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?