Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

      ~ Writing a Biography ~
      About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life


July 2, 2011

Tags: Research

From orderly tablets, serenity—my desk before I went on vacation.

      Since a number of people who attended the Compleat Biographer Conference in May requested it afterwards, in this post I'll cover the glamorous subject of filing—that is, physically organizing your research. Every project is different. Still, any good filing system will do three things for its owner, or comes as close as possible to doing them:

        • A good filing system lets you know exactly where to put your data at the end of your workday, whether the material you've collected is online or hard copy. This means that the places where you store any material, whether that's in online folders, a filing cabinet in the closet, or in three-ring binders on a shelf above your desk, should be as limited as possible, and as obvious as you can make them.

        • A good filing system lets you retrieve information quickly and (relatively) easily, without a lot of hunting around to find something. Again, keep it SLO: Simple, Limited, Obvious.

        • The right filing system for you will support your writing, as opposed to interfering with your concentration and focus. In writing a nonfiction narrative, writers usually have to shift frequently between the story-stream on the page and accumulated piles of research. This tends to disrupt focus. At the same time, it encourages one to get up and seek other sources of inspiration, such as sugar or caffeine.

      For the narrative writer who works from research, there's really no getting around this problem. But if you set up your filing system the right way, you can make the back-and-forth process fairly efficient and comparatively painless. I'll talk about my own system in a later post. Meanwhile, below are my personal rules for myself. Every one is the proud product of years of doing the opposite, and even now I don't always listen to my own advice (as the above photo of my desk, taken just before I went on vacation, demonstrates). But I do observe most of these rules, most of the time:

        1. File items where you're most likely to look for them. Perfecting your design may take a while, but don't give up! If you file items where you know you'll find them again, you'll be happy with your files and they'll be happy with you.

        2. Keep categories simple, and don't start making subcategories just because you can. You shouldn't need to look for an item in more than one electronic or hard-copy file or folder, and more than two is the kiss of death. So avoid creating additional folders in preference to cleaning out what you have (see #6). Cross-reference instead (see also #8, "Avoid duplicating"), indicating the main entry and its location at the beginning of an online entry or a printout. For hard-copy folders, indicate cross-referencing on the outsides of both folders.

        3. File regularly. Don't let research pile up (see photo of desk, above). Try to establish a daily or weekly routine. If it doesn't take, just keep on trying. It's like exercise: at first you do it because you can't stand yourself if you don't. Then you do it because it's rewarding. Then you do it because you can't remember when you didn't do it.

        4. Give online files titles with at least one unique keyword, preferably a unique keyword you won't forget. Three years from now, when you're searching for something that's lost in the subspace of your hard drive, you'll thank yourself.

        5. As far as possible, match the names of your hard-copy folders with the names of electronic files (or vice-versa, if your research is primarily in hard copy).

        6. Revisit your filing system as needed. Biography in particular is a complex, long-term project and most biographers have to tweak their system every couple of years—cleanse folders of outdated printed matter, change a category name to something more useful, etc. Huge time-saver: put the editorial symbol for "delete" followed by the date after which you can discard the item on all hard copy: day/month/year. That way you won't have to re-read it in order to know whether it's okay to throw it out or not.

        7. Date everything! Date printouts (date and time), hand-written drafts, notes scrawled on napkins at Starbucks. Write down the date you read books and articles—and, of course, when you accessed something online. When you create a file, put "Last Updated On:" in the top right corner of every electronic file so you know instantly when you last added to it. Put "Printout On:" in the upper left corner of the first page of every file and in the headers of subsequent pages, and insert the time and date from the "Insert" menu of your word processor, so you'll never be confused about which printout is the most recent.

        And more: date cross-references in files. Date conclusions and interpretations so you'll always know what your most recent thinking was. Date EVERYTHING. This habit will save you hours or even days of confusion and frustration when you need to figure out whether something is the most recent version of your thinking or your research findings.

        8. Avoid duplicating! Duplicate files are the primrose path to madness. If there's a file in a separate location that you need to access frequently, use a shortcut (Windows) or an alias (Mac). Shortcuts are also helpful as reminders when there are files in other locations that you'll need to consult when writing about that topic.

    Click here to see all my posts on organizing your research.


    1. August 25, 2011 8:13 PM EDT
      Thanks for sharing these tips-- they're very useful, even to a seasoned researcher like me.
      - Elsa
    2. August 25, 2011 9:10 PM EDT
        Someone said that a contract is a record of many bad experiences--ditto my list of "rules" for myself. I do think that it's sometimes a good idea to get back to the basics, so I'm really glad you find them useful.
        - Dona
      • October 4, 2011 12:25 PM EDT
          Dona, your session at last year's BIO conference was great and I'm waiting eagerly for the next installment of your blog on filing and organizing. I'm pretty sure you promised more.
          - Carol Sklenicka
        • October 4, 2011 1:32 PM EDT
            Vay is mir. I know. I did. I promised more. I will post "Part 3" in a couple of weeks. It isn't mere sloth: my scanner has been down, and I haven't been able to fix it. Soon as I can do that, I'll scan the screen shots I need to illustrate the posts I want to put up. Thank you for prodding me!
            - Dona Munker

              The disciple of a famous sculptor came upon his master carving an elephant from a huge, shapeless chunk of stone. "Master," cried the disciple, "What splendor! What realism! What insight! How do you do it?" "Simple," replied the sculptor. "You just cut away everything that isn't elephant."

              Stalking the Elephant is a blog about creating an elephant from a chunk of stone, a.k.a. writing a biography.

              It's also about the biographer's writing life (well, mine, anyway) and a work in progress, SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE. This is an intimate reconstruction of the life of SARA BARD FIELD, a World War One-era minister's wife, suffragist, and poet, and her extraordinary affair with an outspoken attorney, philosophical anarchist, and Renaissance man CHARLES ERSKINE SCOTT WOOD.

          Subscribing is easy.

              This couple takes up a lot of time (not to mention a lot of oxygen), and since I don't have a regular posting schedule, the best way to receive updates is to sign up to be notified when I post something new.

               Here's how: On the blog page, click on the RSS button of your browser. (In Firefox: Go to the Bookmarks menu and select "Subscribe to This Page.") You can then check to see if there's been an update in the RSS feed of your browser's toolbar.

          Visit the RESOURCES page and take advantage of a growing list of links, blogs, and books for anyone interested in biography and writing lives.

            Sidebar Photo Credit: Elephant Country Web

            Notice of Copyright:

                 All material on this website Copyright © 2005-2015 by Dona Munker except where expressly stated or contributed by others. Copying, altering, or reproducing this material in any form without written permission is prohibited by law and may be prosecuted regardless of the venue or purpose of the copying.

            (Back to top)