Color My World

mary Ellen Collins

One of my editors emailed her thanks for an assignment and added, “Why is it in so many pretty colors?” Oops. I’d forgotten to “select all” and convert my red/green/blue/purple/pink/orange text to black. With a couple of keystrokes, she got the format she expected.

My trade magazine features can require up to dozen sources, which means many interviews and lots of quotes. Sometime early in my freelance life, I realized I needed a way to keep the sources and their material straight, especially during the cutting and pasting part of the editing process. The solution?  Type the notes from each interview in a different color.

 I’ve developed multiple methods of choosing a color for each person – sometimes women get stereotypical reds and pinks and the men get blues and greens. When I interview reps from colleges, I often use the institutional colors. A person from an environmental organization might have his words captured in green; and it’s pretty obvious what color I would choose for a Mr. Brown. I always save my least favorite color, orange, for sources who are unquoteworthy or otherwise problematic. I type original text in black, and the resulting rainbow drafts give me a visual overview of who said what; and where I need to write transitions between first-person examples. The colors facilitate turning an overwhelming mishmash of perspectives, examples and quotes into a coherent article.

Color also figures into other areas of my organizational systems. I stalk the office supply stores for sales on plastic pocket folders, and have assigned a different hue to each client. When I’ve made an initial contact to schedule an interview, I stick a pastel pink or blue Post-it on top of the person’s information sheet. If I have to follow up – that’s another Post-it. As soon as I reach the person and confirm an interview time, I exchange the pastel markers for one in neon pink or green. I can peek into the folder of every project in progress, and know at a glance how many interviews are scheduled and how many are still outstanding.

Friends and family members often describe my organizational style as being somewhere on the spectrum between neurotic and obsessive, but I just shrug and say, “It works for me.” Combining a love of order and an eye for color gives me a sense of comfortable control over a frenetic freelance life. And what writer wouldn’t want that?