How To Conquer The Dreaded Paper Mountain

Have you ever struggled to deal with the Paper Mountain?

Paper is one of life’s curious things.  It’s completely inanimate and yet with a propensity to breed until you’re suddenly drowning in the stuff!

Writers often suffer the Paper Mountain.  When you are surrounded by stacks of papers, often a mix of everything!  Character profiles, old scenes, bank statements, that really important document you need to send by a specific date… old birthday cards, random junk mail.

Having spoken to lots of writers, mostly over on Twitter, many seem to have issues with organising their papers.

I thought I’d throw out some of the advice I have for tackling the Paper Mountain.  This will not just be covering Writer Papers but also, any sort of paper that ends up in your home.

Banner Image - How to conquer the dreaded paper mountain.  Background image is two large stacks of paper.  Image from Pixabay


01 Set up an In-Tray

Call it a flashback to when I worked in offices, but there is still something to be said for the humble In-Tray.

The purpose of the In-Tray is to be the Catch-all.  Whenever anything papery is received, it goes in the In-Tray.

Photo of a desk with pen pot and paper trays

Obviously, if the item can be dealt with immediately – say junk mail – dump it in the recycling and move on with your life (or whatever it is that you can sort immediately).

Everything else goes in the In-Tray.

If you’re like me, you may generate papers throughout the day, week, month… that you are using or referring to.  However, what I like to do is every few days, go around my room, gather all these strays and waifs and corral them in my In-Tray.

This means I don’t lose things.  If I suddenly remember that most urgent document that I need to do something with, before a certain date (like recently, my Home Insurance Renewal) I know it’s in my In-Tray.

Of course, the trick is to not SUDDENLY remember anything because things like Home Insurance Renewal dates should be in your diary… *cough* I forgot *cough*


02 The Filing System

Now, papers should NOT live in the In-Tray.  The In-Tray is temporary accommodation!  It is just a singular location for catching all those documents, scraps, receipts etc but they don’t live in the In-Tray otherwise you’d have this issue.

Stressed Woman staring at a large towering stack of papers in an in-tray. Image purchased from DepositPhotos

So you need to set up a system for where the paper lives (if it is staying… we’ll discuss papers that AREN’T staying in a moment).

Depending on how much paper you have to file, will depend on what you need.  If you are, say, living with your parents, then you won’t generate as much paperwork as someone who owns or rents their own home.

So choose your filing system accordingly.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Four-drawer filing cabinet
  • Two-drawer filing cabinet
  • Portable file box
  • Binders

Now, since I manage all of our paperwork, I have a four-drawer filing cabinet.  This works for me because not only do I have to manage all the house, car, pets and personal papers, I also have business records and novel notes (and all which that entails).

The filing cabinet allows me to keep personal and household papers in the top two drawers and then a drawer for business and a drawer for novel notes.

The idea is to regularly empty out your In-Tray and do one of three things:

  1. Complete or start an action
  2. File it
  3. Discard it

Once a week is usually sufficient for clearing through your In-Tray, but if you generate a lot, you might want to do it more frequently.

Take the papers out and go through each one slowly.  Make sure you are not missing anything before you file or discard.


Stick to your plan. Checklist. To do list. Image from Pixabay

If something needs to be done, DO IT or at least START IT.  Need to make an appointment?  Call and make it.  Or if you can’t due to current time constraints, add that task to your diary with the phone number.

If the action cannot be completed in that day, add a post-it note to the document stating what has been done and if necessary a time frame.

Example: Letter about Home Insurance Renewal. 

Action: Check other companies for competitive quotes.

Follow Up: Call current insurer to get a better deal.

Maybe you completed the action, but can’t call your current insurer because the offices are closed.  In this case, I would add a post-it to the letter, and add the new action “call insurer” into my diary with a note stating the letter is in my In-Tray.

That way I can come to it the next morning, grab the letter and call the Insurer.


A photo of dozens of four-drawer filing cabinets. Image from Pixabay

Some of your documents may just need filing.  Let’s take the earlier example if I’m not changing my insurance company I could just let the renewal rollover.

In which case, there’s nothing I need to do but keep a copy of the updated insurance documents that may have come with the renewal letter.  So it’s a simple file action.

Now, you may wonder why not just file it the moment you get it?  First, maybe you were considering changing insurers, maybe you get a lot of papers and didn’t have time, maybe someone else opened that letter and dropped it into the tray.

I personally prefer to file once a week than file as and when something comes in.  Mostly, because I have a lot of paper due to running a business.  It makes more sense to do it in batches.

If you had an action to complete, you then need to decide, do you need to keep the paper now the action is done?

Not everything needs to be kept and while a lot of things are now paperless or can be digitalised, not everything can.  Also, not all places accept digital copies and insist on original paper copies (just something to keep in mind).


Photo of top of waste paper basket, full of discarded papers. Image from Pixabay

There may be things in your tray that you don’t need to file.  Maybe it’s an announcement, leaflet or a magazine you want to browse.

Maybe it’s something like a card telling you how to register your new freezer for a free extended warranty.  Once you’ve completed it, the card can be discarded.

A good trick is to have your In-Tray close to your waste bins.  Now, I have three bins:

  • Trash
  • Recycle
  • Shred

Pretty straight forward, I keep them close to my desk because that’s where I go through my In-Tray.

Rubbish and things that can’t be recycled go in the trash, anything that can be recycled I put in the Recycling bin and anything that has confidential data on I put in the Shredding bin.

I then make a point of doing batches of shredding once a week to clear through the bin.  The pieces are then recycled.

I have to say, if you get a shredder, the cross-cut ones are best.  These cut the paper into small pieces, rather than long strips like older shredders. 

One issue with the long strip shredding is that (in the UK) shredding wasn’t often allowed in recycling bins as lots of shredded paper could get jammed in the bin lorry mechanism.  That doesn’t happen with the small cross cut pieces.


03 Digitalise

Image of a laptop with the screen sliding out like a file cabinet drawer and the drawer full of coloured binders. Image from DepositPhotos

Where possible you can digitalise your information and discard of the paper copy.  As I mentioned before, always be aware that not everything can and should be digitalised and each country/state may have different requirements.

I’ve known shops in the UK not accept scanned copies of receipts and I’m still trying to figure out what HMRC’s policy is regarding scanned copies.

One way I like to remove excess paper clutter is by going online and downloading any manuals for electronics.

Certain electronics and electrical appliances have specific cleaning requirements or details for removing parts for replacing/cleaning.

Rather than keeping bulky manuals, which have 18 pages in another language, I can usually find a digital version online.  I then simply save it in my Dropbox or Mega (not wasting computer space) and can access it as and when I need.

You can use a scanner to digitalise any documents you feel can be kept electronically or you can download an app on your phone – there’s plenty to choose from – and use your camera to snap a copy of the document and save as a PDF.

I can’t really do this because my phone camera is shit… possibly because I’ve dropped my phone – A LOT!


A Word on How I File Novel Papers

I do sometimes print out my manuscripts, as well as an on-screen edit, I like to have a paper copy to edit every alternate version by hand as it’s easier to miss a mistake on screen.

This can lead to lots of scenes/chapters and all the other stuff writers have for their novels.

I do use my filing cabinet for my novels (as mentioned) but I also use storage boxes.  This helps to store, by novel series, any copies of documents I might not be using immediately.

My so-called “active papers” such as character profiles, world-building notes etc I keep in a binder or file that I can easily transport around – because sometimes I like to work away from my desk.

Photo of Ari Meghlen's novel notes binder collection.


How do you organise your papers?

Share your Thoughts image.

Happy writing

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Friday Update: 55,845 words (tracking my word count for the 85K Writing Challenge).

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12 thoughts on “How To Conquer The Dreaded Paper Mountain

  1. Wow, great filing system. Unfortunately I don’t have an office so there’s no room for binders, but I use different draws/ cupboards for different things. I’m like you, 100% organized. 😁

    1. No space for binders!? *faints*
      I think as writers we really need to be organised. I’ve tried the other way and man, does it make things twice as hard.

    1. Thanks Cherie, so glad you found this useful. Trays definitely help and a schedule to keep you clearing through the trays. Hope the organising goes well. You can do it! You can tackle the mountain!!

  2. I’m not doing too badly then, Ari! But it does mount up in physical and digital form the more books you write. I have to have a tidy writing desk with my papers sorted to both sides of my laptop, then I can commence writing!

    1. You are so right, Lynne. I’ve been writing stories for years and I have so much paper for all these manuscripts that I was drowning in paper for years. I really wished I had gotten organised like 20 years earlier! lol

  3. Pingback: That’s a wrap! January-February 2020 – Rebecca Alasdair

    1. Aww thanks hun 🙂 It’s nice to know all that time working in crappy offices had some benefits. It made me freakishly organsied! 🙂

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