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In a big freelance project, a little organization up front goes a long way

By the time I sat down to write the 6,000 word article I’d been reporting for the past several months, I was ready to quit. I had over 50 interviews, thousands of pages of documents and reports, contact information and source names all stored across my phone, random word documents, email drafts, and actual paper notebooks. Even without the hundreds of bookmarked news stories, starred Google Alert emails, and clippings (yes, actual clippings) I was drowning.

This was supposed to be long-form investigative journalism, but in order to turn folders into hellraising prose I was going to have to implement a system, like, yesterday. I started to feel like the only solution was to print out everything and make a physical file—a sure sign I was losing my mind.

The solution came in the form of tidy, little rectangular cells. I was doing some excel-based data analysis for a different project and it dawned on me—I can use spreadsheets to keep track of my reporting.

I started with sources: name, organization, contact info, first contact, notes, second contact, notes, etc.

And if I’ve got a sheet for sources, why not another sheet with a left column of questions followed by the strongest quotes? I even made a sheet for research, with links, notes, and questions.

Does everyone already do this? They should, because not only is it organized but it’s searchable.  I still write everything down on paper (it will never feel normal to take interview notes on my iPhone), but now I take time at the end of each day to input whatever good ideas, quotes, or research I’ve found into the sheets. It’s a great way to review my work, plus I don’t have nightmares about losing my notebooks anymore.

My next step is going to be putting all Google Alerts into a spreadsheet. I’ve found a couple how-to’s online, but if anyone else has done this successfully I’d love to hear about it.

Nicole Pasulka is IRE's Google Journalism Fellow for summer 2013. She is a master's student in NYU's Literary Reportage program. She has five years of experience in journalism working as a freelancer, an editor for The Morning News, and a fellow at Mother Jones.

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