Containing a Flood Tide of Information

Did you ever return from a conference (or finish a class, or—like me—return from an amazing research trip) and have so many story ideas, setting details, and other information that you can’t possibly use it all at once—and somehow, you need to keep track of all that information until you can use it?

SEJ2011 PapersP5202631

In case you missed all my hype over the last few weeks, I just spent a week at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in Miami and the associated tour through the Florida Keys.* Now I’m home, though, with so much information and reference material and contact info—not to mention all the great stories ideas I want to pursue—that I feel buried. Right now, my head is the primary indexing method for:

  • Hand-scribbled notes spanning three or more notebooks
  • Typed notes in Evernote and snapshots of displays that I didn’t have time to absorb but wanted to be able to reference later
  • A two-inch thick stack of business cards (and I only kept the cards for people I really, really wanted to remember)
  • Another four inches or so of brochures, paper reprints, and other written reference/resource material
  • A couple hundred photos
  • A dozen or more recordings of talks, presentations, and one-on-one interviews

Plus, if I understand correctly, most of the sessions were recorded and will be available (to SEJ members, at least) on the SEJ website.

P5172476How the heck can I organize all this information in a way that I will be able to continue to use it in the weeks and months that follow? That’s the question I’m wrestling with right now.

I’ve used a number of tools to help organize my writing life over the years, ranging from notebooks to file boxes to index cards to Endnote and Evernote. Even “folders” on my hard drive help to collect and categorize my thoughts, notes, and ideas…the problem is that once a piece of information gets filed away, I’m likely to forget it.

On the flip side, I really don’t like having piles of papers covering my desk—the file-by-pile method, which does help me to remember all the different projects and ideas I might have going on at once but  tends to overrun my office fairly rapidly.

I wish I had a magic bullet to offer—and if someone else has one, please share in the comments! But for the imperfectly organized among us, here are some of the techniques that help me to keep track of all that potentially useful information that I can’t bear to let go.

Step 1: Prioritize! Now that I’m back at my desk, and no longer in information-gathering mode, I need to assess what I’ve collected and keep only what I think I might actually use. The smaller my pile of information to organize, the less work organizing it will be. There are a few story ideas I want to jump on right away. The interviews, photos, and papers relevant to those topics need to be collected where I can access them quickly, not filed away.

Step 2: Categorize! I’ve collected several broad categories of information on this trip:

  1. General information about coral reefs and coral reef restoration
  2. Contact information for experts in a variety of areas
  3. General information about a variety of topics I’d like to write about in the future, like lionfish, manatees, and sea turtles
  4. Notes and impressions on my experiences in a variety of different settings and doing a variety of different cool things
  5. Publications from a variety of organizations
  6. Market information and research

P5202688 Step 3: Eulogize! Okay, maybe this isn’t the right word…but for me, at least, there’s a point of diminishing returns in the organization arena. That is, with my current haphazard system I sometimes lose bits and pieces of information that I wanted to track…but the amount of effort it would take to track ALL the information I find interesting would be ridiculous. I’m better off organizing things somewhat and then dealing with the fact that I might forget a contact or a story idea or a key setting detail

Besides, chances are good that the most important details are filed somewhere in my brain, anyway. Even if I can’t locate some piece of information in my collection of files and papers, I can probably recreate it with minimal time and research.

When you return home from a conference, class, or other learning adventure, how do you make sure you don’t lose track of the information you’ve collected?

* Why, you may wonder, would a children’s writer do such a thing? A couple of reasons. First, because I write nonfiction as well as those novels and short stories. I could bend your ear a bit as to why you should write nonfiction as well as fiction, but I’ll restrain myself since I’ve done that a time or two before. My second reason is that animals, science, the environment, and our relationship to them tend to feature rather prominently in my fiction as well as in my nonfiction. For instance, my most recent book—a YA paranormal—follows a girl who works with an orca researcher in the Pacific northwest. A chance to immerse myself in the world of corals, reef biology, sea turtle rehabilitation, and other ocean-related topics was incredibly valuable for world-building.

Besides, where else would I have learned that blood looks green sixty feet underwater? Seriously. I thought I’d gotten algae on my hand—but no, it’s just that the water absorbs all the red light before it reaches that depth. My blood trickled out a beautiful, spinach green. You can bet that’s going to make it into my next book!

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  1. says

    Sounds like you had a wonderful experience! Good look organizing :)

    • Cheryl Reifsnyder says

      Thanks, Kerri! It’s getting there…slowly!

  2. says

    Whoa, looks like you’ve got lots to sort through. Great tips, and I can sure use some of them for the piles of history research I’ve accumulated for my next MG historical. Now if only I could add a couple of hours to the day. Then I think I’d really make some real progress :-)

    • Cheryl Reifsnyder says

      Historical fiction is another of those areas where you get overrun with research if you’re not careful, isn’t it?! Have any tips to share?

  3. says

    Hi Cheryl!
    I’ve been meaning to check out your site for weeks (months at this point!) and I finally had a free moment at work to do so. Great job on this site! And I just wanted to say that I had a really great time with you on the Keys tour. I hope you were able to recover from your cold/flu quickly.

    All the best,

    Jess :)

    • Cheryl Reif says

      Hi Jessica, thank you! Yes, I’m all recovered from that awful cold, and I hope you didn’t get it–it was nasty. SOOO nice to feel healthy again! I enjoyed getting to know you very much, and I’ll have to hop over and read your Earth Justice blog.

  4. says

    Hands down, Microsoft OneNote is the best tool a writer can have. I’ve used so many other methods and this one is the absolute best, by far. Just my opinion.