Some Words About Word

My current WIP is in the final stages of edits—over 300 manuscript pages, 30 chapters, over 80,000 words.
And almost every day when I sit down to edit, revise, hone my words, I struggle with MS-Word: the word processor I use (I can’t say word processor of choice, it’s just what I have, what I use). And MS-Word and I? We often don’t get along. And that’s a problem because I spend a lot of time with Word, approximately 12 hours a day these days.

First, some background: I’ve been using word processing software since before there was word processing software. The truth is I’ve been using computers to write since before computers were used to write—since typewriters were used to write. And I’ve written users’ guides about computer software. So I know a thing or two about software and computers. Furthermore, I’ve read a lot about using MS-Word.

So why can’t I figure out the best way to use MS-Word to write a book?

For one thing, Word keeps changing—I recently upgraded to Word for Mac 2011 and had to learn a whole new way of using it. Frustrating in the middle of trying to finish my novel. But as much as it changed, some of the most annoying things remained the same, for instance: “Why the heck did you auto format that? Please don’t make that into a list…indent that text…change the font size…start a new page…or whatever else you did automatically—unless I want you to!” (Yes that’s in quotes because I actually speak out loud to my computer, specifically to MS-Word.)

But that’s not why I’m writing this post—the real reason I’m writing this post—the thing that is really confounding me about MS-Word right now is: “Why do you not have a way to write (and by write I mean manage) a long document, say a novel?”

The thing is, I keep all my chapters in separate files—for me they’re easier to manage that way, easier to revise as I’m writing, easier to go through, easier to find things in. But now… toward the end, it’s so annoying. To have to repaginate everything every time I make a change, doing seemingly endless searches through 30 chapters for things I want to change. Keeping track of which chapters I’ve changed what things in. And I can’t believe there’s not a better way.

I have writer friends who have one long novel-length document—which is what I started to create this morning from all the separate chapters—but I worry: will it be unwieldy? Will it take too long to load? To search? Should I use an MS-Word “master document” with chapters as contents—which is one of the ways MS-Word suggests to do long documents? (Not that I’m particularly interested in any advice MS-Word has for me.)

And that’s why I’m writing this post, to ask you my writer friends: how do you manage your long documents? What are the tricks you’ve developed, the resources you use? If not for this novel, this WIP, then for the next, I’ll be ready and start with a system that works. So that when I reach the end of my novel, I’m not equally consumed with figuring out MS-Word as I am with celebrating THE END of my novel.

Please leave your advice in comments!




  1. Hi Julia, I don’t write long documents so I’m not sure how helpful this will be, but I’ve been using a programme called TreepadPlus for years. The main thing I like about it is that there is a panel with links to all you ‘text’ files and folders. Great for quick access to text document and for swapping from one to another very quickly. Has oodles of setting, just like Word.

    Yep, I do the talking to my computer thing too… sometimes without even realising it! :o)

  2. Missy Olive says:

    Somewhere on one of these blogs that I follow, someone had mentioned Scrivener as a program for writing. I downloaded the Beta version but have to sadly admit that I haven’t started beyond my chapter outline.

    I’m looking forward to following the comments to see what others recommend.

  3. Hi Julia, first, congrats on getting so far with the manuscript – you must be feeling fab! Re the Ms word thing – I use it too, but I keep my manuscripts as one long document and amend on paper, then do those on the document. It always loads easy enough and repaginates itself, so it works for me. I can understand the logic to small chapter documents though, it’s just not something I’ve ever done. Hope you find a happy way to resolve this.

  4. Erika Marks says:

    Ack! I’m so glad I’m not the only one, Julia! I will admit I am so lazy–I STILL struggle with all the quirks you listed (indents that crop up for no apparent reason and I can’t get them to go away being the top at my list!) and still I never take the time to figure out how to correct them–it’s maddening!

    I’ll be reading these comments for advice too–thanks so much for bringing the subject up, dear!

  5. Barb Riley says:

    I do the same thing (individual chapters in Word), and have yet to compile them all together. But I recently enrolled in an online class for Scrivener and I am super excited to use it for my next WIP! I’d downloaded Scrivener after NaNo 2010, but could not wrap my brain around how to use it. So when I saw Gwen Herndandez’s online class: I jumped at the chance. It was only $25 (easily worth double that), and she is an awesome and hands-on teacher. I highly, highly recommend it. You will be ahhmazed at how Scrivener can work for you. Especially if you are not a linear thinker. Not only did I learn Scrivener, but since Scrivener was developed for Mac users, often times I could take away information pertaining to Scrivener to help me understand something within the Mac software better. The class is just wrapping up and the compliments are jamming my class inbox… Everyone loves Gwen!!

    In the mean time, can’t you undo auto format? (Surely it’s not that easy! LOL)

  6. E.J. Wesley says:

    As others have mentioned, there are tons of ‘writing’ software options out there that are basically word processors for writers. (They allow for chapter tagging and jumping, etc.)

    I, like you, use Word pretty much exclusively. (Mac also.) For drafting and reading purposes I really like the ‘Full Screen’ option (under ‘view’ dropdown). In it, the document is the lone object on your screen with a nice background (you can customize it … mine is wood, like a desk). No distractions, and very clean.

    I also know some people are wizards at using the editing functions. I’m not one of those people. :) However, I do know you can create note markers (and jump to them), and many other useful things when revising.

    I might try your suggestion of chopping it into chapters next time I draft a novel. Honestly, I usually end up doing that anyway during revisions so it might save me a step.


  7. Emma Pass says:

    I use Word 2011 for Mac too, and keep my novel as one long document. I tend to remember key words or sentences from certain parts of the story, so I type them into the ‘find’ function if I want to go to a certain point in the MS. The reason I use it is because I have some specially formatted pages in my latest MS, and found when I used Pages and saved a copy in Word (as publishers like you to email MSS in Word), that the formatting didn’t carry across – very frustrating! So it was easier to give in and use it from the start.

    My latest MS comes in at over 400 pages and is almost 3MB in size, but I haven’t ever had a problem with it, so I don’t think you need to create a Master document.

    These were a few things I found made it easier to use:

    a) Turn off ALL the ‘help’ (I say that through gritted teeth) functions, including spell/grammar check, autocorrect, auto-format, auto-capitalise etc, so it behaves more like a traditional word processing programme. And for the love of dog, turn off that flipping paperclip!!

    b) For indents at the start of a new paragraph, go to FORMAT >> PARAGRAPH and then, under ‘Indentation’, in the drop box under ‘Special’, select ‘First Line’. Whenever you press Enter to start a new paragraph, it indents automatically without you having to press tab or the space bar.

    c) Use page breaks at the end of each chapter – then, if you add a new chapter in the middle of the MS, it will automatically move the following chapters onto new pages.

    d) If there is a bit you want to be able to get back to and you don’t think you’ll remember it, you can bookmark it by highlighting the relevant text, then going to INSERT >> BOOKMARK (near the bottom of the menu), and typing in a title for that bookmark where it says ‘Bookmark name’ (note: you can only use one word, or else you have to run words together without spaces). When you want to find it again, go back to ‘Bookmark’ in the Insert menu and it should be there – double click on the bookmark name to go to it.

    If there’s anything else I can help with, Julia, send me an email! x

  8. I, too, yell at Word for Mac because of the autoformat crap. When I am typing the word “O-F-F-I-C-E,” I don’t appreciate it substituting “Microsoft Office” (or other such nonsense).

    As you know, I use Word as one long document that I “call” a master document, though I believe the newer versions of the software actually have a function called a master document (which I am too lazy to figure out). Funny that everyone is mentioning Scrivener; I was going to suggest it, too, b/c I’ve heard so much about it (just had a convo with another writer about this over the weekend).

    But I also don’t like having to learn new software (which is why I WON’T upgrade my Word while I’m in the middle of a giant project). But the mention of the online class for Scrivener… I can’t tell you how excited I am to learn of it! On the next novel, I may want to try it, though I am SO visual and tactile, I kind of enjoyed using actual index cards that I could spread out on my table to organize (before, obviously, my ms became larger).

    A large Word doc doesn’t load slowly, and the ‘search’ function allows you to find words and phrases with ease!

  9. Dean, I’ll definitely be checking out TreePadPlus — sounds like an interesting app. Isn’t it amazing what the writing at home life will do to improve our ability for cross-people-to-machine communication? 😉

    Missy, I’ve heard of Scrivener before and I keep meaning to check it out — but like you, I wonder if I’d ever use it if it’s got a learning curve. That’s one of the things that drives me crazy about Word (or anything)…. I need to learn stuff instead of writing! But I’ll def. check out Scrivener and let’s hope we get some more good ideas from others, too, right? :-)

    Abi, I’m feeling fab about the novel also really looking forward to being done!! Glad the single long doc works for you — I’ll be so interested to see how it works for me — sounds wonderfully easy!

    Erika, Yes, MS-Word is MADDENING, and according to MEH (my expert for all things technical and much more), it’s because the code is so buggy! He has a low opinion of all things Microsoft anyway, so at least we can gripe together! :-) Let’s hope for some great recommendations here!

    Barb, Thank you for the class idea!! Another vote for Scrivener — I knew you’d mentioned that before! I’ll check out the class (although I am a linear thinker…. I still think it will be interesting to learn about it!). As for undo and auto format, those are two of my best friends in MS-Word BUT some things are NOT undoable AND it wastes so much time and distracts me from the flow! :-)

    E.J., Thanks for the “Full Screen” idea! I’ve never used that — only print layout. I’ll definitely check it out. Glad I gave you the chapter idea — I think next time I’ll even be tagging the titles with descriptions of scenes — the chapters end up changing in location so much that it’s pretty annoying when I end up with things like chapters 1, 1.5, 1.75, 2, etc. LOL. :-) Great suggestions, thank you!

    Emma, The find function is key, I agree, and that’s one of the biggest arguments for one long doc — I don’t have to search in 30 documents! I try to remember to write down things I want to search for (like the frequent repetitive words I seems to use to describe the coastal setting — a big thing in this book). UGH I hate it when formatting is lost; very frustrating! I’m SO glad you told me the size of your doc! I’ve been worried that mine will be too big, but 400 I’m well below 400 pages, so yay! And thank you for your tips — I wondered about page vs. section breaks — and I opted for sections, are pages better? Great tip for the bookmark! Awesome help, thank you! :-) p.s. you may well get an email w/ more question, too!

    Melissa, Oh NO not a substitute like that for Office. UGH. It’s like when I start any word with J-U it tries to auto format my name. So annoying. Here’s to another vote for Scrivener — def. need to check it out, although I’m getting pretty psyched to try the one doc approach. Master docs in Word are problematic (I’ve used them for nonfiction projects) because they add all kinds of formatting metas to the file. Really hard to strip out for creating “just a text file” to send to someone. I also really am glad to hear that the large docs don’t take long to load or search — I think my worries stem from the olden days of very slow systems (not that my system is super fast).

  10. Tracy Seeley says:

    I also really recommend getting Scrivener and uploading your files there. MUCH easier to work with unwieldy, long docs-in-progress. And it’s worth the hours it takes to learn (the tutorial said it would take 2; it took me 5).

    But when I was working on my book, I didn’t know about Scrivener. So I kept my chapters in separate docs–until near the end, when I merged them all, which magically re-paginated everything. By that time, I wasn’t having to make so many changes, so it was also easier to search.

    You can also turn off the Auto Format functions–which I agree, are annoying as hell.

  11. Lisa says:

    Word is a pain. (Almost as much of a pain as commenting in Blogger). It incorporates a lot of crappy code that messes everything up. But, on my last book (my only book) and for my dissertation I kept every chapter separate and then merged them into one document. I think I just cut and paste, so that I didn’t have to repaginate.

    There must be an easier way.


  12. Tracy, That’s so encouraging to hear from a real-live-Scrivener user! I’ll make sure I block out 5 hours to learn (when I do) because I like to take my time with new software or it is too frustrating! Sounds like you did your book just like I am now with Word…. moving it into one doc now it’s nearly at query stage. And AH-HA I did NOT know I could turn of auto format function! I will definitely do that today (of course then I worry that something else will go haywire–lovely cascading effects of MS-Word!). Thank you! :-)

    Lisa, That is hilarious that you brought up Blogger because I came SO close at the end of this post to make a comment about Blogger! It never does things the same ways twice… and just this morning when I tried to upload this post, it changed all the formatting. SOO annoying! So I’m glad you said that :-) And I see that you also did your “final doc” the same way I am, good to know it worked! Thanks! :-)

  13. yWriter! yWriter! yWriter! I know, Word is a relatively comfy place to write, especially when you’re used to it, but I cannot recommend yWriter enough. The software was designed and created by an author who wanted to stop the exact problems you are going through, so he just made himself a program that did what he needed – oh, the joys of being a computer programmer.


  14. Jo Hall says:

    I’ve always put one long document into Word (my last MSS was 600+ pages) and I’ve never had a problem with loading times. It does make it easier to find things. Mind you, I am a computer idiot, so there are probably lots of shortcuts and tricks I’m missing, but I find it the eaiest way to do it for me. I agree with the above comment – turn off all help (maybe not spellcheck 😉 ), especially the paperclip and the frankly insane grammar checker, and you should be ok.

  15. I use Word, too. I did my last novel as one long document and it felt cumbersome, so this time I’m doing a separate file for each chapter. And I’ve had all of the same problems you mention for both methods.

    I’ve heard good things about Scrivener but have never tried it. Maybe I need to give it, or some other program, a shot. If you do, I hope you’ll let us know how it goes.

  16. Ashlee, Just looked up yWriter and I guess it’s the PC version of Scrivener!? I will definitely check it out — sounds wonderful! Thanks for the recommendation!

    Jo, Thanks for the tips; I’m glad to hear form another writer who uses the long file in word approach! Wow, 600+ pages makes me feel a little faint 😉 That’s impressive word counts!! Thanks again for your comment and for your visit to my blog!

    Shary, That’s so funny that we’re essentially switching sides — I’ll be so curious to hear how you like the separate chaps after doing one long document! I think the way others have said to do it (merge all the separate chapters at the end) sounds the most sensible to me, but we’ll see once I try it once. So far I’ve got Chaps 1-5 of 30 into one document. As for Scrivener, it does sound amazing — and I agree, let’s exchange info about it if we use it!

  17. Great post! Great discussion and suggestions!

    My most recent long documents have been in Movie Magic – and screenplays are shorter and less densely worded than novels – so I didn’t have most of these issues. But for any novels in the future, I’m planning to check out yWriter mentioned by Ashlee. (Thanks, Ashlee.)

    In the past when I’ve struggled with Word, one of my solutions would be to take it as a signal to chop. If I ended up with any pages or paragraphs hanging out where I didn’t want them to be, I would start chopping words until things fell into place. This forced me to tighten my writing and I was always really happy with the results.

    But, mostly, I’ve been finding every reason to avoid Word whenever possible.

  18. Ann says:

    It sounds like you’ve received some good advice. I don’t write long documents, but it’s good to know that there is a place to go back to if I ever do!

  19. Well, I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this Word mess.
    I write in one long document. (My WIP is about the same length as yours – 90,000 words.)

    I keep each chapter as a separate section within the larger document. Then I can go into thumbnail view mode and drag and drop the sections if I want to move them and they are still easily searchable. It also helps me to see at a glance roughly how long each chapter is, so I don’t have one chapter that is 40 pages and another that is 8 pages.

    Emma’s advice about using bookmarks was a great tip. I’m going to give that a try.

    Here’s to being on the home stretch!

  20. Milli, Movie Magic sounds like so much fun — just the name probably makes every project easier :) I know exactly what you mean about the chopping words thing… me too! :) Here’s to managing or avoiding Word!

    Ann, Yes, great advice, so glad I blogged about this! Here’s to shared information — so helpful! :)

    Jackie, I love the idea of different sections with thumbnails, but of course Word 2011 for Mac doesn’t seem to have thumbnails (just spent about 20 minutes looking!! ugh)… if anyone knows differently, please let me know in comments! It sounds like such a cool way to manage the doc. I loved Emma’s suggestion of bookmarks as well, and I’ll give that a try as well. And agreed… here’s a cheer to the homestretch :-)


  21. Sorry I have no hints for you, Julia. I’m a Mac person.

    On another note, I tagged you for the Lucky 7 meme. Hope you would like to participate.

  22. I have nothing to add but only admiration for you. Since I have never gotten that far — can’t tell you how to best use Word. Congrats for getting this far. Can’t wait to read what you’ve been laboring over.

  23. Wow, Julia–twelve hours a day is quite a feat! It is very simple the way I would find things in my novel. I would just type in a key word from a scene under Edit and then Find. Sorry that I cannot get more techy than that!

  24. Karen, Thank you so much for including me in the Lucky 7 Meme! I will definitely be by your blog to give you my feedback! p.s. that’s just it… I’m a mac person too, and word for mac is driving me crazy :)

    Jamie, You just made my day! That’s such a sweet thing to say! I hope you will get a chance to read this novel some day soon — I’ll keep you posted on any news in that regard! Thanks again! :)

    Jolina, Yes, the 12 hour days have been brutal but so worth it — so close to being done now! I guess (as one writer friend says) I’m becoming obsessive about writing! :)

  25. CMSmith says:

    Someone’s probably already said this, but you can create a table of contents and link it to the start of each chapter. You’ll need that if you do an e-book anyway.

    I think MS-Word is particularly difficult with a Mac.

    And finally, I am completely impressed that you have gotten this far. Way to go!

  26. Julia – good question! I wrote my first novel the way you discuss, keeping each chapter in its own document. I started my second novel the same way, then, same as you, found that difficult to manage. Now I start out each novel by setting up the document in Word with a specific styles format that will work when I go to publish. I write the entire novel in that one document, and only put page breaks in between chapters. I’ve found this makes editing MUCH easier, because I can search from the beginning of the document for a string of words or letters. It also makes it easier to send to my editor this way. Good luck, with whichever path you choose! :-)

  27. Julia, I’m afraid I don’t have any helpful advice to offer. The longest piece I’ve worked on in Word was my thesis, which was a collection of only eight stories. I worked on each story separately, then, when they were edited as I wanted them, I created one master document with page numbers. This worked well for me, but my thesis was my shorter than your novel.

    Good luck with it – I feel your pain. Why does Word always have to put those autoformat codes in there anyway? I can’t tell you how many times that has driven me crazy in the past!

  28. Nancy Kelley says:

    Confession: I haven’t read the comments, so someone might already have said this. However, here are my two pieces of advice.

    For Word: Write your novel in one document, and use the Header style for chapter headings. Then when you have the document navigation pane open, you’ll be able to jump from chapter to chapter without any difficulty.

    Overall: Use Scrivener. Create one project for your novel, and put each chapter in a separate folder. With the binder up, you can jump from chapter to chapter with ease.

    Scrivener also gives you several ways to move chunks of text around, if, for instance, you suddenly realize chapter 8 is actually chapter 13. There are multiple ways to keep all your notes for the novel within the project, to keep track of characters, to see at a glance how often a certain character appears, and etc.

    I was a huge fan of Word until I got my Mac. I’ve got Office 2008 and I hate it. It crashed on me three times in the space of 10 minutes when I was trying to track changes from my proofreader… so I bought Pages and ditched Word.

  29. Christine, Thank you! I’m in the homestretch, but it’s been more and more annoying to manage the files with Word –when all I want to do is write/edit/revise/FINISH! :) Thank you for your helpful comments about the TOC! (p.s. I agree, Word is particularly problematic with Macs)

    Karen, Thank you for your suggestions and advice — I’m coming to the very same conclusion about how to organize books, and next time…. SOON!… I’ll start from scratch and it will be perfect (well, easier, anyway :) Thanks for your comment and your visit to my blog!

    Jen, I hate to say it, but it’s so nice to know other people have issues with Word — none of us should have to struggle, but it makes me feel better that I’m not alone! Here’s to easier Word understanding in the future!

    Nancy, I have started to use the navigation window now — very helpful — but I still have weird things happening (of course, it’s Word). BUT I think if I start with a clean, new next time it will help. And upon your and other recs, I think Scrivener is the way to go… I will definitely be investigating! (p.s. If you think 2008 is bad, wait until you try Office 2011. It is COMPLETELY different and has a long learning curve, and although similar to PC based Word, it’s got plenty of problems and bugs!)

  30. *Waving hand wildly* I use Scrivener! It is perfect for what you need it for. It is an app through Mac or you can download it from Literature and Latte website. I love, love, love it. It can be a bit confusing but I have muddled around enough to do what I need.

    There are tutorials on the website I mentioned and that will give you an idea of what it can do.

    I am MS Word illiterate and I feel like I am eight years old trying to figure it out myself.

    Good luck with whatever you decide to do.

  31. JM Merchant says:

    Hi Julia
    Another vote for Scrivener here, yeah it takes a small amount of time to get your head around but I’ve found it so helpful just from the planning stage.

    You can create little index cards with ideas or scene descriptions and these attach directly to a larger writing space where you actually write the scenes. You can catalogue changes you make, you can move sections around, set it up with your personal formatting preferences and you’re off!

    Massive congrats on the WIP, I admire your dedication.

  32. Hallie, I (and when I say I, I mean MEH) has been doing some Scrivener research and I’m sure on my next WIP I’ll be giving it a try — I’m not crazy about learning something new BUT it will ultimately save me time and aggravation, so I don’t think I have any choice! Thanks for another push to go there! :)

    Jo, YAY, another Scrivener push! As I said above, I’ll definitely give it a try with the next WIP. Right now I’ll finish up with this one ASAP with as little pain and learning as possible (MSWord is not making it easy, however…). Thank you for the congrats on the WIP, you’re so sweet. And it’s really good to see you again — hope all’s well — I’ve been pretty quiet on all but the editing front :)

  33. I totally relate. I did the “separate document” thing for my book, and then put it together. Big pain. I’m currently writing one long document for the current WIP, but it has its own issues. I have to dig deep into the Advanced Options … and then it still ignores some of my commands, 😛

    But I’m glad folks have mentioned Scrivener; two writers I know use them (I know Natalia swears by it), so I hope it helps!

  34. Mahesh, One long document seems so good on the surface, doesn’t it?? But I’m having issues too, and I am so glad to hear you have the ignore problem too. HOW?? I am especially annoyed that often all chapter text shows up in the document map for SOME chaps but in SOME chaps only the chap heads (like I want). SO annoying. Meanwhile, MEH is checking out Scrivener for me, and I may switch…not until the next WIP, so close on this one! But it’s just is so hard to think of learning yet another tool. Can’t we just write, Mahesh??? :-/

  35. Girl Parker says:

    I’m way late to this conversation, but here are my two cents: If you’re working on a Mac, which I am, why not use Pages? The iWork software is only about $99, tops, and it’s fabulous. I never find myself yelling at Pages the way I do with Word for Mac. I have both and one day, I finally copied my whole WIP and pasted it into pages. Problem solved.

    I like your idea of doing separate documents for separate chapters, though. I know I’m gunna have to rejuggle the order if/when I ever get to your stage.

    Best of luck!!!

  36. I’ve never thought of Pages! I will definitely check it out, though. My husband has been trying Scrivener (which he loves, by the way). I now have all chaps merged into one GIGANTIC doc in Word…. which honestly terrifies me… I still am on the fence with how to do it next time. The worst thing about the separate docs is you need to rename them every single time you change order…. I will be done w/in a week with this WIP and then next time, not sure how I’ll proceed… Thanks for your ideas!