Organize your writing, J.K. Rowling style

The website /Film reported on Friday about author J.K. Rowling’s method for organizing her books. Using pen, notebook paper, and a simple grid, she plotted out the direction of her stories. Pictured here is the chart for chapters 13-24 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

(Note: /Film includes a larger version on their site for detailed reading.)

The grid outlines the chapter, month, chapter title, explanation of how that chapter relates to the over-arching plot of the book, and then columns for each of the book’s six subplots (prophecies, Harry’s romantic interests, Dumbledore’s Army, Order of the Phoenix, Snape and crew, and Hagrid and Grawp). Like the /Film post’s author, I believe that Rowling likely used more organizing tools in her story preparation. However, I think it’s wonderful to see how an author planned out her story before writing it.

When constructing memos, documents, short stories, novels, or whatever it is you’re writing, do you map out where you’re going and all that you want to include? Could adopting a method like Rowling’s help you to be a better organized writer? I’m certainly taking a few tips from her method and applying it to my own work. I’m thoroughly impressed.

22 Comments for “Organize your writing, J.K. Rowling style”

  1. posted by Derp on

    It’s an analog spreadsheet – I like it!

  2. posted by tmichelle on

    I didn’t even like writing outlines before papers (that’s why I only got Bs in grad school until dh started editing them). I definitely think it would make for better writing, but you can’t be in a hurry.

  3. posted by priest's wife on

    This is BETTER than an outline- my writing is not so complicated as to need this….maybe someday….

  4. posted by Alyson B. Stanfield on

    I love seeing this! I try everything for writing: white-boarding, Post-It noting on the wall, Journal, mindmaps. But I tend to rely on the outlining function of the computer. Still, I think the combination of pen on paper + computer is a winner.

  5. posted by Sarah on

    I’ve been mind-mapping a lot lately. I like being able to move things around and show multiple relationships between things.

  6. posted by HistoryBuff on

    I am going to try this method for writing my doctoral dissertation.
    Thanks for the post!

  7. posted by Kait Palmer on

    Very impressive. Last year for NaNoWriMo I did something similar and it definitely helped me breeze through the writing of the first four chapters…then life hit and I stopped…I should pick that up again!

  8. posted by Java Monster on

    I’m debating whether to do NaNa again this year, too. I took a two/three year break from it because I was sucked dry from the rush of writing.

    This is interesting though! I wondered how Rowling kept her story organized. She made it look simple, but it’s really not. And I wonder how much the final story diverged from her original plan, and how much wiggle room was in there.

  9. posted by Annette on

    Thanks for this!

  10. posted by chrisbean on

    I’m in the process RIGHT NOW of developing a timeline and short deadlines for my master’s thesis. This is exactly what I needed to see.

  11. posted by Mike on

    It’s an example of how writing really works. For, you see, there is precious little time in the course of creating a published work that is really just “writing.” Experienced writers will tell you that the time spent on each task is more like this:

    20% Brainstorming
    20% Outlining
    5% Writing
    45% Rewriting
    10% Polish, proofing, promotion.

    Part of why the Potter stories work so well is that their structure is very strong. Rowling’s notebook paper follows her plotlines instead of the classic act structure, but each plotline has its own arc and she can determine from that outline whether the act structure is consistent within and between them. It’s a pretty good way to construct a narrative… and obviously the results are proof enough that the process works.

  12. posted by Jeff on

    I direct plays with a community theatre company, and I use something similar to this to help visualize who’s on stage for each part of the show. I usually have the actors’ names down the left-hand side of the sheet, and the scene/page numbers across the top, and just make a mark for when that actor is on. It really helps me stay organized for both the actors and the tech folks, who invariably want to know who’s in what scene as what character. Also, it really helps me see where the trouble spots are going to be as far as costume changes and actors not having enough time to change costumes.

    It takes a while to complete the chart, but if by spending one hour on it myself I can save a costumer three hours of building a dress, or an actor four hours of rehearsal for a scene they won’t be in, then everyone I work with will respect my preparedness, and the show will run more smoothly for everyone!

  13. posted by Just Breathe on

    Thanks for not turning your website into one big ad for the companies you represent.

  14. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Just Breathe — Huh?? Companies we represent?? No one pays us to write any content on here. If they did, we would legally have to tell our readers. That’s U.S. law.

  15. posted by Another Deb on

    I use this kind of strategy to write my lessons, but it needs many more columns. Differentiation within each class, differentiation between Honors and Regular classes, standards to meet, materials needed, resource and practice materials on paper, on internet, homework to give, labs to include,Powerpoint references, posters to use…. I love seeing Rowling’s scratches on sideways lined paper!

  16. posted by Jonathan Manor on

    Wow this is amazing Erin. When I tried writing a book, I could never figure out how to organize the whole book except in my head.

  17. posted by Lissanne Oliver / SORTED! on

    I wrote a bestseller in 4 weeks. Not kidding. It’s almost embarrassing. One of the reasons I was able to pump it out so fast is that I spent time prior to that writing the table of contents and making sure that was solid.

    Writing then was simply a brain dump and filling in the gaps. Having overall structure really helped.

    I should say that I did carry the overall concept in my head for many years and am an expert at the subject matter, so that helps in efficient and prolific writing.

  18. posted by Amy on


  19. posted by Sandra Wilde on

    I think it’s telling that this tremendously successful author used paper, not a screen, to plan her writing. Technology can sometimes constrain rather than help – in this case, paper enabled her to see the big picture and the details at the same time.

  20. posted by Colleen Fong on

    I’ve been writing from a traditional outline, but I can see how a more visual method can make it easier to move sections around when necessary.

  21. posted by Melanie Garrett on

    Thanks for this! I always love to see how others do their outlining and, as you suggested, steal whatever brainwaves I can.

    For me, the breakthrough came through using an outlining (plus a lot more) software called Storylines, which is part of the Writer’s Cafe suite of writerly tools.

    You can check it out here:

    I should probably point out that I am in no way affiliated with this software – just hooked on it.

  22. posted by Annie Bellet on

    It’s always cool to see how other writers do the outlining/note-keeping process. That’s a neat grid she’s got there. Very cool.

    I would disagree with Mike though… I find that writing professionally (at least in popular/genre fiction) is 85% writing, 10% outlining/research, 5% editing/polishing etc.

    But if posts like this one demonstrate anything, it is that each writer develops his/her own method of getting the job done 🙂

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