last updated: 15 November 2020 (approximate reading time: 14 minutes; 2891 words)
I use Word every day.
I’ve tried many word processors but, for me, Word is the best tool for outlining and writing novels. For me it is best because:
- it is robust and handles large documents
- it stores files in the lingua franca of file formats (Word .doc and .docx format)
- the Navigation Pane makes reordering text easy, and
- it can be customized to my way of working
Let me explain the features that matter to me, how I use these features, and why they make Word the right tool for me.
And just so we’re clear…I’m using the latest (desktop) version (at the date of writing this) of Word on Windows.
When it comes to ordering and structuring a document (in other words, if you ignore the basic word processing functions), the most important feature of Word (for me) is the Navigation Pane.
This pane appears in the left-hand side of the screen. You can switch it on and off at: View > Show > Navigation Pane
The Navigation Pane leverages Word’s hierarchical headings (more of which in a moment) to perform two key functions:
- First, the Navigation Pane shows the headings (in their hierarchical structure) giving an overview of the entire document and allowing me to jump to any specific place in the document with a single click.
- Second, the Navigation Pane allows the headings—and the text attached to each heading—to be dragged around so that a document can be reordered. There’s no need to select, cut, and paste—just drag a heading in the Navigation Pane.
Word offers nine hierarchical levels of heading. There is a tenth level—everything else…which is mostly regular text.
Text which is tagged with one of the nine hierarchical levels is displayed in the Navigation Pane (and can therefore be reordered by dragging). Tagging is applied through (paragraph) styles—every paragraph style can also apply one of the nine heading levels or can apply no heading level (in which case the text will not show in the Navigation Pane).
Word comes with nine styles where the heading levels are already set (Heading 1 thru Heading 9). You can use these, or you can set your own styles, (or you can use both the presets and the your own styles). If you invoke a heading level from more than one style, both of the styles will have the same hierarchical level irrespective of what the rest of the style does, and will show as equal in the Navigation Pane.
Word does not mandate how these hierarchical levels should be applied and different projects will have different requirements, but for me, my starting point is to apply the hierarchy thus:
- level one: Main Headings (for instance, the book title)
- level two: Acts
- level three: Chapters
- level four: Scenes
- level five: Sub-scenes
- level six: Notes
I usually only deploy four or sometimes five levels. To deploy more just gets me to an unnecessary level of detail.
In the context of the final novel, I will just have chapters (and the book’s title). These hierarchies are important when I’m outlining (and to a lesser extent, when I’m editing), but have little function when my drafting is complete.
For me, the basic unit of fiction is the scene. Within each scene I will have sub-scenes—in other words, pieces of action which are not sufficient to be a viable scene on their own but which may be the connective tissue as part of a larger more coherent scene. As part of the outlining process, I may then may add notes to these scenes/sub-scenes.
I will then group several scenes to form a larger chapter, and in turn a number of chapters may be grouped to form an act (in this context, I’m having more than three acts—I’m using acts as a grouping of a wider dramatic piece of action, but less than a full act in the classic three act sense).
With this structure, I can both break down larger chunks and collate smaller chunks so that I have a more understandable narrative.
Moving Text with the Navigation Pane
With the hierarchical levels showing in the Navigation Pane, it is possible to reorder the entire document by dragging the headings in the pane. When a heading is dragged:
- the dragged heading is reordered
- the text under that heading is moved with the heading
- any inferior level headings (and associated text) are moved
The chunk of text that is moved starts with the heading and ends immediately before the next equal or superior level heading. The chunk that is moved can be as small or as large as I want—if there isn’t a convenient start of stop point, I can drop in a temporary heading to delineate the chunk that is moved, and since those temporary markers will show in the Navigation Pane, they are easy to find and remove when they have no further function.
For me, the ability to drag around chunks of my document to reorder the flow is one of the most powerful features of Word. I use this feature most often when I’m outlining, and less when I’m writing. That said, I will often drag chunks around when I’m editing.
Other Functionality in the Navigation Pane
The Navigation Pane also provides a few other functions which can help when outlining/writing.
Promote and Demote Headings
Headings can be promoted or demoted (right click on the heading > Promote and right click on the heading > Demote). Promotion and demotion both allows for a document to be logically restructured and sets the limits around which chunks of text can be dragged around.
I don’t use this functionality since I promote/demote with styles and shortcut keys (more of which in a moment), but it’s nice to have.
Select Chunks of Text
Chunks of text can be selected (right click on a heading > Select Heading and Content) within the Navigation Pane. The selected text behaves like regular selected text and can then be copied (perhaps to another document) or deleted.
The text selected by this function is the (selected) heading and the subsequent text (including inferior headings) until next equal or higher level heading.
Section Word Count
When a chunk of text is selected, the Word count is displayed in Word’s bottom bar. The word count of the selected text is shown and also the word count of the entire document.
Search and Frequency of Words/Phrases
Word has a basic search functionality (there’s a more complex search and replace functionality, but there’s this easy functionality as well). The benefit of this simplified search function is that it:
- counts the number of instances of a search term, and
- highlights in the Navigation Pane where each instance of a term occurs
Moving from one instance of a search term to the next is performed at the click of a button, but this function also shows the distribution of the term and allows me to identify a search term within a prescribed limited area.
De-Cluttering the Navigation Pane
Tagging text in the document with hierarchical levels gives an overview of the entire document in the Navigation Pane. Clearly when many tags are added, the Navigation Pane can become crowded. Word offers two options here:
- First, only a certain levels of heading can be revealed. So for instance, level three headings (and above) can show, but level four headings (and below) are hidden.
- Second, inferior headings can be (manually) folded under a superior heading so these inferior headings are hidden.
Both options achieve the same end—one achieves it manually, the other achieves it uniformly. As a side note, this hiding only hides the headings in the Navigation Pane—it has no effect on how the main text is displayed for editing.
Conventionally, styles are groupings of format instructions. You might want to create a style which makes a chapter heading show larger, in bold, and with a different font—with styles you can apply all these changes with the click of a button and make sure every similar heading has consistent formatting.
Word allows these collections of formatting to be applied, but it also brings some other functionality which I use when outlining and writing.
Each paragraph with a specific style can have numbering applied. I find this most useful with chapters where each chapter can be numbered. If I reorder the chapters (by dragging them in the Navigation Pane), then they renumber automatically.
The hierarchical outline levels can be applied as part of a style (and thereby allow the styled text to show in the Navigation Pane). Personally, I use the built-in styles, and tweak them to my (visual) liking.
A style can be applied to some text by selecting that style in the ribbon (at the top of Word’s interface). I prefer to select a style with a shortcut key—a combination of keys which, when pressed together, will apply the style to the current paragraph.
Shortcut keys have several advantages, but the main advantage is that I don’t need to lift my hands off the keyboard to apply a style.
I mostly use shortcut keys to deploy the hierarchical headings which will then display the target heading in the Navigation Pane. I hit
1 to call up the level one heading,
2 to call up the second level heading, and so on. With this system, I find it straightforward to apply the hierarchical headings and simple to promote and demote individual headings.
And for normal text, I use
All the text in the entire document which has a specific style applied can be selected (right click on style > Select All xx Instance(s)). As you can see, this also shows how many instances there are of that specific style being used in the document.
The function has several uses:
- A different style can then be applied throughout the document (for instance to raise/lower the hierarchy level of all headings in one click).
- All of the headings with that style applied can be deleted in a single click. This has particular use when I had deployed temporary headings to move text around using the Navigation Pane. Also, for instance, if I have sub-scene headings, these can all be selected and deleted without needing to go searching.
Note: this function only selects the text with a style attached. Unlike dragging in the Navigation Pane, it doesn’t select the text under a heading.
I also have a style which is visually differentiated (the text is red and the paragraph is surrounded by a red box); I invoke this style with
This visual differentiation is for my notes to myself—I leave notes as I wrote. The text stands out, so I will notice and since I’ve applied a style, it’s easy to search for the text.
Word offers a powerful scripting language which is way beyond my needs or my abilities to understand. However, it will also record basic keystrokes. This functionality is available under the Macro feature (View > Macros).
I have set up two macros—each is invoked by a shortcut key combination:
- when I click
UI convert the initial letter of a word to a capital letter (and then move the cursor to the next word)
- when I click
LI convert the initial letter of a word to a lower case letter (and then move the cursor to the next word)
Word has a powerful (and trainable) autocorrect functionality. The two main situations where I use autocorrect to fix my errors are:
- when I accidentally type TWo CApital LEtters at the start of a word, and
- with elementary spelling errors
In looking at document file formats, there are two key angles to consider:
- The first angle is the short-term functionality that the file format offers. Specifically, is the file format sufficiently robust that all the work I want to do can be achieved and my novel can be recorded.
- The second consideration is how the file format works as a long-term document store. If I can’t open a file I create today in a year or two years or ten years or twenty years, then any work I do today could be worthless in the future.
All things being equal, I would prefer to keep my work in (non-proprietary) plain text format. Plain text is the ultimate long-term electronic document storage format. Any document created in plain text is capable or being opened in any text editor and, more significantly, will be capable of being opened by any text editor in 100 years.
However, there is no word processor which offers the functionality of Word that I need and which saves files in plain text format. There are many plain text editors, but their functionality is highly limited.
The second best file format for long-form text documents, is Word format (.doc and .docx). Word format is the most widely used document format and—after plain text—is, in my opinion, the best choice to store a document. Indeed, it has many important advantages over other document formats.
The first advantage is interoperability. Word format is the lingua franca of document formats. Documents in .doc and .docx can be opened by many word processing tools (indeed, I would go as far as saying, Word documents can be opened in virtually all word processors). Word documents can be readily converted other formats (for instance, with Pandoc) and they can be readily ingested by a range of layout and production tools (such as Adobe InDesign).
Since Word is so widely supported (and because it is backed by Microsoft) I can be moderately assured that Word format documents will accessible for a long time—certainly decades.
Word documents are also the standard format within the publishing industry. When passing a document to an editor or for laying out, Word format is expected.
Many novel writing software tools have their own file format which (in essence) is a collection of smaller documents or fragments for each section of the larger whole. These fragments may be contained (along with research notes, PDFs, and images) in a zip file with a manifest to keep track of the elements. Having so many fragments (and having such huge files due to the research, images, and so on) can make these files very fragile—especially when moving them between computers (for instance with Dropbox) when an unsynchronized file or damaged manifest can render the entire document a mess. Files in this format cannot be easily shared with an editor or publisher, and the file format (since it will likely be proprietary) is not widely supported, meaning that it may be a challenge to open a file in a decade or two.
None of these challenges exist with Word format documents. Further, the Word file format is a single document so there is not need to generate or compile the document—the working version of the file is the final version.
Another advantage of Word is Microsoft. Word is a Microsoft product—Microsoft have (to date) stood behind their products and have ensured older file formats are readable.
Works with the Operating System
Word and Word format files work well with the operating system (both Windows and Mac OS). This allows me to perform several tasks outside of Word:
- The files can be versioned and backed up. You can read more about my backup process. I can also do “hard versioning” (by copying a file) if I need to keep a safety copy or similar.
- An entire drive (or directory) can be searched, and as part of that search, the contents of the Word files can be searched.
- My files are available on my desktop, laptop, and phone—I share the files by putting them in the cloud with OneDrive (as part of my backup process).
I also use system-wide text expanders. Word works well with these tools.
The Right Tool for the Job
I use Word for specific tasks—outlining and writing novels. There are specific tasks where I deploy other tools (because they are better than Word for those tasks).
I use Microsoft OneNote to keep my notes (in particular, my detailed background and story notes). You can read more about how I use OneNote by following this link.
My choice for a laying out documents (and getting them into a print ready form) is Adobe InDesign). I find InDesign better for laying out documents because:
- it is designed for the purpose of laying out documents
- it doesn’t mess with graphics (for instance, it won’t reduce the quality of images, unless that is the specific intent)
- it offers optical kerning (which lays each letter against its neighbors more smoothly)
- it offers ePub (and other electronic book format) output
And when I use Word, I don’t force it. So for instance, for any story I will usually have at least two documents, one with the outline and the other with the manuscript kept separate. This isn’t necessary, but it’s a way of working that works for me.
I’ve yet to find a better or more robust tool for writing novels. There are other choices and software that is intended specifically for writing novels, however, none works as well for me as Word, so until someone makes something better, I’m sticking with Word.