The Problem with Paper

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This large stack of papers are waiting to be shredded in the tiny shredder on the desk…

I was inspired by blogging friend Natalia Sylvester’s post this week—she wrote about how a change in setting (of her desk) and new meaningful decorating (of her new area) might inspire her stories. It was a great post, and I was especially intrigued with the photo of paper that she hung near her desk. Her husband took the photo a few years ago, as a part of a series focusing on seeing everyday objects differently.

Natalia’s post not only inspired me, but it also made me realize what a mess my own writing space is (was). In fact, my entire office, study, work area, is (was) such a mess that I couldn’t sit at my desk anymore. Part of the problem is that we have three work areas in that room. One is for household paperwork, one is my work area, and one is MEH’s (My Engineer Husband). A few years ago MEH was laid off, and while he looked for a job (he found one within a few short months, thank goodness) he really spread out in that room. And nothing really ever got cleaned up after that.

The room was a mess. You’ll have to take my word for it because there’s no way I was about to take a photo of it. It was so much of a mess that I wrote anywhere but in there. I had desk avoidance, big time. For one thing, there was paper everywhere. I’m just saying. Natalia’s husband could’ve had a real field day taking photos of paper (of all kinds) in that room. Then last week we started having problems with our Internet connection. It was slow. Very slow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting the paper was slowing it down. If only it could be that simple, right? But the timing seemed more than coincidental—for another reason. I wanted to clean up my space and the Time Warner guy was going to come and check out the connection (on a Sunday no less!), and I wasn’t even sure he could get to the wall socket or wiring. So it was necessary to clean up. The paper, the dust, the everything.

So it was that yesterday—for about six hours—MEH and I made the office/study our project. We cleaned and threw out and cleaned some more. We put a lot of stuff away, threw out more, and boxed things up. And while we cleaned, I realized something. I have a real problem with paper.


These are manuscripts “in the drawer.”

I’m thinking this must be a common problem for us writers. If you’re like me, you print out copies of your manuscripts to edit, to proof, to give to other writers to read as beta drafts. This means you (and by you, I mean I) have reams of paper waiting to be printed. You also have reams of printed-upon paper waiting to be disposed of. And, to add to the problem, I (for one) am unwilling to put any of my fiction in recycling—being one of those paranoid people who is afraid someone may accidentally see it (okay, I admit it, I’m afraid there’s someone sitting in the recycling bin for the soul purpose of stealing MY fiction.). Anyway, regardless of the reason, I have stacks and stacks of paper waiting to be shredded and some waiting to be recycled, and I also have storage boxes full of manuscripts “in the drawer” along with notes and background information I’ve used to write those books—about seven books worth (not counting one picture book and two early readers). You don’t have to do the math, I’ll tell you: I have six storage boxes full of paper.

And I have to be honest, I’m just not sure how to keep up anymore. I have a very small paper shredder. And it takes a long time to shred a 400-page manuscript—or five copies that have been returned by beta readers. These stack up. I’ve isolated the recycling/shredding to one corner, but it’s going to take a while to shred things. (I realize you can hire companies to shred documents, but this again requires me to trust someone with my work.)

The long and short of it is that although the room looks a lot better, it’s not exactly the décor I was going for—what with the stacks and stacks of paper to come to terms with and the storage boxes everywhere. Maybe I need to designate that room as the office/storage closet and just move my office to the next room over–the dining room—and I can sit in there with my back to the office. Then, to paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind: “I can worry about the paper another time…after all tomorrow is another day.”

Do you have this same problem? How do you dispose of your paper? Are you paranoid (like I am)? Any suggestions or tips (I didn’t mention in the post, but we also have filing cabinets, but they are filled with household papers)?




  1. Lisa says:

    I have (had) a similar problem, and a similar paranoia. But, just before the semester started I tackled my office yet again (I do it at least once or twice a year) and realized I was being utterly ridiculous about my fear of anyone reading/stealing my work. I mean, come on, I can hardly get them to read me when I ask them too why would someone scrounge through my garbage to find me. LOL

    Anyway, I didn’t even shred. I just disposed of and reorganized, including buying new shelves to hold paper, and it’s so much better. There’s still one section I need to conquer, but at least I can work in there now. Of course, now I have no excuses and yet I still seem to get nothing done. Sigh.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      You know, Lisa, I actually almost wrote a line just like the one you said (“realized I was being utterly ridiculous about my fear of anyone reading/stealing my work. I mean, come on, I can hardly get them to read me when I ask them too why would someone scrounge through my garbage to find me. LOL”) — exactly what I was thinking this weekend! I did hyperventilate when I did it, but I did throw a couple of manuscripts away (in the recycling without shredding!). LOL. You’ve encouraged me. Thank you!!

  2. Ahhhh, Julia. You need my children. They still think the shredder is pretty cool, so I let them do it for their chore (which is usually infinitely more appealing than cleaning a sink or a bathroom floor!).

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I really DO need your children (and for more than just shredding… I miss having my kids around all the time!). And I’m with them, shredding is infinitely more appealing than cleaning a sink or bathroom floor (as you can well imagine, those things almost never get done, either)!

  3. Oh my goodness! I’m so excited that my post inspired you! I know EXACTLY how you feel! Don’t let the pictures of my desk area fool you—there is a bag in my bedroom full of drafts of manuscripts that are just waiting for me to shred them. Like you, I don’t feel comfortable just tossing them as is into the recycling, but my shredder only takes about 5 pages at a time, which means it can take me hours to get through a manuscript. Ah…glamorous writing life, right?

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      A BAG out of sight!!! Now why didn’t I think of that??? See, you inspired me again! My shredder also takes just 5 pages at a time and has a tiny bin for shredded material (what were we thinking?!). Glamorous writing life, no kidding!

  4. God bless you Julia. Your sentence about not daring to take a photo of your paper mess made me howl. Glad you got somethings tidied up. I can’t even imagine working on a manuscript. In this little 1300 article I’m trying to finish up — I have to print it out — again and again. I miss something every time. Thanks for the laugh.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Glad to make you laugh, Jamie… my job is done 🙂 Yes, the printing out really does help, doesn’t it? I can’t believe how many times I find things even when I’ve combed through what feels like a million times! As for some things getting tidied up, there’s still plenty more to do, isn’t there always?

  5. Oh yeah… this is relatable. Only my manuscripts are not in boxes; they’re in myriad binders. So I’m running out of book shelf space. At some point, I need to be OK with tossing a lot of it (you just reminded me that old drafts of previous novels are hiding in drawers and on my storage shelf. Ugh!)…

    And you know my paranoia about even letting a Kinkos/FedEx or Staples PRINT my work. Paranoid minds think alike :-)>

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Sorry for the reminder… but glad you can feel my pain. As for the binders… I have those too (in the boxes) and some that I emptied out into the to be shredded box! (p.s. Thank you for not making me feel alone in my paranoia, Melissa!)

  6. Barb Riley says:

    Our township has one day a year where each resident can bring in up to 3 banker’s boxes worth of paper for confidential shredding. You should check if anything in your area offers that service. Most people are, of course, bringing in bank statements, tax info, medical documents and the like.. but I could always haul my old printed manuscripts there when they get out of control. LOL Wouldn’t that be a hoot? (And I’m not even kidding. So yes. I’m paranoid.)

    There’s that—and there’s also bonfires! 😀

    Good for you for getting organized! Sometimes a little bit at a time is the way to go!

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      We have the confidential shredding offered here, too… but am I so paranoid (like you) to think I need to WATCH as it’s shredded? I mean how silly is that if they shred things like med documents and taxes? How can I worry about a manuscript or seven? And believe me, the bonfires have occurred to me 🙂

      • Barb Riley says:

        Oh, I thought if you bring the papers in you can stand there and watch the stuff being shredded (I’ve obviously never done this). But if I had to drop them off and leave them… I don’t think I would do that.

        I’m happy (in a sick kind of way) to know there are other paranoid writers out there. LOL

  7. Eliza says:

    UGH I can totally relate!

  8. Christine M Grote says:

    Buy some graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows and have yourself a little fall Bon fire.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      It really has occurred to me, Christine! Do you think if I invite all the neighbors they won’t call the fire department and report an out of control manuscript fire?

  9. Great idea! I’ve been trying to get more organized, but Miss A likes to “help” in the process….Still, thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Glad to inspire… but honestly, you’ll have years to worry about the unimportant stuff like getting organized. Letting Miss A help sounds like a million times more fun and about a trillion times more important!

  10. I’m paranoid too! Sometimes I laugh at myself because it seems so ridiculous, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of my printed work gets shredded before recycling. I think they trick to not getting overwhelmed by it all is to shred as you go. I don’t ever leave a stack on top of my shredder (mine’s small too). If I’m done with a printout, I shred it — after printing on the back, by the way. Half the waste, half the shredding! 🙂

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      That’s a great idea to print on the back, Annie, thank you (I will definitely do that). As for shredding as I go… the main problem I have is with the 400 page manuscripts I’ve gotten back from beta readers. But if I print on the backs then it will at least delay the inevitable, right? 🙂

  11. It looks like I’m the rare writer with very few printed manuscripts. I edit as I go (can’t help it) so it’s all online. It’s much easier to be disorganized online than off.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I wish I could edit as I go, Jess… I’m a slave to my paper routine, for sure. As for disorganization online, true it takes up less physical space, but you should see my desktop. EEKKKSS!!

  12. Cynthia Robertson says:

    There’s gotta be something constructive we can do with all this paper, Julia. Maybe we need to invent a machine that rolls the sheets up into firelogs? Or how about critique wallpaper?
    Probably shredding and recycling is where mine will someday go. (I’m paranoid too!) But until then, the stacks just keep gettin’ taller!

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I’ve actually thought about the paper logs! No fireplace or wood burning stove here and wood is in surplus here in Maine so maybe I’ll have to be creative with wallpaper 🙂 Nice to know there are other paranoids out there!

  13. Julie Luek says:

    OK I have to, ahem, admit. I hate clutter. Hate it. Makes me kinda nervous, so I keep my desk and office fairly organized (well, right now my office is once again my son’s bedroom and it’s a sty and it’s making me nervous…).

    But I did have an MS copy I needed to dispose of. Fortunately, we use a wood burner here in the winter and use newspaper, or in my case, pieces of MS to help get the fire started. Very much like Gone With The Wind— it goes up in smoke, sheet by sheet. 😉

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      You are so lucky to have a woodburning stove (for more ways than one!). I’m envious. If I did, though, I’d definitely burn the paper!! And I’m also envious that you hate clutter. Although you’ll have to give me about three weeks notice if you ever visit to make sure I have time to unclutter 🙂

  14. Nina says:

    You and Natalia are BOTH inspiring me to realize I need to start thinking about a real writing space in this house. I don’t have one.

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I hope you find that writing space, Nina. Wish I could give you mine, since I work everywhere BUT in my writing space!

  15. Shary says:

    As I read your post, I found myself thinking that disposing of old manuscripts wasn’t an issue for me. I’d just dump them in the recycle bin and let them go and if someone found my words worth stealing, so much the better! Then I asked myself if I’ve ever done that. And started looking around my office. I’ve kept everything! And since I don’t have kids, I have spare bedroom closets that I can fill with my old binders and file boxes. Things may look tidy, but don’t open those doors! It’s time for me to go on a cleaning binge. No more denial! Thanks for helping me realize I have a problem. 🙂

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      Your comment made me laugh, Shary! And yet I find myself envying your extra room… and tidiness (I can speak from experience, your house is WAY tidier than mine!) Still, I think I see more than a problem, I see an opportunity… how much to ship you some of my manuscripts to store in one of your closets? 🙂

  16. I’m a little late to the shredding party, Julia! LOL I would love to be able to edit my (and others’) work electronically, but I’m still old fashioned in this way. I like to print out the ms and hold it in my hand. Thus, the paper nightmare. I feel your pain! (I swear in my bad dreams my paper shredder turns into a monster/zombie/vampire and attacks me.)
    Living in such a small apartment has its pros and cons. The pro here is that I can’t keep too many stacks of papers, so I shred them as I’m finished with them.

    Have a shredding party and make it fun: your drink of choice, a marathon of your favorite tv show and away you go! 🙂

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      A shredding PARTY… NOW we’re talking! 🙂 I’m like you, unable to edit except on paper, and also a little envious. Small spaces require more organization. I need to think small and live large, right? Or should I say think small and WRITE large?

  17. I have a big box of manuscript discards in the basement waiting for the shredder (that we have yet to buy)…but I’ve also thrown away versions using the “mix-the-pages-up-and-put-them-in-separate-trash-bags” method. Gotta make it difficult for the trash-picking literary thief, right? 😉

    • Julia Munroe Martin says:

      I’m so glad to have learned through this post that I’m not the only one! I’ve thought about the mixed up pages idea, too! Or the one by one page idea — because I agree, gotta make it hard for the trash-picking literary thief, love that 🙂

  18. As a very GREEEEEEEN person who happens to adore trees, I use each piece of paper until it can’t be used any more. If a piece of paper is printed on one side, but available on the other, I use it.

    We invested in a commercial-grade shredder several years ago. It shreds paper (staples and paperclips) to infinitesimal bits. Someone serving a life sentence in prison couldn’t piece it back together, even if it mean they’d be pardoned!

    I shred as I go. If you’re behind the eight-ball, set a timer for 10-minutes and be diligent about investing 10-minutes each day to shredding. That way, the pile won’t get out of control.