Writers Guild Foundation Archivist Hilary Swett shows you how to take inventory of, organize, and preserve your written work.


Did you miss the recent virtual seminar, Telling Your Own Story: A Workshop for Writers on Creating Your Personal Archive?

Presented by WGAW’s Writers Education Committee and Writers Guild Foundation, this informative workshop details the best approaches and methods for writers to care for their work. Archivist Hilary Swett leads writers, step by step, through the archiving process: making a plan, taking inventory, appraising and prioritizing materials, and deciding what to keep (and what to toss). Focusing on principles of preservation and organization, Swett drills down on special supplies, digital files, metadata, long-term storage, and more, demystifying the process to make it less daunting.

If you are looking to take physical and intellectual control over your stuff, here are a few key takeaways to help you do that:

  • Consider your goals and for whom you are doing this. Could be yourself, family, or an institution. In the business of being you, you have to maintain your own archive. Know that it's worth it.
  • Break your task into manageable chunks. Start with one project or bin. Break your materials into smaller and smaller chunks until it makes sense. This applies to organizing physical material as well as digital material. Items can be organized based on date, type of items, project-based, etc.

    Treat any effort as a productive one. Doing anything is better than doing nothing!

  • Stay focused. Resist the urge to walk down memory lane.
  • Only focus on stuff that has long-term value to you. Appraise records and only keep what might have value to you or someone else. This will be different for every person but deciding what to discard is an important part of the process. Aim for Marie Kondo-style decluttering rather than the warehouse in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    As a writer, you have lots of research and drafts and variations of your work. Make sure you are sending people what you mean to send and saving what you mean to save.

  • As you work, create a simple inventory and include physical or digital locations. Write down decisions or explanations of things that will be helpful to others or your future self. This can be on paper or saved as a digital text file in the relevant folder(s). Dates are important here.
  • Preserve your physical materials. Common sense applies: keep the material in a dark, stable, temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Protect from hazards such as chemicals, pests, sun, and water or rain. Storage indoors is better than outside in a shed. You generally don't need to purchase special boxes and folders but they are available if you want.

    You could always scan/digitize paper, photos, movies, etc. as a way of preserving the content. Old analog recordings and files from defunct computers, hard drives, CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, etc. could potentially be salvaged and put into a usable format—by you or by a professional vendor.

  • Take active steps to manage important digital files. Digital files are not going to last forever and can become unreadable given a long enough time span. They don’t have long-term stability like paper and you don't know what you will be able to open and read in the future. Your important digital files demand long-term management and periodic “migration” from one file type to another, newer file type. This is where appraisal becomes important.

    Documents look different depending on what operating system, computer, or program is used to open them. For text, PDF is a very stable format, ubiquitous and reliable.

  • Create descriptive, consistent filenames based on content. You should be able to guess what a file is without opening it. Consider including years or dates. Avoid special characters. Underscores are useful as spacers. Impose some hierarchical structure to your digital folders, just as you would paper.
  • Have three copies and keep them in different geographic locations. Your laptop has the original material. The cloud can be your backup and an external drive. Even better is an external drive that you keep in a different location from your home or office.

Watch the video of the workshop on the WGAW’s YouTube channel.