Firing up Word is fine for writing anything short. For anything big–novels, screenplays and such–you need specialized tools.
Believe me. I’ve done it both ways, and trying to do something large and important on a word processor will drive you to drink.
Word processors don’t cut it
Writing a big project is like building a house. To keep on track and make sure the thing doesn’t fall down, you need (a) solid blueprints and (b) heavy equipment.
Short writing projects are like the little bits you can tackle in your garage, with the tools sitting around and the scrap wood in the far corner.
And sure, you can try to wrestle Word into doing heavy lifting by going wild with navigation options and headings. It’s sorta possible.
Yet no matter how hard you try to force Word into being able to handle a giant project, it’s like trying to excavate the foundation of your new house with a shovel instead of a bulldozer.
Even if you try to organize a single Word file that is organized enough to hold all three acts of a screenplay or all 100,000 words of your epic tale of when the elves rose up against the great tyrant, Santa the Claws, there’ll be all kinds of OTHER files hanging around.
A file about settings and another for characters. One for ideas and notes.
Another for loose text you cut out of a scene but might want to use elsewhere. You get the idea.
Switching between all those files is tough. Just getting a feel for things are is hard. How many words are all the chapters in Act 2 right now versus all of Act 1? Dunno. Get ready for a whole lot of highlighting and scrolling.
One tool to rule them all
I don’t care what you pick–Scrivener, yWriter, Manuskript, OneNote, Atomic Scribbler–as long as you test drive a bunch. For starving artists and writers out there, some of those choices are open source and free.
Try them all and pick one. You won’t go back.
There’s nothing like being able to see the whole project at a glance, then dive into different bits without digging around for which Word file or folder you put in all that stuff about pickpockets in Istanbul.
I just typed THE END on a novel written in Scrivener (yes! very excited about this one, and to beta readers, let’s chat). Am in the middle of transferring into Word for the final formatting and editing. Believe me, writing 80,000 words in Scrivener was a happy walk in the park compared to when I climbed that mountain using Word.
Haven’t used every single alternative, though I use OneNote at work and home and it’s both (a) pretty common and (b) pretty good.
A few lessons learned from my own silly mistakes
First, don’t get in a hurry to export your screenplay, Great American Novel or picture book about knitting hats for cats from Scrivener into Word.
You don’t want to export the whole thing right off because there’s an excellent, excellent chance you’ll have to import it all back in, which is a massive pain. Because once you look at it all in Word, you’ll spot six zillion structural things to fix that are a sweaty endeavor in a word processor and far, far easier in something like Scrivener.
And yes, I’ve made this mistake. As in last week.
Heavy equipment, right? If you’ve got a choice between hundreds of hours with a shovel versus two hours with a bulldozer, pick the dozer.
The second thing is don’t ever export the entire project.
Seriously. Do it in pieces.
Sure, every program out there has some kind of magical option on the menu tree that saves your entire creation as a .docx, PDF or whatever. Resist temptation.
Put the first few scenes of your screenplay or novel into Word for that final editing and polishing. Meanwhile, keep on doing heavier work on the later stuff of Act 2 and 3.
Only export scenes or chapters into that Word file when they’re truly, truly ready.
The third thing is that paragraphs that seem short and sweet in something like Scrivener–especially if you have a big screen–turn ginormous when you pop them into Word on double-spaced pages.
Finally, get religious about making backups. OneNote, Scrivener and similar programs work their magic in mysterious ways, especially in how they save all those separate bits. It’s complicated. I believe quantum particles and gravitational waves are involved.
The way these beasts save their files is nothing like a Word doc, where you can see that solitary file and copy the thing to a thumbdrive or email it to yourself. OneNote in particular is tricky with saving. I’m still not sure where, exactly, it’s saving things half the time. Be careful out there.
But those are little tips and tricks. There are no giant tradeoffs, like a choice between a moped and a pickup truck. The switch to heavy writing equipment is always worth it. The only real question is what type and brand of literary bulldozer you should drive.
P.S. What heavy writing equipment do you use today–and what other ones have you dated or divorced?