JK Rowling’s Billion Dollar Cardboard Box (and other useful organization tips)


I was reminded recently of an interview with Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling , who explained her system of organization was a pile of cardboard boxes overflowing with papers, and that’s how she liked it.

To paraphrase, Rowling said if she needs a nugget of information – like the book of herbs she uses to inspire spells and concoctions in her ubiquitous books – she’ll go digging for it, and in the process, she usually finds a few things she wasn’t looking for that further squeeze the creative juices.

There is a substantial amount of validity to this system, especially for Creatives. Stumbling upon little scraps of paper that could lead to greatness, or perhaps a memento that’s been lost for years, is similar to finding a $20 bill in a coat pocket and can sometimes be even more lucrative… in Rowling’s case, by about $1 billion and change.

However, in today’s fast-paced world, we need to get to our stuff in short order, and rifling through shoeboxes is not the ideal for most. Increasingly, regardless of our lines of work, Creatives – from the time-pressed journalist to the starving artist – need to achieve some level of organizational acumen to survive.

Take, for one, David Seah’s Pickle Jar theory, explained in greater detail by blogger and workflow consultant Matthew ‘IdeaMatt’ Cornell . Seah uses an actual pickle jar for his ideas, scribbling them on notepaper and storing them until he’s ready to act.

Cornell took this idea and expanded it for today’s high-tech world, using a few computer-based interventions to ‘capture’ ideas instead of collect them.

“To capture [an idea], I simply switch over to Emacs, type it in, [use] two macros to grab a URL’s title, and finish an entry by adding the timestamp and “—-” separator characters. To retrieve I just do an incremental search for “IDEA: IdeaMatt” and pick the next one that jumps out at me,” he writes. “Really, any list manager, text editor, etc. will work, but the most important feature is fast capture, so that you can get back to work and not procrastinate fleshing out the shiny new thing.”

Watch for more coverage of Cornell’s organizational ideas in later posts.

Published: Monday, 5 February 2007 Tags: writer writing harry potter jk rowling matthew cornell david seah pickle jar theory ideamatt


A visitor‘ left this comment on 6 Feb 07
Neat post, Jaclyn. Thanks for the link. Your story about Rowling reminds me of the book I just finished: “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place” by Abrahamson and Freedman. It’s controversial, and argues that messiness (at least the right level of it) is more productive than crisp. They give lots of anecdotes, including ones like Rowling’s – happy accidents when looking for something. I don’t buy it, not in today’s world…

Writerjax Interviewed by IdeaMatt

Check out Matt Cornell’s latest post, an interview with yours truly. We talked about the role of organization in a writer’s world, writing tips for bloggers, and the collision of art and craft within writing as a career. It’s interesting
Check out Matt Cornell’s latest post, an interview with yours truly. We talked about the role of organization in a writer’s world, writing tips for bloggers, and the collision of art and craft within writing as a career. It’s interesting when the interviewer becomes the interviewee… I got the chance to voice thoughts I didn’t even know I had. I highly recommend it. (Read comment page for even more info.)

Published: Tuesday, 6 February 2007 Tags: matt cornell ideamatt bloggers writing writer interview organization


A visitor‘ left this comment on 7 Feb 07
One question: Who’s the handsome devil in the picture? 🙂

Writerjax‘ left this comment on 7 Feb 07
In terms of transcribing audio files, I usually pop my headphones on and start typing – it’s great for getting quotes just right, especially when writing about a complicated subject.

But I stop and start the recording frequently, in order write more ‘organically’ around those quotes. That helps the overall flow of the story – if I transcribe everything and then go back, sometimes the story looks stilted and there’s a lot of wasted time, too.

Trying to write with the aid of the audio rather than write verbatim what is contained thereon also helps me transcribe what’s important and skip what isn’t, in reponse to your first question. If I have developed a theme, which really should be one of the first tasks covered, then usually the quotes I have in the recorder fall into place in the right place, and I can always go back and fish out some more if I need to.

That said, I use an audio recorder less frequently than I do a plain old reporter’s notebook, and when I do use it I always write notes too. That also helps the flow of the story, because I write not only quotes but ideas and insights of my own (and I delineate between the two by using parentheses around my own thoughts).

But recorders can be used to glean a little color too, especially for a story that warrants it, like a travel or culture piece. Just turning it on at an event and letting it run can sometimes return the greatest little nugget of information or a funny anecdote… and you have it all documented to boot. They’re also great when you’re pulling double duty – shooting photos and taking notes, which I do often.

Thanks so much for reading!

  • jax

A visitor‘ left this comment on 7 Feb 07
Great suggestions in this interview. Thanks for sharing the link. I particularly find it interesting that you audio record your conversations and then do some “value-adding” interpreting as you transcribe. Do you have suggestions for deciding what to transcribe in the first place? Do you take notes for reference so you can skip certain parts of audio files?


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