Quick Guide to Creating an Efficient File System

Writers accumulate a lot of reference materials.  We collect articles, old stories, handouts, outlines, project plans, pictures and plenty of correspondence with potential clients and publishers. Keeping track of it all can be difficult, but it gets easier if you have a good filing system. The system I outline below is far from revolutionary. Most of it is common sense and some of it is information I learned from Getting Things Done, the system I have been using to get organized. I highly recommend picking up the book if you want to get your work and life in order.

The General Reference File System

The general reference file system is designed for the long-term storage of information that does not need to be acted on or reviewed by a specific date. This system is designed to avoid complexity in favor of a straightforward approach.

  • Keep files in alphabetical order according to the file labels you create. Any system more complicated than pure alphabetical order dramatically increases the number of places you’ll have to look to find a file
  • You can group similar topics together by giving them similar labels. For example, a file labelled Profitability: Formulas would reside next to or near a file labelled Profitability: Tables
  • Unless a single topic takes up over half a file cabinet, do not create a separate cabinet or section for it. It is better to create folders with narrower topics
  • Create a folder for a topic as soon as you have something to put in it. The sooner it is filed, the sooner it is off your mind
  • Purge your files regularly. The end of the month or the end of the quarter is good time to go through your files and take out the things that are no longer important. If you need a reminder to do this, put one in your tickler file…

The Tickler File System

The tickler file system allows you to designate dates on which you will be reminded to review or act upon a piece of reference material. it is like sending your future self a letter. For example, if you are waiting for feedback due on a certain day, you can file a reminder to request a status update that day. An online calendar system can be used in a similar way, but it is more difficult to attach support materials and notes.


What to store

  • Time sensitive items
    • Flyers or memos about upcoming events
    • Forms such as tax forms or insurance renewals
    • Bills
    • Travel itineraries
    • Coupons
  • General reminders
    • Tasks that need to be done
    • Information on people you need to contact
    • Advertisements for items you might want to buy
    • Information that should be read closer to an event date (such as training materials)
  • Pick Me Ups
    • Pictures of friends, family or pets
    • Thank you notes
    • Old letters
    • Notes to yourself

How to Create a Tickler File System

Label 43 folders

  1. 31 folders for every day of the month (1,2,3…)
  2. 12 folders for every month of the year (May, June, July…)

Create This File Order

  1. The folder for the next day of the month (day after the current day)
  2. The folders for the other days remaining in the month in order
  3. The folder for the next month
  4. The folders for the days of the month that have already passed
  5. The folders for the remaining months in chronological order

Example File Order: July 10th (After the current day’s items have been moved to the in box)

  1. Days: 11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19-20-21-22-23-24-25-26-27-28-29-30-31
  2. Month: August
  3. Days: 1 – 2- 3- 4- 5- 6- 7- 8- 9- 10
  4. Months: September – October – November – December – January – February – March – April – May – June

How o Use a Tickler File System

  • File time-related items in the appropriate day if they should be acted upon or reviewed in the current month
  • File items for more distant dates in the month that you want to review them
  • Review your file each day. This needs to be a daily habit.
    1. Take that day’s file contents and place them in your in box
    2. Move that day’s file folder to the spot behind the previous day
    3. When you reach the beginning of the next month, distribute the items to the appropriate dates for that month or put them in your in box, then move the current month’s folder behind the previous month’s folder

About File Folders

  • Keep plenty of empty manila file folders in a location that can be accessed quickly and easily
  • Only use legal sized file folders if you need to, letter-sized file folders are more manageable
  • Color coding is not recommended. It increases the complexity of your system
  • Use an auto labeller to create easy-to-read file labels that look professional and are appropriate even for client meetings
  • Do not use hanging file folders unless you must. If you must use them, use them only as holders for single manila file folders. Hanging files are not convenient to create and they do not look professional at meetings
  • It should take you less than two minutes to create and file a topic folder
  • Don’t spend too much time thinking about individual file label names. The first thing that comes to mind is usually the first thing you will think of when you have to look for the file later

About File Cabinets

  • Try to keep file cabinets less than three-quarters full. An overly-full cabinet will make you reluctant to add new files
  • Avoid cheap file cabinets that squeal whenever they are more than half full
  • Avoid file cabinets designed only for hanging files
  • Use the adjustable plate in the back of the file drawer to keep your files straight and upright

10 thoughts on “Quick Guide to Creating an Efficient File System

  1. John,

    This sounds like an excellent system, but I try to eliminate paper as much as possible. Most of the paper files I have are old ones.

    Today if possible I save an electronic file. Most of what I do is on the computer, and what isn’t, I try to scan. I know a lot of people prefer paper files, but I use paper as little as possible.

    I just have to backup regularly and make sure the files are still in a readable format as programs and versions change.

    LIllie Ammanns last blog post..Guest Post at Confident Writing

    1. I am all for eliminating the excess. My files are remarkably tight, but I still prefer that they be organized.

  2. My first reaction was to say that is WAY too many folders. Then I thought about how many folders, notebooks, text documents, scanned images, etc, line the walls and floor of my writing business office, and maybe it would work.

  3. I use OneNote (Microsoft) in conjuntion with email reminders, as I don’t drag around much paper these days.
    A free program that is very similar to OneNote is Evernote (Evernote.com)
    I found this a great way to store my (computerised) research.
    For other things, I have a great diary (I use the QuoVadis Minister this year, and am very happy with the size, layout and quality of it.)
    For paper reseach, I use a big fat Lever Arch file with dividers.
    Your daily/monthly tickler files sound great, but I think for most of us one folder with 1-31 and monthly dividers will suffice.

    Great ideas though!

    1. I agree that many people don’t think months ahead about what they will be doing. I’m not sure that this is a good thing though.

  4. John, great system but how the heck do I ever learn to sort paper every day? sigh.

    Anne Waymans last blog post..1001 Ways to Market Your Book by John Kremer – A Review

    1. I understand the dilemma Anne. If it becomes a daily habit though, it usually doesn’t take much time. it is only time consuming if you le things go.

  5. Pingback: files, filing,

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