

    Oh man. I’m all jazzed now…

  5. Jodi Kaplan says:

    Love the clothesline image! Much more fun than a big, ugly spreadsheet. I think I’d actually use the post-it notes though (maybe I could stick them to the clothesline?), as I have an aversion to index cards.

  6. I found post-it index cards work well but I can see the potential fun in colored post-its. With colored post-its though I might be tempted to spend all my time deciding which color each point or action should be which might sidetrack me too much. I use a door to do my sorting of the stickie index cards since I don’t have a large blank wall within reach. I like the clothesline idea–can see myself outdoors in the summer laying out a project on 100 feet of line and amusing the neighbours mightily.
    .-= Elly´s last blog ..When not to publish a memoir =-.

  7. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    Taylor, I can see the clothesline now. Plus, the reference to double dutch cracked me up. You have such a fun writing style, no wonder people want you to ghost write.

    I start with a mind-map, then do the research and print out way more than I need. I circle the hard data in red, anything I might quote in yellow, and add post-it/index cards with my notes/ideas.
    I make a general outline and start building the book skeleton by making horizontal piles. To add meat to each chapter skeleton, I start adding vertical piles of the cut up research stuff, more post-its, index cards, scraps of papers, scribbled napkins… If I want to rearrange a chapter, I can just shuffle the piles. Then I lock my office door and pray my son doesn’t do any creative editing by turning on the fan or something.

    Each time I get a little better. I agree, taking breaks is critical to give the brain processing time. I also love having a friend help me talk through my ideas.

  8. Think I’m going to try this method! Sounds far more fun than mine. I’ve used Mindjet Mindmanager before. You can drag and drop your headings – which can be as long as you want. Add notes to them individually and then switch from a mindmap format to a linear format with a click of the button. Helps if you have a big computer screen though!!

  9. Actually, I prefer large projects over small ones.

    Most of my work is writing large manuals, study guides or editing them. I guess I am so used to them that managing several large projects seems easy to me compared to managing a couple dozen small ones.

    You make some great points, though. Many people are overwhelmed when faced with a large project. Thanks for these tips. :-)
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Are You Trapped in the Writing Web? =-.

  10. You guys must have more wall space than I do, or fewer people who absentmindedly sashay into the room and crash into the clothesline. I shut the door and spread the cards over the floor. If it’s a really big project, I organize it in Filemaker because I love being able to assign bits and pieces to different categories (by value lists), and I love the fact that I can make extraneous facts (such as the source of a quote) temporarily disappear by creating a new layout. I wrote a whole book once in Filemaker (it was on outdoor sculptures in NYC), just because I suspected the editor was going to make me reshuffle all the chapters and change all the location info at least once. … Am I the only person in the world who’s comfortable with Filemaker and can’t fathom Excel?

  11. I think I would for the whiteboards idea. I think that these are a little too much work, wouldn’t you think so? But interesting perspective I must say.
    .-= Click On Portal´s last blog ..Hunger Games Make You Crave for More =-.

  12. LoL I really thought you were kidding when you say get rope, then you pushed through with it! It looks like work to me. Perrsonally I’d just like to sit and think about it.

  13. I’m all for mind maps, coloured pens, whiteboards, coloured whiteboard markers, big bits of paper, more coloured pens.

    Whether I’m being organised or feeding my stationery fetish I’ve no idea, but it seems to get things done.

    Like Melinda I also hit Excel – but that usually comes after I’ve spent some time colouring in, had some juice and a nap.
    .-= Amy Harrison´s last blog ..Copify: Junk Food Content To Block Your Business’s Arteries? =-.

  14. It’s funny, when I’m not coaching I freelance as a Senior Producer in digital Ad and Marketing agencies in London, and I deal with big copywriting projects all the time. Sometimes these are mammoth websites for global brands, other times it’s finding the single perfect word to use in a call to action.

    What I always have to do as a Producer is to figure out the size and shape of the job before I can brief in a copywriter to work their magic. I’m the thing that works stuff out and then says “Okay, here’s your task, James. Go!”

    Maybe I should offer my services…?!
    .-= Steve Errey – The Confidence Guy´s last blog ..Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid =-.

  15. Enjoyed reading this.

    I’m excited to try the clothesline technique, it seems good to physically grab and move around your ideas. Post-its are good for this too, they make concepts seem more concrete.

    I’m a whiteboard junkie. Being visual I love letting my ideas roam all over the place in a trackable way. The clothesline seems like a great next step in that process of transforming the wild creative phase into an organised sequence of ideas.

  16. You can also expand on this idea a little bit for authors and students … use colored index cards and colored post-it tabs.

    An author can separate each character onto their own colored index card and then use different colored post-it tabs to track main plots versus sub-plots across multiple characters. Then you can visually see where you need to enhance the overall story, add or remove a character, or touch upon a plot-line.

    Students can use the colored index cards to keep topics grouped together (math versus english versus science, etc.) so they can re-visit the cards while studying and before a test. They can use the post-it tabs for when they have to cite references or notate items they think might appear on an upcoming test.
    .-= Chase Mann´s last blog ..Customers are whispering, are you listening? =-.

  17. I am so a white board user and index card girl. I write short stories so am trying to figure how to use the string and index cards for that. Maybe by Chapter? Right now I have found using One Note that is already on my computer to be a great source for organizing settings characters chapters but would love to incorporate my whiteboards and index cards. I can so totally relate to hanging myself accidentally with the rope, Thanks for the idea.

    Write on fellow writers.

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  2. [...] How to Organize Huge Copywriting Projects: A cute, clever and believe it or not, practical way to organize your data & thoughts before jumping into a big copywriting project. I love the image of index cards and clothespins. [...]

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