Decluttering Your Writing Process

It’s a new year, and that means it’s time to make resolutions, set goals and implement changes in our lives. If you pay attention to trends, you’ll know that the current craze is “decluttering.” This really took off with Marie Kondo’s book The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and this month there’s a new book attracting attention, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. But since this is a writing blog, I won’t talk about cleaning out closets; instead, let’s discuss decluttering one’s writing process.

But isn’t clutter a physical thing? How can a “process” be cluttered? Don’t I just need to clean my desk? Well, that can be part of it, but there’s also mental and digital clutter, which I discovered this past year…

Last spring my life became very busy, which is one reason why WOS took a hiatus — but we’re back now! Anyway, after meeting with a Life Coach who encouraged me to “put myself out there” more, I applied for new writing gigs… and to my surprise got them ALL! Of course, I wasn’t expecting that to happen, so I had too much work, but that’s the freelancer’s curse — we’re either not working enough or working too much, and just have to roll with it. It was intense but rewarding to work on a bunch of super cool projects (and update my Bio). However, months later when the freelance gigs wrapped up and I had a chance to revive my WIPs, I opened Scrivener and was like, “What is all this crap?!” I don’t mean the story (it wasn’t as bad as I feared), but rather the sheer amount of development documents in my Scrivener file. It was like a closet stuffed full of beautiful things that I was once convinced I needed, but now I wasn’t so sure…

You see, everything useful I learn about writing, I put in a Scrivener “Story Development” checklist. When I develop a story, I complete each step in the checklist. Except I couldn’t do that when I was freelancing. That had been like living out of a backpack on a whirlwind trip around the world — I had a LOT to do in a short amount of time and I simply couldn’t bring all my stuff with me. That meant paring down my writing tools to just the essentials. And when I returned to my full closet of tools, it seemed like too much! Did I really need five methods to write a logline? Did my character sketches need to be 100 questions long, or would 12 questions suffice? Did I really have to write a premise, a synopsis, and a blurb to figure out my story? Don’t those exercises all do the same thing?

Clearly, my writing process needed to be decluttered.

The idea behind decluttering is simple: keep only what you need and use. Redundancy is the enemy. By getting rid of excess, you’ll free up space — both physical and mental. For writers, that mental space may be the most important. Psychological benefits of decluttering include improved concentration, less stress, better sleep, and a boost in creativity (according to the scientific studies cited in this article).

How to Declutter Your Writing Process

Of course, not everyone is a Scrivener junky drowning in digital clutter, like me. But there are other parts of the writing process that can be decluttered. Let’s break it down into 3 — physical, digital, mental — starting with the easiest one first.

1) Physical Decluttering

I always feel better when I clean up my writing space. Evidently, this is a real thing. Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute did a whole study about how clutter negatively affects our ability to focus and create. So I came up with some ideas to declutter my writing space:

  • Paper Notes – Sometimes the ideas flow better via pen on paper, but that creates a bunch of notebooks full of used or
    Photo: Simson Petrol (Unsplash)

    rejected ideas that I keep around “just in case”. Thing is, I never ever go back to read them. So, after quickly skimming through to see if anything useful was those notebooks, I recycled them. Same goes for any annotated paper manuscripts.

  • Desk Space – Stuff like mail and dead pens pile up on my desk, and the solution is to 1) throw out dead pens, 2) create an tiny physical Inbox on my desk that I empty at the end of every week before it overflows, and 3) not keep anything that won’t fit into my desk drawers. Honestly, I rarely go into those drawers except for paper and pens, so everything else can go!
2) Digital Decluttering

It’s the 21st century and we all work on computers. Just like your physical desk can get cluttered, so can your virtual desktop.

  • Documents – I’m very organized about putting files for each writing project in clearly labeled folders, but I’ve been writing for almost two decades now and the sheer amount of folders within my main WRITING folder is overwhelming! I needed to get that digital clutter out of my face! So I created a folder called OLD where I put any writing project that isn’t active. Now, instead of seeing dozens of folders in my main WRITING folder, I only see three — which seems so much more manageable! I did the same thing within each project’s folder; if I’ve been working on a project (like Psycho Smart) for a loooong time, I will keep only the most recent documents visible in the folder, and move everything else into an OLD folder. I can’t even with how much better this has made me feel!
    — BEFORE —

    — AFTER! —
  • Messages – Whether it’s email or social media, unread or unanswered messages in our Inbox are a very real form of digital clutter. It’s such a big problem that I could probably write a whole blog post on this alone, but the simple way I’m trying to deal with this is to not keep any messages in my Inbox that are older than a week. So if I haven’t read that newsletter or blog before the end of the week, it’s deleted — and life goes on! And I feel lighter.
3) Mental Decluttering

I’ve taken care of my physical and digital spaces, but now I come to the hard part… what mental clutter is getting in the way of my writing? What is causing stress or inefficiencies?

  • Focus – Lots of things fall under this category, like my Scrivener Story Development checklist. It’s become too big, and therefore unfocused, to be useful. So I need to streamline it by combining redundant steps and cutting all but the most necessary elements. For writers who get stuck in revising loops (spending days on the same scene), setting rules for how many times to revise before moving on can be helpful. I also have trouble focusing in the morning, so I’m going to give mindful meditation a try.
  • Plan – My mind feels cluttered when all the things I have to do are just floating around up there, competing for my attention. To fix that, I make To Do lists in Trello. Just the act of creating tasks and assigning those tasks to days or weeks helps ease my mind.

So those are the ways I’m decluttering my writing process. What about you? Are you giving decluttering a try?

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

13 thoughts on “Decluttering Your Writing Process”

  1. We decluttered our entire house last autumn, and it’s such a relief to see SPACE. That included getting rid of paper critiques and old notebooks. The small fee we paid for shredding service was well spent in peace of mind. Thank you for further ideas about what to get rid of next.

    1. That sounds awesome, Sharon! And thanks for the shredding idea — I have some super old tax documents (from back-in-the-day before bills, receipts and other documents were digital) that are next on my epic decluttering list. Time to find a shredding service! 🙂

  2. YES to physical decluttering – ALWAYS – but I really need to organize those Scrivener files as you’ve suggested. I have this false sense of organization because I’ve transcribe so much info into Scriv. But it’s not much use to me if it’s not organized in an effective manner. I’ve made some preliminary progress with folders and color coding. Some battles have been won, but the war is far from over.

  3. Thanks for the post. Decluttering is valuable and I do it from time to time. But decluttering is an efficiency tool and we have to remember that creativity is not efficient and never will be. For example, you wrote ” Did I really need five methods to write a logline? Did my character sketches need to be 100 questions long, or would 12 questions suffice? Did I really have to write a premise, a synopsis, and a blurb to figure out my story? Don’t those exercises all do the same thing?” Yes and no. Maybe you can NOW see that you didn’t need five methods to write a logline and didn’t need a premise and synopsis, but at the time, you probably couldn’t see that. You mention “For writers who get stuck in revising loops (spending days on the same scene), setting rules for how many times to revise before moving on can be helpful.” Yes, sometimes we do need to say GEMO (Good Enough, Move On) and limiting the number of revisions might be a good idea, but it’s just as likely that the “revision loop” is a process of solving a bigger, deeper question. It would be wonderful if we always knew in advance the most efficient route through a creative problem (or maybe it would just destroy the wonder of it all), but we can’t. If you know the most efficient route in advance, it is by definition, not a creative problem. Creativity requires the courage to be messy, inefficient, awkward and uncertain. So it helps to clear the decks and declutter the desk when we can, but remember that will only take us so far…

    1. That is all very true. I’m only able to declutter my mental writing process because I’ve been doing it for long enough that I can tell when things are unnecessary or redundant. A newer writer wouldn’t have that perspective yet. Plus, writers constantly evolve, so though I’ve reevaluated my writing process, I’ll need to do it again in the future. But I hope this post will inspire writers to take a look at their own process and see if it truly is working for them. And if it is, great! But if it’s not, the new year is the perfect time to make some changes.

      Thanks so much for your comment, Rosanne!

  4. Decluttering needs to be done in our physical AND mental spaces, for sure. Have you seen Sarah Knight’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck”? It discusses mental decluttering and even mentions Marie Kondo. 😉 I love it. But…I definitely need to get some digital decluttering done, too. My documents and inbox are a mess and it hurts my head just thinking about it.

    Here’s to decluttering! Happy New Year. 🙂

    1. Happy New Year, Sarah! I haven’t read Knight’s book yet, but it’s been on my To Read list for a while and your comment has inspired me to finally get it! Reading will commence soon. 🙂

      Good luck with your digital decluttering. It will be soooo worth it!

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