Question of the Week: Formatting Writing

10 Sep

This week’s QOTW comes from Miss Rae, who asks:

I was wondering, how do you organize your manuscript as you type it up? Do you go chapter by chapter, each in it’s own word doc, etc. or do you type it up in one massive document? Why do you feel that system works best for you?


While I’m hammering out my first draft, I keep everything in one document. Doing it that way, for me, keeps a sense of flow and continuity. Plus it’s easy for me to go back and check what happened in chapter 2 that I’m trying to relate to events in chapter 13 and so on.

-The Newest LTWF Contributor!


I type everything in one word document. Everything. The rough outline, notes to myself on everything from things to include to changes I want to make later, the character list, the timeline, and the actual manuscript. Then I try to remember where everything is. It works for me because I like having things in one place. I have a tendency to loose anything and everything or forget where I’ve put something, so keeping the pertinent information in one document makes it harder for me to screw up. And I always have way too many documents open at once, so keeping as much as possible in one document cuts down on that.

-The Writer Querying


My method is similar to Jenn’s, in that I combine the outline with the first draft.  I maintain a clean copy of the outline in a separate file, but then I open a duplicate and start the narrative above the outline.  Then I can always refer to the outline for each chapter as I write.  It helps me feel more tethered to the story line.  Once chapter one is complete, I delete that part of the outline so that chapter two is directly below the narrative, and so on.  It helps me mark off progress in the draft, and when I’m really stuck, I just condense the outline for a chapter into a paragraph and paste it in where the chapter should go.  It may be ugly, but at least it’s a paragraph.  Filling out a crappy paragraph has always been easier for me than writing something original from scratch.

-The Writer Out on Submissions


I usually make individual word docs for each chapter. After I finish writing a chapter, I’ll do a brief/surface-level edit (mostly for awkward phrasing and typos), then I’ll go add it to the master doc/manuscript, which ultimately becomes the first draft. Then I put that first draft document away and don’t look at it again.

However, when it’s time for revisions, I’ll edit each chapter individually–each in its own new word doc. Seeing the chapters individually helps me to sort of structural issues within them. Just like when I write the first draft, I’ll compile all the revised chapters into a master doc. And once that’s done, then I’ll actually begin editing in the master doc/ms itself. Working so closely with each chapter/doc allows me to get a good sense of what’s happening in each scene (and its importance), so I’m then able to focus on the overall structure of the book/manuscript (which includes things like placing, moving chapters around, cutting out parts).

It sounds really convoluted, I know. But I’m a really visual learner, so there’s some kind of connection between all of these word documents that I compile and my ability to write/edit a manuscript.

-The Writer With Her First Book Deal


I actually tend not to even think about chapters for my first draft. I wrote HYBRID as one big doc with just three asterisks whenever I wanted to show a scene change. There were no chapters until the third draft, I think. Same with my first novel-which-shall-not-be-named. I tend to write things out of order a lot, so chapters don’t hold a lot of meaning for me–it’s just a bunch of numbering that will get really screwed up anyhow once I go back to “fill in the blanks.”

For the current WIP, I did start out with chapters, but that that’s because I actually did an outline for this story. However, I’ve kind of given up on the chapters thing halfway through because my “write things out of order” tic has come back full force 😛

I can’t imagine starting a new doc for each chapter. My chapters tend to be on the short side…I’d have so many documents and such, I wouldn’t know what to do–I’d forgot what happened in which document, and the search option wouldn’t work! I’d drive myself crazy.

-The Writer Who Just Signed With An Agent!


I usually have two word documents going when I’m writing: one for the draft, and another for notes or future scenes I’m playing around with, but don’t know if they’re going to be included in the draft or not.

That’s not to say that the draft is one nice, clean document. Oh, no. If I write scenes out of order I’ll place them about one blank page down from the actual draft (I’m really big on spaces separating works in progress), and place them in the order they will occur, kind of like placing puzzle pieces on a table -I know roughly where this piece goes, but don’t have any connectors right now.

-The Writer Converting Three Books Into One!


I write it all in one document. At the beginning of my MS, I often have a bunch of little notes – names of places/characters, small details, etc. And I always have chapters in my MS, even when it’s the first draft. I always seem to know when I would like a chapter to stop (and another one to start). I also use the Track Changes feature, so it helps to keep everything in the one document when I start to move paragraphs around. If all my chapters were in different documents, I think I’d start getting a bit confused. I just find it much easier to keep everything I need in one place.

-The Writer in Publishing Working On Her First Novel

How do you format your novels when you’re writing?

17 Responses to “Question of the Week: Formatting Writing”

  1. Laura September 10, 2010 at 9:25 AM #

    I found that my writing process became exponentially smoother/less stressful/more organized when I started using Scrivener for Mac. Before I discovered that program, my process looked a lot like Sarah’s…I like doing things chapter by chapter. I’d write a MSword document, save it, then move on to the next, compiling all of them in one when I finished.

    With Scrivener, I can see all of my chapters on the screen at once, in individual folders, so I have the feeling of the whole book around me, even as I work scene by scene. If I need to check something, I can easily pop back a few chapters and check, and move folders around if I sense that the overall structure of the book should change. It also has a great story-boarding feature. I highly recommend it to all Mac users out there!

    • Kat Zhang September 10, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

      I’ve heard so many cool things about Scrivener–I want it so badly, haha. But really, I don’t know how much I’d use it. It may turn out to be one of those gadgets that I get really excited about, but that doesn’t actually turn out super useful to my writing process in the end…

    • Carradee September 10, 2010 at 1:48 PM #

      Same! I LOVE Scrivener! Whether I need to look at it scene by scene, chapter by chapter, entire work at once, I can do whichever one I want with just a few clicks of the mouse. And if a scene or chapter or something doesn’t “feel” quite right, well, then, I can label it PROBLEM to be able to search and find more easily later.

      Do I need to look at an outline or style sheet while I’m writing? Easy. Split the pane, lock the style sheet in place, and then continue writing in my other doc. I’m currently doing copyedits for my third novel to reach a complete draft, and this one was almost all in Scrivener, taking me under 2 years to write. The first one was—and needed to be—trashed, and the second one still has a lot of substance edits to go through before I try a line edit.

      Getting faster each time. Maybe one day I’ll be able to churn out one every six months! 😀 …Plus edits.

      Before I had Scrivener, my writing process looked more like Savannah’s. Except I used (and still do) square brackets to mark author’s notes and things I needed to go back to or verify later.

      • Carradee September 10, 2010 at 1:50 PM #

        P.S. Mac users, Scrivener does have a 30-day free trial…

        And no, I’m not an affiliate.

        • Kat Zhang September 10, 2010 at 5:22 PM #


          But now I’ll need to pick the perfect time to spend that trial, haha. When I’m outlining my next book? (Which will be forever and a day from now) When I return to writing the first draft of my WIP? While I’m revising HYBRID? Hmm….

          • CA Marshall September 11, 2010 at 12:15 AM #

            I’m another writer that uses Scrivener! I heart Scriv!

            I used Word before, all in one “notes” document so I could have the tabs on the side (I loved the recording feature for audio notes, but those could never be exported.) Changing the format to a plain document put it into one huge file, but then the formatting was all wonky and the tabs were never really useful anyway as I couldn’t label them or mark them out to go back to later… Plus Word always crashed and I’d end up losing something.

            With Scriv, I can do all of that and more. I can have folders and subfolders and labels and use the cork board and have separate files for the draft of my query or a timeline or even photographs of things that inspire me or that I think look like my characters or scenery, all only a single click away.

            I know I sound like a pushy commercial, but I just can’t praise Scriv enough!

            • Kat Zhang September 11, 2010 at 10:17 AM #

              Gah, maybe I’ll just need to do some early Christmas present hinting ;P

  2. A. Barone September 10, 2010 at 12:41 PM #

    I don’t have one set way of writing. Sometimes it’s chapter by chapter. Sometimes it’s all in one document. Sometimes it is a combination of both. Outlines, snippets of story and chapter breakdowns are ALWAYS in a separate document no matter how I’m writing.

    • Kat Zhang September 11, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

      Oh yes, I never have my outline or notes and such in my main draft doc. I was actually pretty surprised that others did! But it does sound like an interesting idea…especially how Julie deletes her outline chapter by chapter…

  3. Aly September 10, 2010 at 5:15 PM #

    My current WIP is all in one huge document, which is great because I can just navigate up and down to check on things. The only big problem occurs when one of my friends wants to read it…

    “Can you print it out?”

    “It’s kind of too long…”

    “Well then can you e-mail it to me?”

    “Umm… it’s kind of too big…”

    • Kat Zhang September 11, 2010 at 10:20 AM #

      Wow, your doc is too big to email? :O Hahaha. You could try gmail. I’ve never had a problem sending or receiving huge documents…and I’ve gotten some big docs in the past 😛

  4. Armith-Greenleaf September 10, 2010 at 5:42 PM #

    Hmm, interesting. My process is a lot like Sarah’s, separate files for each chapter (all saved in the same folder), with a few help docs. But I keep my heavy outlines in a cute notebook/moleskine/agenda thing that is always next to me as a I write. It has no page marks but somehow I know where *everything* is lol.

    (Read: AG is a control freak 😀 )

    I used to write the whole thing in one file before, until the docs became so heavy I’d have problems scrolling up and down because it’d freeze. Granted this happened in an old computer with 1997-2003 Word, but now I’m too used to separate docs to go back to that. 😛

    Also I always structure the stories into chapters of about the same length, which I realize is not what ultimately happens in books. This might be a problem later.

    • Kat Zhang September 11, 2010 at 10:22 AM #

      I have recently become ADDICTED to my mini-moleskine. It’s practically essential to my revisions. For whatever reason, I don’t like to outline or brainstorm on the computer…I think the delete key is too handy, haha. I like to do it in ink, on paper, so I can’t erase. It shuts off my inner editor so I can forge ahead.

  5. September 10, 2010 at 7:26 PM #

    Haha – I keep notes and deleted sections in one document, and everything else that still fits in my manuscript in another document. One of the best motivations is to look at the total page number or word count and think, “Hey, if I did that once, I can do it again! And again! Anddd if this story gets really long, again!”

    • Kat Zhang September 11, 2010 at 10:22 AM #

      That’s really cool! Seeing your wordcount grow is indeed a great motivator 😀

  6. Madeleine September 11, 2010 at 1:53 AM #

    I keep notes, outlines, character docs, etc. separate from the MS, but the manuscript is typed in one document. I use the search engine often, and it helps me to be able to look back all the time. If I write something out of sequence, it ends up in a different document (all of these being within the same folder). I’ve gotten less organized over time, but it really depends on the type of MS/story.

    • Kat Zhang September 11, 2010 at 10:23 AM #

      Yes, I use the search engine all the time! I always need to check back to make sure everything matches up and that i actually wrote something, not just thought I wrote it, lol.

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