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Organizing Information So You Can Use It

Freelance writers need reliable information, but they often lack the resources and organizational skills of a publication's editorial research department. Jeffery Zbar outlines six tips to turning vast stockpiles of otherwise latent research data into powerful snippets for your stories or leads for future pieces.

I've got this great system for organizing my files, my contacts and my professional life. If only I knew it better ...

I subdivide my Rolodex (two, actually—one by individuals, one by subjects) and ACT! Contact Management Software by both subject and name. I have a four-drawer file cabinet brimming with research and statistics on the trends I follow, all filed by category.

I have scads of bookmarks on my Web browser of links to sites I've deemed useful, and the tickler files in the hanging folders beside my desk have clips and articles about my specialty subject areas.

The problem is, I'm lost in this raging sea of erstwhile organization. I often don't look in these vast resources until after I file an article with which they might have helped.

Truth be told, I usually forget how effective and efficient a research librarian I can be—in theory. In actuality, I end up being pretty lousy at the exercise.

Here are quick tips you can use to organize the information you accumulate:

Regularly archive past articles that you've written by date, topic and subject. If you write a recurring feature or regular column, develop a file of topical information. Create a running "a.doc" on your computer to file news items, allowing you to stockpile information in one central location. Clean out and reorganize existing online files and those in a file cabinet every few months. Make a list of experts and resources in a Word document, contact management program or Rolodex. Every few months, weed out dated or useless information.

A stat here, an analyst there, an industry insider with a keen insight that might give my article that topical punch it needs to drive home the point.

All is lost—because my system doesn't have an initiator. In other words, my reference and tickler files don't have a tickler.

You've collected info ...
Freelance writers often lack the resources of a publication's editorial research department. Editors and writers I work with just send a message to their publication's reference librarian, and—viola!—some of the latest articles or numbers on some hot trend magically appear in their inbox.

Most of the freelancers I know don't have such resources at hand. But they do pride themselves on having a bevy of world-class information that makes them specialists in their chosen areas.

Whether they're reading an in-flight magazine, flipping through the Sunday newspaper or even taking notice of some piece of mail, they clip and stash with what would appear to be scientific precision.

Until, that is, it's time to reach into the precious storehouse and pull up that ditty of data that would make all the difference in an article. Then they trip up and render it as useless and empty as Al Capone's infamous vault.

"The key is in making a decision," says organizational expert Greg Vetter. In other words, decide what you're going to keep and where you're going to keep it—and then remember to make the filing system part of your professional life so you don't recreate the research wheel every time you need a pithy piece of insight.

... now organize it!
Here are six tips to turning vast stockpiles of otherwise latent research and data into user-friendly, actionable and powerful snippets for your stories or leads for future pieces.

1. Index your past work. Assuming you specialize in a certain area, create an index of past articles so they can be reused, or at least accessed, for information. This way, you'll have all your work—by topic, date, subject, etc.—at your fingertips.

Just open a Word document or Excel file, and start to log your work. Include the date the article was created, the file name, a brief note about the story and who it was written for. This also will help you track resales of your articles in the future. An important point here: Archiving must be done regularly, or it will become daunting to go back and enter months of articles—and a potentially powerful tool will become useless.

2. Develop a "topical" tips file. When my editors come calling for story ideas to take into their editorial meetings, I grab a hanging file called "SOHO Leads/Clips" and type up some ideas. Central to being an expert scribe on a topic is knowing what the trends are and having plenty of story ideas to pursue. This is especially important if you write a recurring feature or column, and have to think up stories with regularity.

3. Create a running "a.doc." If, as I just noted, you write a regular column for a publication, one of the easiest ways to stockpile your ideas or news for that piece is in what I call an "a.doc."

For example, I write a marketing column for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In my "SS" subdirectory in Word, where all my past columns are filed, I have an "a.doc." When an advertising or public relations executive sends me a news item, I either click and drag it into the "a.doc," or I straight type it in (assuming it came by mail or fax).

Come Tuesday, when I'm ready to write my column, I just open the "a.doc," delete those items I'm not going to pursue for the coming week's column, and resave the "a.doc" under a new name (usually the date of the week it is slated to run). This way, I know all of my marketing news is stockpiled in one location—making the process of filing inbound news simple and giving me a permanent repository for that content.

4. Revisit your file cabinet. It's great to have a powerful, insightful and deep research archive—only if you use it. Every few months, browse through the folders, both those online and in the file cabinet, as well as your Web bookmarks. This will refresh your memory about the data you've amassed—and the variety of topics covered.

5. Make a list of experts and resources. For some articles, you may spend a day or more looking for that one perfect industry expert or analyst. Why let that person end up buried in your archives?

Create a list of experts, analysts and industry insiders—indexed by category—whom you can turn to when a specific topic arises in the future.

This can be as simple as opening a Word document or creating a category in your contact management software or Rolodex. As I've said in the past (as recently as February), editors hire freelancers for the information they have—including the industry contacts they've amassed.

6. Cull your files—selectively and efficiently. Files bulging with years-old clips or reports burden potentially-useful reference information with aged, useless data.

Every few months, go through your desktop files, file cabinet and even your e-mail inbox to weed out dated or otherwise useless information. Before you toss that fax, report or e-mail, scan it for any person or organization's name that might be helpful down the road. Transfer that information to your contact management system of choice.

It's important to have a filing system that fits your personal information needs. But it's more important to live that system. Stay up-to-date with your data, files and categories. You may find that one category should be broken down into several more to aid in retrieval of useful information.

Now, I'm going to get back to writing my next article. I'll bet I already have some of the best information I'll need right at my fingertips?assuming I know where to look.

Jeffery D. Zbar is a freelance writer specializing in small/home office (SOHO) and teleworking issues, and is the author of Home Office Know-How (Dearborn Publishing, 1998). He can be reached via e-mail at jeff@goinsoho.com.

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