Best-selling writer Dean Wesley Smith has a saying: “Don’t write sloppy.”

It’s such an important topic that he has an online clash about it, called #4 Pop-Up… Writing Clean First Draft.

For fiction writers, this means that when you type out the story, make sure it’s a reasonably clean manuscript. Don’t leave out all the punctuation (I wish I was kidding) or plop PLACEHOLDER in because you can’t figure out what happens next.

I learned that lesson on a co-written historical thriller. Cowriter and I got stuck at one scene. We knew the main character had to get captured by the bad guys, but it stumped us. We couldn’t figure out how it was supposed to happen.

What we should have done: Backtracked a few scenes to figure it out.

What we did: Left it for the revision.

It shocked me when we went into the revision. That single decision broke every scene that followed. When we updated all the scenes, the additional changes broke every scene that followed.

It snowballed into a massive amount of work. Far more than if we had backtracked.

Yet, this is all over our culture, as demonstrated by this quote from John W. Bergman:

“There is never enough time to do it right, but there is always enough time to do it over.”

No one quite seems able to grasp that the reason there isn’t enough time to do it right is that they’re always doing everything over! (And remember, computers are supposed to make everything easy and we know what a lie that is.)

During that major reorganization, I was so overwhelmed that I skipped something. It wasn’t needed everywhere, so I didn’t do it across the board.

But my worst pantser traits came into play and I was sloppy. That shortcut turned into an emergency every time I discovered it was needed. Then, I had to drop everything to create something, then do additional steps to fix what it affected.

Seemed like a shortcut to all the pressure I was under at the time and turned into a lot more work and stress for me in the future.

That also translated on the writing side.

After the debacle with the historical thriller, I never skipped anything like that again when I was writing.

Instead, I did it on the publishing side. Lots of little things that I’m finding as work through my review.

  1. Not getting a cover and a link up on my website. This means I have to check every story against what’s on the site.
  2. Not labeling the files correctly. This means when I access the folder again at a future date, I can become confused.
  3. Not getting files in the right folders. I spent money I didn’t need to for this one. I needed to rebuild the cover for The August Ghost. Couldn’t find the image, so I bought it again. Then I found the image.
  4. Updating a cover on one vendor and not updating it anywhere else. As part of the inventory review, I’m clearing up these kinds of problems.
  5. Having one price on Vendor A and another price on Vendor B.

A lot of sloppy mistakes.

One of those mistakes—not having the stories all in one place—resulted in a $100 expense to pay for backup recovery when my hard drive failed.

It also is an ongoing battle. I update a book, go through my process, then realize I forgot to replace the cover on my website.

It’s going to happen.

Gurus will say to create habits and rituals. Okay.

That can help. But it only goes so far. Remember, pantser here. I’m never going to fully eradicate all mistakes like that.

What about checklists?

For some people, they’ll work well. I’m not one of those people. I have trouble following steps in a recipe without my pantser brain wanting to jump around.

The best option is to have controls in place that have a chance of catching the mistakes before they impact your future self.

A big one for me started with the folder structure. I had one structure at work, and when I came home, I had a different one for writing.

I think a lot of my problems grew out of these two different systems. I had to mentally make a switch from day job to side hustle, and sometimes it misfired.

Enter PARA.

This is the brainchild of Tiago Forte. He provides more detail in his book Building a Second Brain.

PARA is an acronym for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. Some quick definitions from day job grunt and fiction writer (Mr. Forte’s definitions are primarily for managers and entrepreneurs):

Projects: A project is a task with a completion date. I had a lot of trouble with this because I don’t have projects at work. Well, a reorganization would count, but when time management gurus talked about projects, I tended to pass on the information. On the fiction side, that’s a current story, a novel, or a non-fiction book like this one.

Areas: This took about a year for me to understand how it related to the day job. This is the place where I have documents continually being updated. So if I’m updating that weekly report I mentioned in Chapter 3, it would be here. It’s not a project because it never ends. For fiction, my story inventory is in this folder. I have a sub-folder for novels, short stories, and non-fiction.

Resources: I like to think of this as the reference file. In my notes application, this is where the notes from workshops go. At work, it doesn’t get used as much, but also for reference materials.

Archives: Anything from the other folders that I don’t need hanging around. At work, copies of timesheets because I need to save those, but they don’t need to be seen until then. For writing, I complete a workshop and drop all the assignments in there. When I retired my genreless fiction and flash fiction, they all went into the Archives, honoring the stories.

What PARA did for me was simplify what had been a surprising and unnoticed addition to my brain overhead. I used it not only on my work folders and my writing folders but in my notes applications and my internet browsers.

The simple system means I only have to choose between four folders. I’m not switching between two—or actually six, if you add the other locations and trying to remember what goes where. I’m not having to make an actual decision.

That means I have a better likelihood of getting things right.

One error ticked off.

Another showed up when I did the inventory refresh. Each story had sub-folders under it, most of the time. The folders didn’t always have the same names, and there wasn’t always the same number.

So I set up templates folders in my Resources folder:

  • 01 Publishing Masters: contains no files
  • 02 Manuscript Master: contains the manuscript, source, and eBook templates
  • 03 Archives: contains the cover template, pricing, and marketing keywords

All I need to do when I create a new story is copy the three folders into the story folder. Everything’s there. When I start my publishing process, I save the cover jpeg in the 01 Publishing Masters, along with the Jutoh file. All the work that goes into it is in 02 Manuscript Masters. proof of licenses, submission history, earlier covers, and earlier story versions all go in 03 Archives.

The importance of this is every single time I go into a folder, it’s exactly the same. I know where everything is supposed to go.

The 01 Publishing Masters folder only contains exactly what I need to publish the story to the vendors. It’s not jumbled up with anything else where I might accidentally grab an old cover image. Even the number on the file sorts it to the top so that I’m not jumping into the wrong folder.

At work, that’s called version control. I did a lot of that with presentations because there were so many drafts. If you confuse yourself, that’s a big problem. I’ve watched people fly in at the last minute to the meeting with the big boss. They log breathlessly into the computer and can’t figure out which version of the presentation is the correct one while the big boss glares at them for wasting her time.

Taking it down to another level, I use a lot of file templates. At work, I have forms I have to fill out and submit at the end of the month. The original template has any information I can fill in already done (such as my name).

From there, I save it as the new monthly version and fill in everything I can first. If there’s anything simple I can do to close an action on one of the entries, I do it. Most people wait until the task is due, then fill out the form. I did that in my fire fighting days. I was always bumping up against the deadline, getting interrupted.

Yeah, mistakes abound.

Another example is creating a template for a common email I send out frequently and saving it in my Areas folder under templates. Microsoft Outlook wants to default this to a different location, but every time I had to replace the computer or there was an operating system upgrade, I lost those files.

On the writing side, I have templates for the publishing masters.

The first one is the cover. It has my name on it, and placeholder text for the title. There are also guides as described in DIY eBook Covers: Design Principles for Non-Designers (How to sell more books, 1). The guides divide up the image into thirds so I can adjust elements of the image for better balance.

I also recently had to update the template. Originally, my name appeared at the bottom of the template. I don’t know why I had it like that. But because it was, I defaulted to creating my covers with my name on the bottom unless the image required me to move it to the top. I realized my name should be on the top where possible, just like the best-selling novels, so I adjusted the template.

The second one is the templates for the book itself, all done in Microsoft Word. They have everything built-in using styles: Title Page, Copyright Page, Author Bio, etc. I got these from another publisher at Superstars and am kicking myself for not doing the obvious of building styles into my publishing templates.

One of the most surprising things, though, was the inclusion of the book description in the front of the template. A little thing and it made a huge difference.

Before, when I published a story, the blurb was always this separate thing I waited until the last minute to do. Yup, typos made it into the blurb and went live like that. A contributing issue for me is that a blurb is not always grammatically correct, so some types of typos can hide.

But, by forcing me to put the blurb at the same time as I’m doing the story means it gets all the spelling and grammar reviews. That’s significantly cut the mistakes down.

A lot of this is changing the order you do certain tasks. But it’s not a matter of just deciding to do the tasks at a different time. You have put things in place to drive your natural tendencies in the right direction. Simply having a book description in the interior template forced me to pay attention to the blurb at a different time.

Small things, big differences.