458. Alpha-not-betical

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

I wrote my first six novels on a typewriter, keeping notes in a card file. If I had to go back to that, I wouldn’t write. Thank you Steve Jobs.

The way I work today depends on having multiple files in one folder, each with it’s own function, while making full use of copy-and-paste between the files. This requires placing all the files in a manner that makes sense visually, and for that you have to have a deep understanding of how a computer orders files. Buckle your seat belt, it’s going to be a nerdy ride.

For my most recent project, a steampunk novel titled The Cost of Empire, I have 77 files in one folder. From the beginning I had imposed an organizational structure on it, so I never lost anything. I explained the chapter organization last post and I will explain the research organization next post. For now I’m gong to concentrate on the structure behind the structure.

The following is based on Mac. I can’t guarantee that it transfers totally to another platform, but it should be at least close, and you can find any differences by experimentation.

The files in your folders are an order that is not quite alphabetical. The words go in alphabetical order, the numbers go in numerical order, and special characters like tilde and backslash have an order of their own. Mixed units go where their left-most letter or digit directs. That is, 13b would be placed among the numbers and ordered numerically, but B13 would be placed among the words and ordered alphabetically.

Bear with me. This is a powerful organizational tool you can learn in about twenty minutes. I have tried to write this out, but this is one case where words don’t work. So let’s look at examples instead. The following numbers occur in numerical order.

1, 2, 7, 11, 23, 2514

Now let’s put those same numbers into alphabetical order. We get:

1, 11, 2, 23, 2514, 7

If this doesn’t make sense, let’s replace each numeral with the corresponding letter of the alphabet.


There you have it, pure and proper alphabetical order.

Decades ago, I had a night job teaching spreadsheet to my fellow teachers. I would read a group of numerals such as the first example given here in random order, to be placed one per cell in vertical array. Then I would tell my teacher/students to let the spreadsheet put them in order. They would get what is given in the second example.

Once their minds were properly blown, I would show them where the program gave a choice of sorting numerically or alphabetically.

Alphabetical order takes all the words with A as the first letter, then all the words with B as the first letter, and so forth. Then it looks at the second letter in each word, then the third, and so forth. It also follows the rule that nothing comes before something, so that A comes before AA.

Numerical order takes all the numbers with one numeral to the left of the decimal place first, then the numbers with two numerals to the left of the decimal place, and so forth. It assumes that whole numbers always have an invisible decimal at the right. Then it puts things into 0, 1, 2 … 9 order, and it doesn’t care how many places lie to the right of the decimal point. That is, it assumes that all numeral groups to the right of the decimal point end in an infinite string of zeroes.

Am I wasting your time? Do they teach this in ninth grade now? I had to learn it by experimentation after I got my first computer in 1986.

All this is the key to the orderly arrangement of a complicated folder, and that is the key to my method of keeping track of both chapters and notes in one folder.

I number my chapters and use word titles for my research notes, then use the mixed system my computer provides to make it all easily retrievable. We’ll put this all together in the last post on Thursday.


By the way, if you know ASCII, forget it. This isn’t ASCII. It isn’t a pure system at all, but a mixed system designed to produce a result that is intuitive to humans, not to computers.


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