Keeping sane–a few writing tricks

In my last post, I mentioned my notetaking system for printed articles:

I make notes on the front page of the article with the relevant page number and a brief description of what I’ll find there. It makes it easy to skim back through an article to find the quotation I want, or to get a general sense of the argument.

In the spirit of sharing, here are a couple more tricks I’ve come across in this very long dissertation writing process.


In my last post, I forgot mention that I also highlight the thesis statement of the article, for easy reference.

I keep an annotated bibliography for each chapter of my dissertation, plus one for theory and one for the general topic. If the article is relevant for more than one chapter, I copy the entry to all the appropriate bibliographies. For each entry, I write a brief summary, sometimes quoting the thesis statement directly, and I add, in brackets, a quick assessment (good, bad, useful) and ways the article might be relevant. Here’s a sample:

Craig, Martha. “Negotiating Sex: The Poetics of Feminization in Sidney’s Arcadia.” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 31.1 (2005): 89-106.

Craig argues that Pyrocles’s cross-dressing sets the stage for an exchange of gender among the major players such that it celebrates femininity. Pyrocles takes on not only female dress, but female authority, and he gains something from it. Pamela takes on a masculinization (esp. when she’s imprisoned by Cecropia). She argues that the good characteristics of the king and queen would be better if used to rule together rather than the strict hierarchy that is reaffirmed at the end. Sidney “embraced this feminization so that his politics and poetics were a celebration, not a lament” (104). [Some good quotes on Gynecia and Cecropia that are mostly incidental to the argument.]

The benefits here are numerous: 1) I’ve got easy access to all the arguments I’ve read that might be relevant to my chapter, and I can refer to the list when I’m stuck; 2) the practice keeps me able to read quickly and assess an article; 3) I can cut and paste the citation into the footnotes; and 4) I’ve got an account of the ridiculous number of books and articles I’ve read for this project.


I print out a lot of drafts. Early in my writing, I often couldn’t find the most recent one. No longer! I save a new draft every few days, or at major deadlines, and I save it as [ChTitle]Draft[Date] (e.g., ArcDraft10-06-12). Additionally, I add a header to the document with the same information. To figure out if I’ve got the latest draft, I can look in my WorkingDocs folder, and check the date on the draft. This is especially crucial for me at this point because I’m working on a chapter draft and an article version of that chapter at the same time.

I’ll post more tricks and habits as I use them. But what about you? What tricks to you use to keep your information and paper organized?


5 thoughts on “Keeping sane–a few writing tricks

  1. These are wonderful tips, Amstr! May the dissertation gods rain many blessings upon you! 😀

    Your file naming convention is close to one I use, but is more elegant, so I’m stealing it outright.

    My major discovery was to keep a bibliography of things I had read that initially looked useful, but were not. I’ve been doing this reading in time-disparate chunks, with two kids born very close together putting a big hole in the reading; I’d see a likely title, go get the article, to find that I’d read it five years earlier and it had nothing to add. Now I don’t waste my time.

    • I too have been saved from re-reading articles by my annotated bib. I keep everything on it, and end up with quite a few entries that say “not useful.” For the ones that are very useful, I often mark them “see notes” and then type up a document of the relevant quotations.

  2. Thank you! Unfortunately, I have not had a good system before now and am forced to do a lot of re-reading, but I plan to steal these ideas. Organizational tasks will be great for my 15 minute increments of work!

    • I’m glad they’re helpful! The key for me has been simple systems that are easy to implement so I actually do them. The notes on the front of the article started as a way to speed up my note-typing sessions, but they do a great job indexing important quotations if I don’t ever get to the typing part.

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