Do copywriters need tidy desks?

I went to visit an architect the other day. He’s just starting out in business and is working out of a basement flat.

Ben's Tidy Desk

“I like to work in mess,” he told me, waving his arm in the direction of papers, crockery and an overflowing kitchen sink. “It helps me be creative.”

I know what he means. My desk has historically looked like a crack addict’s, with a substrate of papers, grotty cups, broken pencils and (pre-2005) overflowing ashtrays that could easily make you assume the Mac on the top had been stolen.

And even at its tidiest, my desk has always had ‘The Pile’.

The Pile is a reproach, a nagging conscience made paper. It’s a tower of copy-edited manuscripts, supporting documents, brochures, acknowledgement slips, memos, coffee stained clean-back A4 and God-know-what-else.

I’ve always flattered myself that I know what’s in The Pile. But the truth could be summed up by the words ‘little of value’. Every three months I gather The Pile and its undealt-with predecessors and chuck the whole lot in the recycling bin.

But over the last few weeks, things have changed. I’ve made a determined effort to keep my desk tidy, and I’ve bought 100 square-cut folders to help me.

Now, each time I work on a client’s project, I shove all the paperwork in a folder and write their name on the front.

If I switch to another client’s work, I put all the papers back in the folder, remove it from the desk and replace it with the new client’s file.

Man, 37, discovers ‘filing’

The result has been miraculous. I’m being much more productive. Not because of the lack of clutter, but because of the extra discipline. Only having one client’s work on my desk prevents me from switching between projects, so each one gets my undivided attention.

So to get back to the question, I’d say copywriters don’t need tidy desks.

But if a tidy desk gives you the extra focus you need to work better, then I suggest you go for it.

Besides, as the great David Ogilvy said:

(Today I am a martinet in making my staff keep their offices shipshape. A messy office creates an atmosphere of sloppiness, and leads to the disappearance of secret papers.)

Now I just need to find a way of sorting out the desktop on my Mac. I’m ashamed to say The Pile there is a folder called ‘For Filing’.

  • Ben's Tidy Desk


22nd June 2012

Andy Nattan

Don’t even get me started on the state of my computer. My desk is bad enough, but my “filing” system on my work PC involves 40 different folders with nothing in, and everything I’ve ever done crammed into a file called “Misc”.

24th June 2012

Georgina El Morshdy

I’m grinning in recognition as I turn my head towards my pile. In addition to “work” it also consists of a growing collection of kids doodles, mail and stuff I plan to look at when I get a free moment. I periodically tidy my desk and always feel better for doing so. Don’t they say that a cluttered desk = a cluttered mind!

24th June 2012

Mel Fenson

Shuddering in sympathy about ‘the pile’. I once tried to use a basket for the pile because I thought it would somehow be neater. It became a hideous black hole, albeit with a pretty rattan pattern. Back to the straightforward pile then…

25th June 2012

Phil Waddicor

Having given my desk the Feng Shui treatment over the weekend, it now feels strangely unfamiliar this Monday morning – like I’m sitting in someone else’s work space.

Not sure about this minimalist look. Still, won’t be long before it’s back to its reassuringly messy best.

28th June 2012

Mike Reed

I have a Pile too, and go through precisely the same process every so often. So what exactly are square-cut folders? Don’t laugh, I genuinely don’t know. They sound magical.

1st July 2012

Anthony Lane

While I don’t believe that tidiness leads to better work, I confess that my computer filesystem is in immaculate order, although my desk is a pigsty.

My wife’s mac desktop however, is so overpopulated with files that the computer refuses to acknowledge their existence unless approached through a finder window. I keep offering to clean it up for her, but she flatly refuses. Apparently, she “knows where everything is”…

7th July 2012

Rodney Isemann

Mine is called INBOX. I have them going back years. Never manage to get in there and sort through it.

I envy organised people.


13th July 2012

Tracey Dooley

I have piles. The afore-mentioned paper kind, you understand.

I can’t seem to get rid of them. Every time I ‘deal’ with one (i.e., hide it in the cupboard), another one seems to takes it place. Thing is, I can’t bear to shove them into the great void that is the rubbish bin “” because, surely then I’ll be missing that important piece of paper!

But I agree, a tidy desk leads to a calmer, more organised working environment; if only I could deal with those piles properly…

13th August 2012

Cheryl Pennant-Jones

I’m a neat freak. My desk is minimalist, and my office (though the odd item mounts up over the course of the week) is cleaned to perfection every weekend.

The same couldn’t be said of my computer, back when I used to quickly download files, wonder if I’d ever need them again, store them somewhere obscure and never come across them again. Now, I keep a separate laptop which I download everything to, and do non-work related internetty-stuff on. If something earns its right to be upgraded from that laptop, we can safely assume it’s vital. Poor laptop.

8th October 2012

Charlotte Mothers

Tidying my desk is my form of procrastination! I kid myself that everything needs to be in its right place before I can truly ‘be creative’, but all I really need to do is light a candle and get on with it.

As for my computer, now that’s definitely in order. Looking at a cluttered desktop sends me into a panic, but now I have so many folders and subfolders that it takes a while to find what I need!

16th January 2013

Jim Mitchem

I actually can’t write anything without a completely clean desk – including it being freshly dusted. One laptop. One monitor. Everything in perfect order.

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