A Mess of Words

screenshot of a mix of unorganized files

I’m a wannabe-minimalist living a simple, happy life without clutter [see: Every single thing I post]. I choose my excesses with joy [see: ALL THE PENS!] and my favourite is … Words. I write words, play with words, copy words, read words, think in words. I fit words into crossword puzzles, I study words in other languages, I find them in word searches, and I follow linguists and dictionaries on twitter.

Words = Joy!

Organizing Writing Files

The more writing I do, the more words I keep around. I have (such pretty) journals, notebooks of writing exercises, drafts of a few words to many thousand, poems and essays, blog posts and books. How can I organize all these words, keep them tidy? My filing systems for work and home are straightforward: Items either need to be acted upon or have a specific reason to be stored for reference. At work, I have a single “Ideas” folder for the in-between, the not-quite-ripe thoughts, those not yet ready for action.

With my writing, the ideas overflow. To contain the unformed ideas in a single folder is to hold the ocean in a seashell. I once tried having a folder called “Ocean” and just put all my drafts, quotes, ideas, and ramblings in there. It worked wonderfully on an emotional level, very much not so in practical terms.

Not Too Tidy, but Tagged

Completed pieces fall easily into a tidy filing system, but for my reams of unfinished work there is no tidy. It took me awhile to realize, but there shouldn’t be a tidiness to my ideas. In this part of my life, things aren’t black and white, they’re a jumble of creativity bursting with colour. These aren’t objects or information that fit into my decluttering methods; these are treasures, words. I do want to find them again later though, so I need a bit of a system, and COLOUR it is! I don’t fuss about what category a bit of writing might fall into, how I will use that juicy phrase from a writing exercise, or how to store the brilliant list of scenes I made for an abandoned novel. I let them stay jumbled, and tag them with colour.

The Beauty of Tags

I do a lot of writing by hand, but store almost everything digitally. I use a mix of methods, whatever’s easiest at the time. Sometimes it’s a photo, sometimes scanned to a pdf, sometimes typed – and for that I use Word, Mac Pages, Scrivener, or Notes. I take screenshots too. The beauty of using tags is that the format doesn’t matter.

coloured list of tags

Red is about love and friendship. Purple means adventures! Blue for my kids, because they chose it. I use Orange for my home (probably don’t need a psychology degree to relate this to my neglect of my hundred year old home). And so on.

From the kaleidoscope of ideas mixing in my head and on the page, every so often, connections swirl into a coherent idea: the basis for an essay, a blog post, or presentation. To build that piece of work, I look around at the relevant tag: What have I said or thought about this before? New connections strengthen the idea, and I find ways to weave in those treasured words.

When I’m working on a book draft, I turn to my tags for inspiration if I’m stuck. In the evening, with no mental energy to create something new, I sometimes just scan through the contents of a tag for fun, gathering words together, and wake up the next day ready to write what I want to say. As I read books or online and get struck with new insights, I easily find my notes on that same topic and add to them.

Give tags a try, and add some colour to a gray December day 🙂

Practical Tips

Mac computers

Colour tags are easy and built into the Finder. To set them up, open a Finder window, go to the Finder menu at the top, select Preferences, then Tags. You can name each colour, and say which ones you want to always have visible in the Finder window. To tag a file or group of selected files, simply right-click on it/them and pick a colour. Or, you can drag the file over to the colour / tag on the left and you’ll see the colour dot show up with the file now.

screenshot showing Mac Finder
yes, every book I start to write ends up being called something like The Assholery of Men 🙂

To find all your files with a certain tag, just click that colour in the Finder window. Voila!

To save you googling, no, you can’t tag in the Notes app on your iPhone or on the Mac – ugh. I use folders in Notes that match my tags, but to be honest, don’t usually remember to move things there, and there’s no colour.


The colours in Scrivener are called Labels. To keep my brain organized, I use them the same way I use tags for my files in Finder. There are many other way of using these labels effectively: I highly recommend aprildavila.com for tutorials and information about scrivener.


You can add tags to files, but no colours. (Well, there are third party utilities you can download to add colours, I haven’t done that.) To add tags, open Explorer (press ÿ and E, or double click My Computer). Right-click on a file, select Properties, then the Details tab. Click on Tag and type the word you want to use and use semicolons to add more tags if you want, then OK. To add a column to show the tags in the list of files, right-click in the heading row in Explorer and select Tag. You can also search by tags in Explorer – here are good instructions for that https://www.howtogeek.com/344543/how-to-tag-any-windows-file-for-easy-organization/

6 thoughts on “A Mess of Words

  1. Organizing files helps me clear my head when I don’t have the energy for organizing my house (which is pretty much all the time). But I hadn’t tried using tags yet. This could be a game changer.

    1. lol yes 😂 it’s a story /book draft that I started with a different title but all the male characters were jerks … so I started thinking of it that way. I have no intention of leaving it like that (nor leaving all the characters as such assholes) but it makes me laugh a lot for now 😁

      1. I might just do that 😂There are days … it describes the world a little too well … might turn out to be non-fiction!

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