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Notes from a Writer's Desk: Spring Cleaning

Spring break has come and gone, and we’ve moved from meteorological spring to actual spring. The days may be getting longer, but the time to deadlines is shrinking—whether you’re preparing to draft seminar papers, polishing conference or generals papers, or writing and revising dissertation chapters. Before diving into projects anew, this is a great time to step back, clear your mind, and take stock of your to-do lists. What have you done to this point? What do you have left to do? And what is in that giant stack of papers on the corner of your desk? As we hit the home stretch of the academic year, here are some tips for decluttering your minds and your workspaces.

Purging the post-its (paper and digital): I love post-it notes. I use them for everything: list-making, assigning writing tasks for larger projects, random thoughts that I don’t want to forget as they flit through my mind. While my go-to note is a physical sticky note, I also make extensive use of digital post-its in the form of text files that litter my project folders and my desktop. They usually hold links to sources, quotations, or other strings of information that would be too tedious to write by hand. My stash of post-its are reminders of all the THINGS I have to do, and it is immensely satisfying to crumple them up and throw them away once I’ve taken care of a THING. 

This system has its flaws: by springtime, I have accumulated such a stash of notes that they no longer help me declutter my brain, they are the clutter. To de-stash, I dedicate a couple of hours to sorting through each note following the frame of Do, Keep, Trash. Either I do the task or tackle the lead, I keep and rewrite the note for another time, or I trash it. This purge period is a chance for me to tackle little leads in my writing projects that for whatever reason I didn’t follow when I made the note: look into this source, pursue that line of thought, reach out to those interview subjects, etc. For those notes I decide to keep for later, I rewrite the important bits onto fresh new notes, which gives me a sense of renewal and sometimes puts a new spin on a task or idea. Purging the post-its dusts off and declutters my brain, making room for the bigger picture thinking I need to do to wrap up my current projects. 

Samantha Jones

Cleaning your desktop(s): We’ve all heard the adage “messy bed, messy head.” The same can be said of your workspaces, both physical and digital. Like many in the age of Covid, I found myself resigned to using my desk at home for research and writing. This, naturally, led to the slow and steady accumulation of papers, articles, and books on and around my desk. I had hoped to economize my physical workspace by collecting pdfs of articles, chapters, and books, but these began to pile up on my computer. Alas, I had created a war on two fronts, the encroaching stacks of physical and digital media executing a savvy pincer maneuver on my productivity. Something had to be done, so I set aside a couple weekends to declutter my workspaces. 

To tackle the physical space, I removed everything from my desk that wasn’t plugged in, including research materials, stacks of mail, and writing utensils (most of which were still functional). I recycled anything that was junk or that I had on my computer as a pdf scan or a native digital file, making sure to transfer any handwritten notes to the digital versions. I placed papers that needed to be preserved in a crate, and I would scan these papers whenever I had the chance, thinning out the crate’s contents as my work progressed. This whole process left me with a pristine physical workspace, but even more digital clutter. Luckily, I had planned for this to happen, and I simply added these files to my workflow of distributing digital versions of research materials and my own writing into a series of clearly labeled folders on my computer desktop. As I write this, I am staring at a list of pdfs associated with various projects that have accumulated on my desktop, as well as a stack of papers on my desk topped off by a folded map of Mount Auburn Cemetery from my visit back in February. I think it might be time for me to do a little desktop decluttering of my own. 

Anthony Shannon


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