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Write On! Ducks in a Row!

Encouragement, Coaching and Prompts for Writers

A monthly blog by Eve West Bessier, Poet Laureate Emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico

This month, I’m offering a little nostalgia and a few organizational tips to help keep all of our ducks in a row. We all know how easily those ducks can run amuck!

First, the nostalgia.

When I was getting my Bachelor of Arts in English/Creative Writing (1978-82), I started out using a manual Smith Corona typewriter. In my third year, I upgraded to a portable electric. The brand name escapes me at the moment, but it was a slick beige machine, possibly Italian, Olivetti? It came in a carrying case, so could be stored away while not in use. Of course, it was constantly in use. The nifty font ball spun around to locate the individual letters and slammed up against the ink ribbon with a fury, more efficient than the metal strikers on other manual typewriters, by a mile. You could also change out the fonts by purchasing other font balls. Corrections still required white-out fluid and copies still required carbon paper.

Sending a document, in those days, meant folding it, stuffing it into an envelope and putting it in the US mail, unless you were near enough to hand-deliver it to the recipient. Organizing and keeping track of your paper documents required putting them into Manila file folders with stick on labels, and then into metal filing cabinets that contained Pendaflex folders with plastic-covered labels. Those Manila folders, by the way, are called Manila because the rough, buff-colored paper was originally made from the Manila hemp ropes used by sailing vessels, and that hemp was grown in the Philippines. Interesting fact. I used to have quite a few of those folders in tall, heavy filing cabinets in my office. Now, I have no filing cabinets and maybe just one pack of Manila folders, somewhere.

When I went to graduate school (1988-90) I was given the use of a university computer. It was an IBM and used MS DOS. Remember those? A black screen with either burnt sienna or sickly green letters. Luckily, mine were burnt sienna. Files were saved onto floppy discs, which were genuinely floppy and the size of a sandwich. Towards the end of my graduate school days, I bought my own Mac Classic, on which I did my thesis. That cute tiny screen did not do wonders for my eyesight. Files were still saved on floppy discs but they were a quarter of the size and housed in small square plastic cases, a smart improvement over their vulnerable predecessors stored in thin paper envelopes. All of this personal history is pre-internet, by the way.

So, that’s it for the nostalgia. Now, on to the organizational tips.

Our current computers make creating and saving our work a breeze, but as a result, we can generate a plethora of files in the blink of an eye. Keeping track of them can be a challenge. We now have multiple electronic versions of our work in various states of editorial progress. As we revise, we create more and more drafts. Keeping track of which draft is the most recent takes vigilance. Some of my poems, essays and short stories have traveled with me for decades from one computer to another, through multiple softwares. It gets complex.

Here are a few suggestions that can help keep your ducks in a row, and make them easier to spot as they swim around in the big pond of your hard drive.

Always, always, always put the current date, including the year, in the file name of any document you save.

Never, never, never name a file, “Most Recent Version” without adding the current date. I’ve been guilty of omitting the date on so-named documents, which never leads to good ends. Especially do not name a file “Final,” without adding the date. I am a relentless editor and will often update a “Final” file, making that first “Final” no longer final.

You can find data on a computer file to see the date it was created or last opened. In Word, Libre Office and Open Office you can do this by going to Properties in the File menu. Needing to do so on any regular basis, however, is a drag and a waste of your valuable writing time. Why not just add the date in the file name? You can then differentiate the versions and find the most recent one. Voilá.

When I’m working on a book-length or other long project, I use an organizational strategy I call the Matryoshka dolls (Russian nesting dolls) technique. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I like the visual aspect of it. Feel free to try it, if you don’t already have a strategy you are happy using.

I create a mother folder named for the project’s title. That’ the mother doll, inside of which will fit all of the other nesting dolls. Inside of the main folder, I place a Work in Progress folder, which holds the most current drafts of all of the documents I am still working to improve. Inside of that folder there is another folder titled, Completed Drafts. Onlyfinished pieces go in there. Inside of that folder, is the Final Project folder, into which I lovingly place the final draft of the entire project as one document. I always create a back-up copy of that final document. Everything inside of all of these folders gets date stamped, por supuesto!

If you are sending your work out for potential publication, here are some organizational tips to keep in mind, a whole other raft of ducks, as they are termed when in the water. Most of us now use the submission platforms chosen by the publications themselves, the most common being Submittable. I recommend that you also keep your own log of submissions. Record the name of the piece, the genre, the journal or publication to which you have sent it, the date of your submission, and the outcome, when you receive it. Submission platforms are terrific, but not infallible, believe me.

Some writers insist that their old 1936 Underwood manual typewriter is still the best tool for their craft. Most of these writers are almost as old as their typewriters, though there are some younger converts to the old-fashioned ways. There is something to be said for the rhythmic sound of the keystrokes and the feel of the keyboard. Having an actual piece of paper rolled under the bar allows you to relish pulling it out with a flourish when it is covered in text. Plus, that page of work won’t vanish into thin air due to an unfortunate click on the computer keyboard in the wrong place, or a hard drive crash. Those manila folders with their neat little file labels are pretty nifty and the sturdy metal file cabinets can give your office substantial bulk.

While there is a certain romance to the old ways, I don’t miss those messy ink ribbons, or having to use SASE (self-addressed stamped envelopes) to submit work. Editing was a chore when you couldn’t cut and paste without actually cutting and pasting with scissors and glue. I did a lot of that during graduate school to make sense out of my mountains of data. It was time consuming and left me with sticky fingers.

Personally, I’m happier with my iMac, wireless keyboard and trackpad, but to each her own.

Here’s our writing prompt for this month.

Write a brief history of your own experience with the tools of our trade. Explore with nostalgia the evolution of your writing practice from the physical world of pen and paper to the information age of bits and bytes. If you are not old enough to have experienced the writing life before the advent of computers because you were already at a computer keyboard when you were three, write a piece describing what it might have been like in the dark ages before technology.

Plus, here’s a housekeeping assignment. Take a look at your writing files. Make sure they are dated. If not, add the date to the most current drafts. That is, if you can figure out which ones are the most current.

Good luck and happy duck herding!

Scroll down to About The Author for more information and check out Eve’s website at:

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

Eve West Bessier

Eve is a poet laureate emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico; and of Davis and Yolo County, California. She has served on the steering committee for the Southwest Word Fiesta, and was a presenter during two festivals. Eve is a retired social scientist, voice and life coach. She is a writer, jazz vocalist, photographer and nature enthusiast.
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Mimbres Press of Western New Mexico University is a traditional academic press that welcomes agented and unagented submissions in the following genres: literary fiction, creative non-fiction, essays, memoir, poetry, children’s books, historical fiction, and academic books. We are particularly interested in academic work and commercial work with a strong social message, including but not limited to works of history, reportage, biography, anthropology, culture, human rights, and the natural world. We will also consider selective works of national and global significance.