Writing Well

I never took a class in how to hold a big writing project together. I don’t think anybody did, not back when I was in college, anyway. I studied creative writing, along with literature, rhetoric, business writing, etc. But back then you wrote stuff, you edited and edited and rewrote and revised. And if you hadn’t already been typing during that process, at some point you wouldn’t probably be expected to type your manuscript.

moleskine1Research was discussed, of course. Writers have always done research. We students were dispatched to the library, and we kept copious notes in our colorful Mead notebooks, with Bic ballpoint pens. (Sometimes I used a #2 pencil.) We had electric typewriters and liquid paper, or those little correction strips.

But one thing was never discussed in my classes: project management. I don’t think I even heard the term, except maybe referring to construction, until years later. But the fact is that a writing project is just as much in need of management as an overpass or an office building. And organization, my friend, is a humorless old goat.


In the face of this seething vacuum – this leering lack of tangible, relevant advice, I have struggled. I have cast my lines upon the torpid seas of the Internet in search of suggestions and insight:

How do you keep your notes, and your brain, organized while you try to write long fiction?

The answer comes back as a ghostly voice singing thinly from the depths of a well:

Find what works for you and do that … at …at.

Well, thanks. That’s so helpful.

I’ve tried asking concrete questions: During revisions, do you maintain your manuscript as a single digital file (such as a Word file) or do you use multiple files for chapters or sections? Why? (Compare and contrast.)

Do you keep your notes – ideas, concerns, thoughts, research, etc. – in handwritten notebooks, in a notes program like Evernote or OneNote, in a separate Word doc, in the same document with the manuscript…?

How do you keep your notes organized, so that when you return to a chapter to revise, you’ll have your notes at hand?

Here’s a biggie, a very popular topic among writers: Do you outline, or not? No consensus there; again, the voice from the well.

Well, I’ve tried all of the above. I’ve got notes for my project in Evernote, in Notepad text files, in Word files, in Google Docs, in notebooks in ballpoint and gell ink, and in e-mails addressed to myself. I’ve even tried appending all the notes to the end of the in-process manuscript, as a 20-30 page appendix, with hyperlinks from the pertinent passages of text. That got cumbersome.

Tonight, I read this page by a professor of English at a small Tennessee college, in which he answers the Outlines and Notes questions for himself. I found it not unhelpful. And it’s encouraging that he wound up doing the same thing I did.

For this fellow, outlining in a complex sense does not serve. Me too. I need a list of scenes, but that’s it. He makes lots of notes, as do I. We both admire and use Evernote quite a lot, but keep our novel project notes in Word. He wrote:

I made two documents.  One was my manuscript file.  … The other document was my notes file.  It was just a normal MS Word .docx, but I separated it into sections:

  • Backstory Notes (this section included organizational subheadings depending on what part of the novel I was trying to clarify)
  • Structure Notes
  • Plot Notes
  • Revision Notes
  • Unused Text

Under each of these sections sits a series of bullet points that I could append anytime I felt like it.  Some of the stuff didn’t end up making it into the first draft, but a lot of it did.  And that’s okay because I knew by just looking at the document what went where and why.

That’s sort of what I did, but mine has a lot more sections; e.g., character notes, landmarks, timelines, themes, etc.

I also put very short notes and observations in the manuscript, using Word’s comments function. That works well, as least for the current draft.

I still think the more lightweight tools, like a good notebook, Evernote, or even Notepad, are good for getting the idea out of the brain cloud into the digital one. But then it needs to go in the Word file, organized, and preferably by the end of the day.

I guess the moral of the story is that we really do have to plod through this process of finding what works for us, occasionally tossing a dime in a taciturn old well. Or you can keep reading good old Metaphor. And leave your preferences and insights in the comments, OK? To put it another way….

Well, keep in touch.

1 thought on “Writing Well

  1. I have always, without even thinking about it, written my entire novels in one novel document. It astounded me when I learned other writers did chapters in individual word docs! I think mostly b/c I need to feel I have the 'whole thing' open and in my field of vision when I write. (which used to mean I always had a printed copy sitting beside me, especially once I got to the later stages of editing – I needed even more concretely to have that whole thing in my hands)With regards to notes, I have used Moleskine notebooks for many years and continue to do so. At one point I had a Moleskine for each book but later I ended up using one Moleskine for the current book and for any other book ideas that popped up for me. So the current Moleskine that is now full has notes for two books in it, and also ideas for about 12 new books. A few months ago I couldn't find that Moleskine and ended up in a state of panic – for about a half hour – then I shrugged and decided it was kind of nice having a "clean slate" – then of course it turned up. When working on new first drafts I always have a Clairefontaine flip notebook – the full size one with the cover that spirals up like a pad so both margins are clear. I use these to write sections in longhand when I get stuck, or when I want to open up the horizons of the story. I don't know why but the act of putting ink onto a page really loosens things up creatively for me. A fair amount of claire-obscure was written on one of those pads, in the near dark of a certain bar where the main male character might have hung out. For some reason I was able to channel him best there, and I would sit and write huge numbers of pages (partly because I had to write big and leave lots of space since I couldn't see the pages!).I love the process – being in it, and talking about it.

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