On Span of Memory and Tools

Last week a fellow writer was discussing the trouble with editing a document that had been laid down for a while. Keeping the entire novel in one’s head, the writer said, was important when making edits with large blocks of text (e.g., changing scenes and chapters around). This was said in the context of using Microsoft Word vs. something like Scrivener, which I’m currently test-driving.

Word maintains a single document. And while one may use heading levels to delineate parts, chapters, and scenes, a large manuscript can get unwieldy. Scrivener and other scene-compartmentalized software tools make it relatively easy to shuffle around the various scenes or chapters, but if a writer wants, for example, to move parts of three scenes into two other scenes elsewhere, there’s a lot of cutting and pasting and remembering what scene is where that’s involved. Add to the text being edited ‘cold,’ it seems to me that the specialized tools would almost require quite a bit of cold reading and flipping around to scenes.

I’m still making my mind up about the Scrivener software, but I’ve got two strategies for writing large texts using word: multiple documents, and headings. I’ve written 130k+ word documents with no more than having a Heading 1 reserved for manuscript, characters, locations, objects, kipple, and research. Then chapters are at the Heading 2-level and Heading is for scenes. Having an automatically generated table of contents at the beginning makes hopping around easy. Outline mode views and automatic outlining can also help, but I don’t use the latter two.

A variant is to put each novel component into its own file (e.g., a folder with the novel, characters, research, and locations).

The important thing isn’t the tool, is comfort with it. Every new keystroke combination that requires learning is time not spent writing. And that means writers will usually be most comfortable with the general document editor (e.g., MS Word) rather than a specialty software package. My $0.02, so far.