NON FICTION: I Wrote Three Novels With Different Tools And This Is What I’ve Learned

A teal typewriter

Photo: Luca Onniboni

When I quit my job, all I had in mind was to write one novel. I didn’t think it would turn into three.

I also thought I’d be doing all the work in Google Docs. That grew to encompass most of the popular methods as well.

And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably spending all your writing time searching for irrelevant things like ‘best plot structure’ and ‘funny puppy videos’, which explains why you’re reading this article.

So let me oblige and let’s get started on what I’ve learned from writing novels with different mediums.

Kitten looking surprised

Yes, we’ve all been down the kitten vortex before. Photo: Tran Mau Tri Tam

Novel #1: Longhand

Let me preface this by saying that writing longhand isn’t exactly the best way to dive into fiction. But hey, I was in a Neil Gaiman phase, and I had a couple of fountain pens laying around, so I naturally took to his literal method of putting words on paper.

How I did it

I approached this by simply grabbing a notebook and writing, and my days were divided into two segments: transcribing and writing. In that order.

The first part was a necessity more than anything. I didn’t like living life on the edge, so I backed up my work by transferring them over into my computer. I also hated the idea of not being able to hit Ctrl-F to find scenes quickly.

This worked as a great way to refresh my memory so that I could hit the ground running when it came to resuming the story. It also allowed me to revise my work, so what was my first draft would actually be my second.

My verdict

You know how they say longhand is conducive to prose? Yeah I don’t think it works that way for me. I had to slice, rewrite, and delete up to fifty percent of my work, and that was just during the first edit.

The freedom to draw circles and arrows provided tremendous flexibility when it came to writing divergent scenes. I wasn’t bound to anything. I was free.

But I was also slow. Due to the transcribing, I had to basically pull double duty before I ended up with the initial draft. But I did feel like a badass.

This manuscript would go on to be longlisted in a novel competition and be subsequently chosen for publication, so there’s that.

Fountain pen and notebook

Nothing beats good ol’ pen and paper am I right? Photo: Aaron Burden

Novel #2: Google Docs

Ah, the trusty Google Docs. A place where your work will never go missing, and you never have to pay a single dime. I’ve used Microsoft Word my entire career, so Google Docs seemed like the way to go for my second novel, and it did suffice.

How I did it

I just typed. As a pantser by nature, I found myself just breezing through this story. Granted, this wasn’t a novel I had planned to write—I was trying out a 250-word a day diet—but I found the familiarity of a word processor to be somewhat encouraging.

So I just trudged along. Because I’d set such a paltry word count, it was easy to show up, even though I didn’t know what was going to happen in the story that day. I often surpassed 250 words though, and this is where I learned that consistency trumps intensity.

Here, I began creating character cards. I’d type the names of my characters at the end of the document and create a comment for those names. Then I’d write out their personalities, traits, and conflicts.

My verdict

If you just want to start writing a novel, you can’t really go wrong with Google Docs. It works fine out of the box, and can do pretty much anything you need it to.

My only gripe with it is that it gets pretty laggy after you pass a certain word count. So I’d sometimes taken to writing in Pages before copy-pasting into Docs.

I’ve also found that I tend to write in a linear fashion with Docs, because that’s what it encourages you to do, lest you find yourself with a 50,000-word document of jumbled chapters that you can’t wrangle into order.

But it’s safe, and it does the job, so this is what I’d recommend to first-time novel writers.

Woman using laptop

For illustration purposes only. Photo: Alizee Baudez

Novel #3: Specialist tools (Scrivener)

You’ve probably heard of this the same way I did, which is through word of mouth. For years I’ve heard authors gush over the greatness that is Scrivener, and for years I’d resisted.

After all, what more could I need from a word processor? Quite a lot, as it turned out.

How I did it

The bells and whistles on this thing really makes me want to plan. Through this devious software, I’d begun forsaking my pantsing ways, creating character arcs, scene outlines, and even collecting pictures for mood boards.

Yes, this is where I’d learned that the tool you use to write actually does affect your workflow. I plan much more now, and I have a clearer sense of where I’m headed before I actually write.

I don’t just hop onto a blank page and blindly pepper it with letters. I follow a roadmap, noting the surroundings and adding them to what I already know.

And because it’s so easy to move things around, I actually experimented with non-linear writing, and boy is it fun.

My verdict

After my 30-day trial expired, I actually went ahead and bought the software. Many people (including me) might lament the fact that it could display your research documents and your manuscript on the same page.

I mean, you can even do that with Docs. But something about this just clicks. Everything I’d wished I’d needed while writing my second novel was addressed here—cork boards to move your scenes about, a timeline checker for your characters, having all your research in one place.

Having said that though, I could actually do as good a job on Google Docs as I can on Scrivener when it comes to the actual writing. Which brings me to the point of it all.

Question mark light

Brace yourselves for the most important point of all. Photo: Emily Morter

None of this helps if you won’t write

I like to reiterate the fact that I’d waited eight damn years before writing my first novel. Eight years of overthinking social media posts, slogging through press releases, thinking of hundred headlines for ad copy.

The day I decided to write a novel was when that dream would actually come to fruition. And I did it with a pen and paper.

So yes, each tool does indeed affect how you write, but not in the way you think. And you should always remember that no matter how huge the strides we make in improving our writing tools, they would never come close to the best writing instrument in the world.

You.

49 thoughts on “NON FICTION: I Wrote Three Novels With Different Tools And This Is What I’ve Learned

  1. I enjoyed this post. The most I’ve written long hand was a longish short story (20k words). I found it frustrating for the slow edits. I also found it relaxing and a way to focus. So I’ve developed a daily journaling habit where writing ideas or just plain things life stuff show up, but my writing-writing goes on the computer.

    • Haha, writing-writing is the proper way to put it yes. Glad I’m not alone in finding longhand tedious, but there are people who would favour it I’m sure. Thanks for stopping by Priscilla!

  2. I’m working on my first novel. As you “predicted,” I’m using Google Docs. I like Google Docs and Google Drive — and it’s certainly better than Microsoft Word. I wonder, though, if it’s holding me back.

    I had a feeling you’d mentioned Scrivener. I haven’t taken the plunge yet. I don’t outline much when I write. Sometimes I like the spontaneity of it, but it only gets me so far. (I should know myself better that I’m not very spontaneous.) As much as I resist, I need an outline – even if it’s constantly swaying in the breeze. I’ve heard Scrivener can be wonderful, but there’s a learning curve. Is it hard to learn?

    Thanks for saying, “None of this helps if you won’t write.” True words, and I need that reminder.

    Maybe starting with pen and paper, moving to Google Docs, and doing the heavy lifting with Scrivener is the way to go.

    • I find that if you’re going to plan beforehand, you should start with Scrivener then edit with Google Docs. Maybe use pen and paper for individual sentences and beats.

      Try the 30-day trial and let me know what you think! I swear I don’t get a commission from this, lol.

      As long as you’re writing, nothing’s holding you back. Google Docs alone will do the job, and I never plotted one bit when I used Google Docs for my second novel. I just showed up to the blank page and decided what would happen that day itself.

      Of course, this would involve lots of rewriting, but hey, that’s writing right?

      Totally appreciate your weighty contribution to the topic, Jason, and glad that you decided to stop by again!

  3. I’m probably using it wrong but I find it so hard to navigate in Google docs. It never picks up where I left off and I have to scroll all over the place to edit. I like the headings and navigation pane in Word. I think there’s more options for formatting in Word as well. I dunno I’m so used to Word, it’s like being in a marriage for forty years and you’re like eh why bother leaving, too much trouble, let’s just stay together.

    • Haha I totally get that. That’s why George R.R. Martin still uses Wordstar, even for 200,000-word epics. What’s most important is that we all keep writing, isn’t it? Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I’m so glad I found this post! I tend to really enjoy writing longhand, but I agree with your assessment that it slows me down. I’ve been on the fence about Scrivener for a while, but after this post, I think I’ll have to give it a try. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Do it! It’s basically free for 30 separate days (e.g. if you don’t open the programme, it doesn’t count as a day).

      Of course, I have to say that the benefit of longhand is a better-edited ‘first draft’.

      You might need a couple of YouTube videos to fully learn about Scrivener’s features, but do let me know how things go!

      Thanks for stopping by, I truly appreciate it :)

  5. I purchased Scrivener right out of the gate and have started several books. And that’ as far as I’ve gotten. I still need to figure out how to write out an outline and work out characters and their arcs. I love to write and always wanted to write a book but I’m wondering if it’s in the cards for me. Time will tell…

    • Or you can be like me and pants your entire way first without thinking, then cry as you edit all the plot holes and character motivation and such into the first draft.

      Wishing you all the best on your books!

  6. This is a terrific post. I’ve tried 2 of your 3 methods – longhand and Scrivener. For me, longhand fills in when I don’t have an electronic device handy – like in a car or on a vacation (I refuse to travel with an electronic device of any kind). You are correct when you say that longhand first drafts are really a first edited draft after transcription. I did not like Scrivener at all. It was confusing, had too many features to learn, and even after buying a how-to book, I was no closer to using it. It was a complete waste of time for me. I’m very happy using Microsoft Word for all my files.

    • Yeah, to its merit, longhand has the flexibility to be done anywhere, anytime. It’s slow as hell though. And yes, there is a learning curve involved in using Scrivener, but as long as you have one digital tool handy, you can’t really go wrong. Thanks for sharing!

    • Heya! It’s so awesome to see you again after all this while. All’s well on your end?

      Fingers crossed, if all goes well, the novel should be launching in April 2021 and will be available in Epigram affiliated bookstores as well as on their website.

  7. Ahh, I love Scrivener so much! My brother bought it for me as a Christmas present and I’ve been consistently delighted by it since then.

    I like writing by hand for loads of things – to do lists, journalling, planning blog posts, taking notes on books I’m reading – but when it comes to actually novelling I need a keyboard for some reason, and Scrivener is my choice 100%.

    • I thought I could just open separate windows for my research or character sheets. After Scrivener, that’s a no go. Thanks for stopping by! And yes, something about writing by hand is so therapeutic. One of the reasons why I got into the money sink that is fountain pens.

  8. This was a great read! I’ve wanted to try something like this for a long time – I think I’ve tried almost a dozen different programs at this point. It seems to change with every project, and I’d like to find the one that works for me! Though you’re right in that the most important element in all this is the writer themselves. That’s something I ought to remember more often!

    Completely agree with you on Google Docs, and I hope it’s something they improve in the future. The stuttering when you’re working in a longer manuscript is frustrating, but I love the portability!

    • Yeah, as limited as I think it is for longer works, Google Docs actually offers great features without the need of installing any software at all. Add in the secure backups and you have a powerhouse right there.

      Feels bad when you’re actually typing in it though, which is what a good word processor shouldn’t do.

      Do come up with an article on your experiences with the different software you’ve used! I’d love to read it.

  9. I tried XYWrite for a while, but gave up because it was forcing me to write unnaturally. (I never finished anything.) I’m better as a beginning to end writer for the first draft, partly because I have a good memory for details. If I’m writing something with a lot of characters, I keep a separate file with characters. I have also written with made-up languages, and I keep a separate file for that, too. I have two screens, so I can keep two open side by side. My main screen is 27″, so I could keep all three open if I want.

    Basically, I work in MS Word, with a main story file, a character/place file, and possibly a language file. If I do need to skip a section, I write my outline/notes in blue right in the story file. If I’m not sure about a rewrite, I leave it in red before the new version in black. I also use the comment feature for notes, or reminders to check something, usually continuity.

    • I’m always curious about other writers’ processes, so your detailed account really helps me see where else I can improve on in my own workflow. Love it. Thanks for sharing!

  10. I wrote the first draft of my current story longhand in a journal, partly as a change of pace, but also to give me a little more flexibility over where I could write. I enjoyed the process, but I definitely pants’d my way through it. I had arrows all over the place for bits of scene I thought up pages after the scene had ended. Then I transcribed it as a second draft into Word, which allowed me to make some really big edits without scrolling through thousands of words to shift sections around.

    • Haha, oh yes I forgot all about the arrows, especially when adding new information to a specific section. Your comment really brought up some memories.

      Love that it works for you. I might revisit longhand someday, but for now, I’d prefer churning out a hundred words per minute rather than be bogged down by my longhand speed.

      Thanks for dropping by, Steven!

  11. An interesting and informative post. I was searching for non fiction and I came across your blog.

    I am not a writer yet. I dream to be. I have decided to just write a first draft of a non fiction idea, even if it is rubbish. Because I am not getting anywhere fast. So going to use camp nanowrimo to be my deadline. I decide to write pen and paper because I have no clue how to do this. I like word. I did have a free version of scrivener. I don’t like Google docs find it hard to use. For now it is pen and paper, until I figure out what to write. Well I know what to write, but i just need more content. Going to be old school about it. Then transcribe at some point.

    Very useful post. Glad I found it.

    • Great to have you stop by! Well you’ll have the advantage of not needing batteries and the portability if you’re going to go longhand, that’s for sure.

      You’ll also end up with a decent first (second) draft. Please get started today if you haven’t already! I’m rooting for you!

  12. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your analysis! I wrote my first draft my my first book longhand. For book two, I’m using Word, which is fine, but you HAVE got me interested in Scrivener…especially if I can try it for free. If it has ways to keep my research together, that would be amazing (gotta be better than the half a dozen notebooks and Word files it’s all scattered through now!)

  13. Great article Stuart. I haven’t ventured into Google docs or scrivener yet, I use word and excel. And tbh they have worked for me. I have a board and sticky notes for my storyboarding! Sticky notes move around just as well.
    My excel has a tab to track chapters/timeline/plot and a tab for characters. (There are a lot of tabs now!) I worry if I use scrivener I’ll spend more time plotting and planning and adding notes and comments than actually writing! I don’t want the software to take over my creativity.
    I always have a notebook to hand, Sometimes I write longhand just because I can’t type quick enough and I need to get the ideas down NOW!.
    So I suppose, you use what works, as long as you write what does it matter?

    • I think your last sentence sums it all perfectly. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you write. Plotting in analog mode with a board is something I’ll have to try next! Thanks for stopping by, by the way. I truly appreciate it.

  14. I’m a fan of Scrivener, but most especially for editing — being able to focus in and out on different levels of the book, flag their status, leave notes and move around has been great. Even if I write in something else, I tend to edit all but the shortest stories in Scrivener.

    • Oh yeah. Scrivener isn’t really that fun with shorter projects, is it? One thing I do though, is actually export my final work into a Word doc and run it through Google Docs, because I find that the grammar checker there is pretty darn good, and I get more blue squiggly lines than I’d care to admit. Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Hey Stuart!! I have had the exact same journey. Writing in a notebook, then making copies. Then Google Docs (coz it was easier to share with friends who wanted to read). Now finally Scrivener. Most of my writing, whether for my own book or another’s or even a blog- all of that is there. I guess, my journey isn’t so unique after all :P
    So cool to be connected!

    • Great to know that I’m not alone! I guess it’s one of the more standard journeys an author has to go through. I wouldn’t have known how handy Scrivener is were it not for my experiences with normal word processors.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  16. I really liked your post. It looks like you’ve been down the same road as a LOT of us when it comes to finding the best way to get the words out of our heads and onto the page. I have to say I’m jealous of your relationship with Scrivener. I bought the program and I’ve tried it working with it over and over again, but the magic everyone talks about just eludes me. ☹️ Can you recommend a good tutorial for it? Anyway, thanks for the post, and also thanks for liking my own post!

    • I think the video tutorials they have on their website covers everything you’ll need to know. I myself don’t use many extra features other than the cork board.

      Its biggest strengths for me is being able to view two screens at once, so I can have the character sheet and current chapter on the same screen.

      I know you can do this with any other app by arranging the windows yourself, but the ability to switch back and forth between character sheets, location research, and my personal to-do notes (and not forgetting the plot points) as I write my story is golden.

      Thanks for stopping by, by the way!

      • Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I know what you mean about being able to look at two items at once — I have two monitors connected to my desktop, because I’m a nerd. I like the cork-board feature on Scrivener also. I’ll take another look at those video tutorials.Thanks for the recommendation.

  17. Awesome post bro, I mainly write with writerduet nowadays, but I wrote my 80k novel in word. It was quite nice when I worked out how to set up the chapter headings so I could just skip around the doc to the part that I knew needed work.

    • Glad you liked it! I’m not aware of writerduet but now I might need to check it out. Word is always a trusty software, and it’s a classic for a reason. Wishing you a lifetime of flow no matter what software you use.

  18. I enjoyed reading this. It’s a lovely and inspiring post. I usually go analog with heaps of notebooks and notepads, mostly for plot outlines and character profiles. But I use google docs for writing actual scenes. I haven’t used Scrivener yet, but now I’m intrigued.
    Good luck with your upcoming novel! Looking forward to it. ^.^
    Say, you got any advice for students who want to become a published author? Maintaining school work and writing habits altogether is pretty tough.

    • You should definitely give Scrivener a try, since they have a free trial. Having said that, I sometimes port my work into Google Docs just because it has the ability to catch grammatical errors that I’d overlooked (even during the third draft).

      My best advice would be something I’d tell my younger self, and that’s to do the damn writing. Don’t waste time finding the bestselling genre, the perfect plotting method, or even the best writing software. You have to dive in headfirst, and that action it itself begets action.

      Secondly, I’d also tell myself to do the smallest thing that I can. For me, it was 250 words per day. It was small enough to give me the dreaded resistance, yet substantial enough that I could have a manuscript within half a year. I often surpassed 250 words anyway, so I learned it was the getting started that was doing me in.

      It would be a particularly helpful technique for you since you also have school work to maintain.

      Hope that helps, and just ask away if there’s anything else you wish to know!

      • Yes, dreaded resistance! That’s one of the major things that makes me procrastinate. that’s a great idea, to start small. Thanks for the advice!

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