How to 'hack' the writing process with spreadsheets

This post is part of a v. occasional series in which I try to open up about the journalistic process. If you have questions about local news/a specific story/the great city of Buffalo (I take all comers), send it in and I’ll address it later. 

I don’t advertise this clichéd facet of my neurosis, but I am a person who likes — nay, loves — personal “productivity hacks.” Batch-cooking, morning routines, 52-minute block schedules … hell, I’m developing a work uniform so I no longer have to spend time getting dressed.

But I’ve never had a ton of tricks for speeding up the writing process. For me, a long story is just a dumb, brute slog. I spend days or weeks reporting and then attempt to outline and organize and “write through” reams of notes until they resemble a coherent article.

Lately, however, I’m trying a new approach — and it involves Google Sheets, of all things. For my last story, a profile of a big tech start-up here, I organized my notes in a 290-row spreadsheet.

ACV spreadsheet   Google Sheets.png

Each column is pretty intuitive: You’ve got your quote or factoid or other discrete piece of information, plus the person or organization it came from; a few thematic filters to help group similar information; and special columns to denote must-use scenes or quotes and flag items for follow-up.

As I reported out this story — conducting interviews, reading studies, watching pitch videos and generally hanging out around ACV — I dumped my research in this spreadsheet and tagged each quote, scene, statistic and observation with a corresponding theme. LaunchNY’s Marnie Lavigne laying out local investment stats fell under “WNY startup scene” / sub-topic “current state.”  The findings of a study on tech earnings in Pittsburgh became “economic impact” / “startups as development theory.” 

Once I’d finished reporting, I used Sheets’ filter function to identify the most important threads and surface the info I needed as I needed it. When writing the section about ACV’s history, for instance, I could pull up just those notes and work off them; when a long narrative section needed a scene to break it up, I could filter for “scene” and see what fit. (Plz disregard the bad writing and excessive details in these spreadsheet scenes, which were not intended for public consumption.)

ACV spreadsheet   Google Sheets2.png

Added bonus: My research never got separated from its sources — a hazard, when you’re working off a long outline — so I never had to go back to individual transcripts to find who said what or when. And creating a column for high-priority scenes and quotes meant I couldn’t lose them in successive rounds of edits.

I don’t know if this method saved me a mountain of time, per se. But it did make the writing process run more smoothly, with far fewer frustrating fits and starts. So for that reason, at least, I’m adding this hack to my list of regulars. In fact, I’m already 315 rows (eek) into the next one.

H/T to my project-manager husband, who uses a similar method to organize his projects and suggested it might work for stories, too. And if you have zany process ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

‘Til next time,