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Do you get lost in your novel draft? Here's a helpful tool. -- by Carol Ervin

I love Microsoft's OneNote Notebooks for drafting a novel. Its design and tools help me organize the millions of elements, ideas, and words floating in the mix of a new story.

First, the work surface. Think of it as scrapbook pages on which you can put anything. On a page I usually have one long text block for each chapter-in-progress, but there can be many text blocks on a page, plus images, tables, and links to other documents that can be opened up in that window. Text blocks and other objects on the page can be re-sized and moved around. Sometimes I have two columns of text side by side--one with notes or an outline, one where I’m writing the current chapter. You can make those blocks anywhere you place the cursor. Within a text block, word processing is much like MS Word.

Second, but actually most important to me--how easy it is to find anything in the notebook. Everything I've added to my project is laid out within easy reach. Here's an overview that shows how.

  • Notebooks (left menu): I’ve created several notebooks, three for writing projects, one for recipes, one for personal stuff. Each notebook is listed on the OneNote screen in the menu to the left, always visible, no matter which notebook I'm using. The graphic above shows the Notebook "Legacy" at top left.
  • Sections (top menu): Since this is a screenshot of OneNote 2013, the section tabs are in color. When I click to select one of the notebooks, the main screen changes to the last page I worked on and the spot where I stopped working. Love that. (MS Word 2013 does it too.) Visible now at the top of the screen are tabs representing the sections I've created for that notebook. My novel notebooks have sections like "Characters," "Research," “Ideas,” and a “Chapters” section where there’s a page for each chapter in the story. In the graphic, the "Chapters" section tab is foremost, and its menu shows at the right.
  • Pages (right menu, shows here in green): Pages show on a tabbed menu, screen right. When I click on any section tab, the right hand menu changes to show pages I’ve created within that section. Here the chapter 1 page is highlighted.
  • Drawing Tools (bottom menu, not shown in the graphic): I don’t use these tools, but I mention the menu to show the breadth of this application. Like the main Notebook menu, the drawing tools are always visible.
  • Two other menus at the very top of every screen are similar to MS Word (File, Edit, Format, Table, etc.)

Specialized Search Features. Besides letting me see at a glance where everything is and giving me the ability to move quickly from one place to another, One Note has great search features. When I'm trying to find a passage where I've written a particular thing, I type a word into a search box and get a new menu highlighting every page where that term appears. If I choose to "view list," I get a menu of snippets of text from every chapter, and selecting one takes me to that place in the notebook. (Note: Word 2013 now does this also.)

Unlike MS Word, One Note does not search on phrases, and does not have find/replace and other capabilities of Word, such as the ability to search for characters or spaces.

Compatibility with MS Word. I regularly use the "Send to Microsoft Office Word" feature to edit pages, sometimes to use Word's different search capabilities, but mainly because Word's 2-page display feature extends my awareness of more than a few paragraphs at a time. So I start a chapter in One Note, later edit it in Word, then send it back to OneNote where it will reside until several drafts later when I put the chapters together as a single Word document. It’s easy to go back and forth.

Screen shots: A combination of the Windows keys allows me to take a screen shot of anything on the computer screen, even when OneNote is not open. I use this primarily to grab text, images, recipes and receipts from the web. The copied portion opens in the “unfiled notes” section, where I can move it anywhere. Many uses. (This description relates to OneNote 2007. 2013 works differently and I've not used it since I'm no longer drafting.)

A OneNote disadvantage: Everything is automatically saved. This means if you accidentally delete something, you can get it back using "undo," but there's no reverting to a previously saved version. What you see is what you keep.

I'm sure this is not all that can be said about this app, just the features I use every day. It's part of Microsoft Office, and can also be purchased separately.

Writers: do you have a favorite writing tool? Please share.


Posted by Carol Ervin 23 Sep 2013 at 00:26
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Responses to this blog

Fighter 23 Sep 2013 at 15:11  
These tools are just that - fancy tools. For someone who wants to sit down and write, simple and free Notepad or Wordpad works the same.
Breeze 23 Sep 2013 at 15:17  
No doubt, Fighter. But some of us need fancy tools to keep us straight!
Ml2872 23 Sep 2013 at 18:33  
You should check out Scrivener. It's great software. It was designed with writers in mind, but anyone can use it. Scrivener automatically saves, but you also have the option of doing 'Snapshots' which saves previous versions of your work. You can revert to previously saved docs at any time. That's just a fraction of what you can do. Its only $40.00 compared to MS Office - $100+. Just my two cents.
Fairchild 23 Sep 2013 at 20:39  
Isn't Scrivener Apple-exclusive?
Celebc¨en 24 Sep 2013 at 12:29  
I use Liquid Story Binder and think it's fantastic. Yeah, I suppose you can say it has a lot of 'fancy tools', but those tools really helped me keeping my trilogy organised and some just solved a few organisational issues I was having.

I don't know about you people, but I can "sit down and write" a short story, not so with a novel. I leared it the hard way. A novel requires me a lot of organisation and planning. LSB just gave me the skeleton that helped me figure out how to do it. So I'd say, fancy as they might be, these tools are useful too.
Aries75 24 Sep 2013 at 13:33  
Isn't Scrivener Apple-exclusive?
Nope, otherwise how could I be using it on my Windows PC? I do believe the Mac version has a few more bells and whistles, but the Windows version works just fine. Scrivener is especially good if you have heaps of research material to keep track of (it has a neat function to import web pages, for example - just enter the URL and it'll save a copy of the page in your project's Research folder)
Ml2872 24 Sep 2013 at 15:49  
It began as just Mac exclusive, but now has a PC version. I'm more of a plotter and it's a tremendous help to me. You can keep all of your chapters organized and filed in the Binder, that way you don't have fish around in your hardrive for all of your separate files,chapters, and so forth. I find the split screen function pretty useful. Also, export, import, and compile functions are really neat.

It's definitely more affordable than windows and worth checking out. The choice is totally up to you. Use whatever you prefer. Just trying to help out a fellow Critter. Oh yeah, they do have 30 day free trial.
Breeze 25 Sep 2013 at 11:18  
Great to have so many alternative suggestions. I remember when all we had for organizing was a spreadsheet!

Owllady 26 Sep 2013 at 01:04  
I bought Word 2010 only — not the whole Office package — and it only cost me $40.

I use Word for other things in addition to novel writing so it's more than paid for itself.

After I bought it, I found out that a friend has a bunch of professional versions of Microsoft programs; they can be downloaded many times under one license. He offered me his CD for PowerPoint and Excel so I got those programs for free. Ask your friends! They might have the same kind of license, or know somebody who does.

Plus, in my computer class, the instructor said that at least one of our local colleges offers Microsoft programs to its students for a very reduced price. Ask your friends! Sometimes you can get the program you want for free or for not much money.

Breeze 27 Sep 2013 at 09:56  
OneNote can be bought as a stand-alone, also. I once bought an older windows version on ebay for an older PC.
Purplek 27 Sep 2013 at 12:31  
I need something like this!
Breeze 29 Sep 2013 at 23:40  
I remember years ago wanting a way to record and categorize the random (and of course spectacular) writing ideas that came to me every day. Looks like my wishes have been answered by a number of products. Lucky us!

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