Skip to Main Content

Managing Writing Projects

A guide to managing writing projects


As you conduct research for your project, you will need to keep track of numerous resources, questions, contexts, and more. The following sections offer some suggestions and considerations for managing all these in a way that keeps these coordinated and clear in your mind.


There are some fairly basic aspects to think about when it comes to organizing your project. With smaller projects, it is easy to simply store everything in one folder. When you are managing multiple chapters and sections each with their own questions and sources, storing everything together often makes materials much more difficult to find.


1. File organization

Good file organization is contingent upon clear data. You can neither place nor locate a file easily if it is not marked clearly. The data accompanying files that specifies things like author, source, date, etc. is called metadata. With PDFs downloaded from major databases, much of this is already included in the file itself; you may see these data if you use a citation manager.

As you assemble your project, think about where you want to store files so you can easily find them again. You might, for example, create separate folders for each chapter or section. A sample file path would look something like this:

  • Chapter 1
    • Articles
    • Images
    • Graphs

You could also reverse this order:

  • Articles
    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2
    • [Etc.]
  • Images
    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2
    • [Etc.]

Now, some problems with relying on this method alone are (1) if your chapters or the overall structure of your project changes or (2) if you have a resource that is relevant to multiple chapters. Solving this problem simply through organization is not straightforward; creating a "Shared Chapter Resources" folder then requires you to remember whether you stored the file in one of the relevant chapter folders or in the shared one. Further, if the focus of one of your chapters shifts such that the resource is no longer relevant to that chapter, then you would have to either remember that the file is in that folder or remember to move it.

To address these issues, it helps to have some meta-level management method, e.g. an annotated bibliography, citation software library, or outline. See the "Advanced Considerations" section below for more details.


2. File naming

Whether it is downloaded resources or files you create yourself, it is important to have files that are named clearly. Although much of the aforementioned metadata is encoded in the file, this may not be apparent simply by looking at the file or clicking on it. When you have dozens of PDFs you've accumulated over time for your project, remembering exactly what "1234567.pdf" actually contains is difficult. Accordingly, adopting a useful file naming convention will help you identify files more quickly and easily.

Some information you might consider including in a file name includes:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Date
  • Source

A sample file name could then be:

  • Zambrana_Pasarse Políticamente_2018

You could also consider including more individual data catered to your needs, such as:

  • Importance (e.g. focus of chapter/source to reference in a paragraph or two/footnote)
  • Associated project/question
  • Whether you have read the article or not

Here is a breakdown of an example file naming convention:

3. Coordinating print and digital sources

There is a good chance your sources will not all be of the same format; you may have a mix of digital and physical sources.

While the above considerations help organize the digital side of things, physical resources fall out of those schemata. Accordingly, it is a good idea to have some kind of organizational document that helps you keep track of where your resources actually are. 

The next section offers some suggestions on ways to create and manage such a document.

Advanced Considerations

It is quite likely you will need a meta-level document to organize your research. Whether this document is print, digital, or some combination of these, there are a few issues to consider when developing your approach. To name a few covered in this section: how to track multiple research questions; how to keep track of sources; how to keep track of terms, names, etc.

In short, what you will want is a way to track what your questions are, what resources address those questions, and what your own assessments of those resources are qua research material for your project.


1. Tracking multiple questions

Chances are you will not go about your project in a strictly linear way. Sources may be relevant to multiple research questions, sources may lead you down a new or unexpected research path, or what you thought would be a major source for you may turn out to be unsuited to your needs. Accordingly, it is important to have a method that can both track your various questions (and answers) and situate them in the overall project in a clear way.

Some suggestions for this are:

  • Outlining
  • Citation Management Software
  • Spreadsheets
  • Mindmapping

Here are some examples of each of these:

  • Outlining

A good outline will help you keep track not only of various aspects of your project, but also indicate the relationship between these aspects. Your outline might track questions, resources, quotes, assessments/responses to resources, quotes, and more. For example:

  • What is the basis for Library of Congress classification?
    • Created by project at Library of Congress headed by Charles Martel (1897)
    • What ideals and values informed the structure of classification?
      • “Universe of knowledge”
        • Via Bacon, esp. Advancement of Learning (Wiegand/Davis, 145; Lerner 132)
        • Via Diderot & Encyclopedists (Wiegand/Davis, 146; Lerner 133)
  • Citation Management Software

Both Zotero and EndNote have built-in ways to organize your materials. One way you could go about this is to organize sources according to what role they play in your research, e.g. what question they answer or with which scholarly communities they associate.

With Zotero, you can create libraries and sublibraries to organize resources in a manner very similar to what was outlined above in "File Organization." You can also use tags, notes, and the "Related" field.

With EndNote, you can use a number of features to help mark and organize your sources. Right clicking an entry, you can rate a title, mark it as read/unread, and add it to any number of custom groups.

  • Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets can make it easy to see at a glance any number of pieces of information about your sources. They are also extremely good for sorting. Generally, you would want to have categories of information in your columns and entries in your rows. Categories you might consider include: Name, source(s), relevance (e.g. to chapter 1 or chapters 2 & 5), associations, importance, etc.

You can read more information and advice on designing spreadsheets here and here.

  • Mindmapping

Mindmapping is a relatively recent technique aimed to help visual learners and planners organize their thoughts. A solid introductory (and entirely online) platform is LucidChart. If you enter your Emory email address, you can get access for free through Emory. Note, however, that you will only receive the basic version which only allows 60 objects per document. Mindmaps are generally very good at allowing you to chart out and visualize how all of your sources, questions, sections, and more fit together.


2. Tracking Sources

Books (personal, library, interlibrary loan), PDFs, images, film, screenshots, web pages, and more may all be part of your research. To effectively keep track of these sources, it is helpful to have a document detailing relevant information. For example, you could create a spreadsheet or document that looks like the following:

Term Date(s) Primary Sources Secondary Sources Associations
Library of Congress Classification (LCC) 1897 Remarks on Cataloguing and Classification   James C.M. Hanson and Charles Martel, Herbert Putnam, Charles Cutter
Herbert Putnam 1861-1955; 1899-1939 (head of LC)   "Herbert Putnam (1861-1955)" [LC biography] John Young, Archibald MacLeish


3. Lexicon

Since a research project specializes in a fairly specific topic, it will likely bring you into contact with unfamiliar names, terms, traditions, and more. While one can always look these up with Google/Wikipedia/wherever, it may be helpful for you to curate your own lexicon. A good lexicon will do more than just write down names or terms: it will give some context for how/where/why the term arises. Using any of the above methods, you can track things like where the term can be found, who tries to define or think about the term, what tradition the term is found in, what terms are related, and so on.