Yes, you can have a paperless office – and how other writers do it

by Rachel Smith
07 August 2020

For some people, creating a paperless office seems effortless – much like losing the last five kilos or sporting a shiny white home on Instagram when you have a toddler. For me, it is an endless bloody struggle. To the point where I fear I may one day be found beneath a pile of scrunched-up paper, story notes, transcripts and hard copies of stories I filed back in 1997.

So how do others do it and how many of us ARE working from a paperless office now, in this increasingly digital age? I asked Twitter, of course – and at last count, 16.7 percent claimed to be ‘completely paperless’, 66.7 percent said they were ‘somewhat paperless’, and 16.7 percent said they were (like me) drowning in paper.

Determined to change my ways, I consulted other writers to find out their paperless secrets.

A big screen is the key

Media specialist Jac Taylor is almost ‘entirely paper free’ these days and says it’s all about having extra screen space. “I’ve found having a 27″ iMac is key to this – having the horizontal space to be able to lay out two documents side by side on screen means I can have notes I’ve taken on my computer on one side, and write on the document on the other side,” explains Jac.

“Or for multiple layers of research material, I can add my laptop on my laptop mount so I have a full spread of resources laid out and still have the screen space to write, yet stay paperless. Emails on the other hand… I’m useless and keep forever.”

Journalist Meni Constantinou and health and lifestyle writer Louise Wedgewood are also fans of the big monitor. “I also don’t print anything out unless it’s a proofreading job – the only paper I use is my notebook. And I keep emails,” says Meni.

Louise adds that most of the notes she takes are electronic. “Any I scribble on a notepad I scan and add to the relevant Evernote document.”

For journalist and editor Andrew Fenton, it’s about having the documents you need open on your screen and writing over the top – rather than having them strewn all over the desk. “I write using Notepad which floats over the top of whatever electronic version of research / transcript I’m working on. I have a second screen too but find Notepad on top works best.”

Make work all about the laptop

For journo and copywriter Debbie Elkind, her laptop holds pretty much everything. “I’ll take it to client meetings and type notes while I’m there, and I also type notes while talking to people, so I just keep all of that forever in client folders, for all time – or until there’s a system crash!” she says.

Debbie also has folders for all her client emails in her inbox and she keeps them long-term. “If I do have notes or hard copy stuff related to projects, I’ll keep it in a filing cabinet and chuck it out periodically. The only hard copy thing I really keep is old journals, but not in any really organised way.”

Journalist and copywriter John Burfitt is often travelling so it suits him to be as digital as possible. “I keep everything on my computer. I only print out when I’m writing the piece. Once I have submitted, I tear everything up and put into recycling,” he explains. “I keep very few hard copies of reports or documents. I do have digital copies of all my notes, going back 15 years, and backed up onto an external hard drive as you never know when you might need them.”

Get out of the print-everything habit

I try not to print much, except for copy which I have to read on a hard copy before filing. Eventually I’d like my office to be a printer-free zone – but it’s hard because my printer is also a copier and scanner.

In comparison to me, marketing communicator Rhonda Chapman says she rarely prints anything. “I just do everything on the screen. I use web-based forms for client briefings, so these go straight to my inbox as they come in. If it’s a Zoom meeting, I record it. Phone calls, I use the sticky notes in Windows. I don’t ever delete client emails,” she adds.

It was actually the demise of her printer that forced digital marketer Claire Chow to go paperless. “I probably printed out of habit of keeping hard copy records rather than out of a real necessity,” she admits. “The challenge for me now is to create an efficient digital filing system rather than lazily saving everything onto my desktop.” 

Taking notes on paper is still part of senior writer / content editor Cynthia Wang‘s process, but she has a system that reduces the paper piles. “At the end of the month, I sort through what I need, convert important ones to Notes then shred the rest,” she explains. “For transcribing I use Temi, and I keep audio files and loose transcripts on there. I log on to see them but no longer print them out.”

Create systems for the paper you do have

Journalist and content writer Michelle Bowes has ‘slowly weaned herself’ off paper but does have folders for specific hard copy documents. “I used to print out everything but now have client files on my computer and try to keep as much as I can in there,” she says. “I do all my interviews and make manual notes in a journalist-style spiral notebook – each of these is kept for a year once full, in case I need to refer back. I keep a folder for all paper copies of money stuff like invoices, tax receipts, BAS and super contributions. I do print all of that stuff out just in case.” 

Michelle has another file for all education and reference material, such as notes from training courses, pay rates reports, style guides. “Anything that I refer to frequently goes in there. And I keep all client emails pretty much forever – I’d probably only delete these if they were no longer a client.”

Travel editor Carrie Hutchinson also runs a pretty paperfree office, but says some jobs she works on end up with lots of bits and pieces – such as travel stories. “I have a good system that was suggested to me by professional organiser MaryAnne Bennie (author of Paper Flow). It works for travel stories, but I’ve also used this method when I’ve done big kitchen stories for homes mags and even books. “

You need a set of cardboard magazine holders – Carrie likes these ones from Officeworks. “Say I’ve been to Japan, when I get home I stick a post-it labelled with Japan on an empty one. Then I put everything in to it: press releases, business cards, postcards, USBs, train tickets, hotel receipts, even the notebook I took with me. If I see something in a magazine that is relevant, I tear it out and add it to the box. If I think of a story idea to pitch to someone, I’ll jot it on a post-it or a scrap of paper and chuck it in the holder. That way every single thing I need when I come to write up Japan stories is in one spot. It’s neat because it sits on the shelf and you can always find what you need.” 

Carrie keeps her folders for between 12 months and two years. “After that the information is mainly out of date, but I’ll keep business cards or USBs if I think I might come back to them later.”

More tips to help you create a paperless office

  1. Go digital. Scan receipts (I upload photos of my receipts straight to Rounded), scan notes and add to digital notebooks in Evernote, type notes straight into your computer. Opt for online utility bills and bank statements to reduce the amount of mail and paper on your desk.
  2. Invest in the right tech. A big monitor is a great idea if you can afford it. A scanner with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) can also be handy – or you could try a scanning app. You could also buy a cheap shredder so you can safely dispose of your documents once they’ve been converted to digital versions. Taking notes with a smart pen will also help eliminate extra paper.
  3. Create good systems. You might find it useful to have a folder for each client with sub-folders for storing digital notes, research documents, submitted work, etc – making it easy and fast to get your hands on what you need. Similarly, you might have a client folder in your email where you keep all project correspondence.
  4. Have a good back-up system. I use iCloud, CrashPlan AND an external hard drive which is probably overkill, but a backup system you trust is invaluable peace of mind.

Is your office paperless or are you working towards that goal? Got any great tips for becoming paper-free?

Rachel Smith

2 responses on "Yes, you can have a paperless office – and how other writers do it"

  1. Claire says:

    I love Carrie’s tip to organise paper bits and bobs into magazine holders!

  2. I’m planning to go paper-free because I’m tired of having multiple notebooks and a journal lying around in which I can never find anything. I’ve ordered the Remarkable 2 and waiting for it to change my notebook-based life!

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