Updated: Sep 26, 2020
Let me say up front that I DO NOT USE SCRIVENER. Yes, yes, I know that Scrivener is the be-all-end-all of writing programs, and that 78% of you think I’m missing out massively by not using it. But… I don’t have it.
Because I don’t have it, I have experimented with a variety of other programs. You can find reviews for those programs here on my blog. I even tried Scrivener’s free trial! But I found Scrivener to have a learning-curve I wasn’t quite ready to tackle. Learning Scrivener is on my “To-Do Eventually” list. But do you know what’s on my “To-Do ASAP” list? Writing. Like, actually producing books.
And to make that happen as efficiently as possible, as old-school as it seems, I usually use Microsoft Word.
Microsoft Word doesn’t have all the fancy planning features many other writing programs have. But IT CAN BE MADE TO WORK if you can’t (or don’t want to) invest the money in a more expansive writing software. While the other programs I’ve tried have lots of cool features, most of those things I prefer to do by hand anyway, at least for now. When I really need to produce writing as quickly and seamlessly as possible, Microsoft Word is my jam.
This post is for those who don’t have fancier software, but probably have Microsoft Word (or a comparable word processor) and want to know how to make the most of it for the writing process.
Here’s how I make it work for me:
1. Separate files for outlines, planning, and drafts.
When I start a new project, I create a folder for it on my computer. Then I create an outline for the project, and save it into its own document. Any planning files I need — research notes, character bios, setting info, world-building lore — each gets its own separate doc file. I sort these into folders in whatever way makes the most sense, such as a “Characters” folder that includes separate doc files for each character’s info, or an “Ideas” folder that includes little snippets of scenes or things I want to add in but don’t know where to put yet.
When I begin actually writing, I create a new document and name it as a first draft. If I make any major changes, I “Save As” into a new document and name it as a second draft. And so on to the Final Draft, Beta Reader version, E-book format version (once I reach that point), and so on. I store all these files into labeled folders (Drafts, Outlines, Notes, etc.) within the larger folder titled by the book name, which then goes inside a special “Books for Publication” folder inside a “Writing” folder on my computer.
Simple? Yes. Effective? Also yes. I can easily find everything I need simply by accessing and opening that file… and once you’ve opened the relevant folder inside Word, it will default to opening that same folder the next time, so it’s quick and easy to access whatever you need and do most of your outlining, planning, and writing right inside the program.
2. The Comments Feature
While I’m writing, if I notice anything I need to come back to later, or anything I need to rethink or rewrite, I simply use Word’s “Comments” feature to add myself a marginal note about it. These Comments can be toggled on and off easily from the menu bar, so it’s a quick and simple way to visually see everything you’ll need to revisit later. This is so valuable for quieting that inner critic who wants to perfect everything right then. I simply mark it so I can fix it later, and then keep writing.
When it comes time to edit, all my initial notes are already right there, and I can add more as I read through and find other things that need to be fixed. (This is also how I request my Beta Readers and editors provide feedback — I request that they use the Comments feature to leave me in-line notes, so I can see exactly what they’re referring to in their comments. They can also use Track Changes to make edits in-text, and then when they send the file back to me, I can easily see anything they changed. I use this same process as a professional editor, and my clients are always pleased with the ease and specificity of the feedback.)
If you have a word processor other than Word and can’t do marginal Comments, you can achieve a similar effect by simply adding notes to yourself in a bold, red font within your text. When it comes time to edit, simply scroll through and carefully look for anything red. If you also add a tag-word with each red insertion (something like NOTE or EDITS), you can easily use the Search & Find feature in your program to locate all of your notes so that you don’t miss any.
3. Formatted Headings and Page-Breaks
Though I don’t always do this on the first draft, when I reach later drafts or while editing, I use Word’s built-in formatting to make my job easier. You can select “Title,” “Subtitle,” “Heading 1,” “Heading 2,” “Normal,” and so on from the Home menu bar, enabling you to tag your Chapter Titles, Heading Titles, etc., in a way that Word recognizes. You can even customize the appearance of each if you don’t like the default style. I also take the time to insert a Page-Break at the end of each chapter or section.
Why would you do this? Because it makes your life so much easier later. If you have all the headings marked, then Word can automatically create an accurate Table of Contents for you… which means you can easily click-and-go to any part of the document you want. If you’re a self-publisher, it also means that TONS of work just got done for you, especially if you did the Page-Break inserts, too. The page-breaks mean your chapters won’t run together when your book is converted into another format, and many of the platforms (including Amazon KDP) can read your signified headings, titles, etc., and auto-create an adaptable Table of Contents for your e-book. It’s also 90% of the way to what you’ll need for formatting a CreateSpace print book, though you’ll need to adjust the page sizes in your document for your selected print size.
Basically, doing these steps in your actual Word document means that Word is doing much of the heavy-lifting of formatting for you. Thanks, Word.
4. Store & Sort Notes and Outlines
If you’re a visual planner, you may find that Word’s features are a bit too limited for your full planning process. That’s okay… I’m a visual planner, too! This is why if I have a very complex story to plan, I use a hybrid of outlines (inside Word) and a bunch of notecards/sticky notes/diagrams/etc. that end up spread all over my walls and bulletin boards (and sometimes floor) as I’m figuring things out. But this works for me, because I actually like the tactile nature of it, the ability to physically rearrange sticky notes and spread things out in my tangible space as though I’m standing inside my own brainstorm.
Once I get things a bit more organized, I transfer the important notes into outlines. I can even snap photos of my boards or notecards and then insert those photos into the appropriate Word document to supplement my typed notes, or simply store the photos within my story folders alongside my doc files, so that they’re in the same place as the other notes and documents for that story. From that point on, everything is in one place, and the majority of my planning and writing happens within Word. I also have my Documents folder set to auto-backup to my Google Drive, so anything I create or save through Word gets automatically backed up and protected… and I can access it from anywhere.
Is Word the perfect program to solve all your writing and planning problems? No. But then, is anything, really? Someday I will probably try again to figure out Scrivener, because it does have some cool features. But right now my time is limited, my priority for what time I do have for writing needs to be actually writing, and the time spent figuring out a new (and rather complex) software isn’t time I can afford.
For now, Word works for me. And it has for years. Like, years and years.
I’ve seen some writers say that Word slowed them down or made it difficult for them to navigate drafts or files, but I have never had this issue. I think this may just come down to forethought in how you title, organize, and store your doc fi