Strangely, putting all the things you need to do for your writing business into some kind of organized form is about as overwhelming to some as the task of writing a first draft. As I said in the introductory post, you’ll be engaging in some “yak shaving” if you’re doing all of this for the first time (or if you’re starting over from scratch, as I’m sometimes tempted to do).
I asked authors on the Marketing For Romance Writers Yahoo! Group how they organize both their writing projects and the “business side” of their writing, such as their sales data, marketing campaign notes, etc.
A couple respondents remain old-school and keep their writing projects in physical binders with tabs and sticky notes. Another keeps their writing projects in a single Microsoft Word document and uses Bookmarks and the Navigation Pane to jump around (kind of like an offline-only webpage). Others use alternate word processors designed for novel-writing, like Scrivener, which lets them outline and draft in the same program. Like me, several respondents prefer to use Microsoft’s OneNote to organize the bulk of their writing business while doing their actual writing in Word and tracking their budgets and sales data in Microsoft Excel.
What’s right for you? Let’s look at the most popular applications writers use to:
- collect story ideas
- do research
- outline their story
- create and track characters and plots
- track distribution and metadata
- track budget and sales data
OneNote from Microsoft:
What is it?
OneNote is a virtual notebook. Each “Notebook” file is akin to a physical binder with tabs (called Sections) and then Pages within those Sections. It is not specifically geared toward writers and doesn’t include a built-in word processor, so it’s less specialized than say, Scrivener.
Let’s say you wish to access your Notebooks from your desktop, your laptop, and occasionally your phone. OneNote lets you save your Notebooks either locally or on a cloud storage service like DropBox (“Basic” accounts offer 2 GB free storage) or Microsoft’s OneDrive (starter accounts currently come with 5 GB free storage). Using a cloud service in conjunction with OneNote not only lets you access your Notebooks from any device, but also lets you store any file you might need across devices. If you already use OneNote and that sounds like something you want to do, it’s easy to move your Notebooks into the cloud.
Where do I get it?
For most devices, including Web (free). Caution: while OneNote is now entirely free, Microsoft Office is not.
- Access your Notebooks from practically any device, including a web browser.
- In addition to typed notes, you can embed or attach most media into your Notebooks simply by clicking and dragging.
- OneNote Clipper lets you dump articles, blog posts, etc. directly from your browser to your Notebook, and it’s easy to send the clipped content to the right place inside your Notebook.
- Integrates well with Microsoft’s other products, such as Word, OneDrive, and Outlook.
- Powerful search function that can search not only text, but also text within images and audio/video files as well as any handwritten notes you inked with either your finger or a digital pen (requires a tablet PC).
- “Includes writing tools like a research panel to look up reference sources, a thesaurus, a spell checker, and language translation.” (source)
- Allows tagging individual parts of a Page.
- Can export Notebooks in more formats.
- Syncing across devices sometimes has trouble, though I’ve come up against fewer and fewer issues as time goes on.
- OneNote Clipper used to save article content as a screenshot, rather than as text, so you could’t highlight text to copy + paste it elsewhere, but the words in the screenshot were still searchable within OneNote. (An Update, However!) Microsoft has been doing an excellent job of improving OneNote and its Clipper, which now has an “Article” clipping option that will save content as text rather than a screenshot. Note that a small number of websites have coded their site to prevent clipping their content.
- Mobile version has fewer editing tools than desktop version.
- No seamless way to tag and share individual Pages or Sections. At best, you can share an entire Notebook, and the UI for that is somewhat clunky.
- You must use a third-party app like IFTTT (IF That Then This) to send certain kinds of internet content directly into your OneNote, such as “faved” Tweets and links you post to Facebook.
- Unlike Scrivener, OneNote doesn’t include features such as the “virtual corkboard” for story-planning (though you could easily ad-hoc something) or a built-in word processor that works in close conjunction with the virtual corkboard.
How do I use it?
- Microsoft’s OneNote 2013 QuickStart Guide
- “Basic tasks in Microsoft OneNote 2013” via Microsoft
- “Microsoft OneNote for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know” via PCWorld
- “Seven Tips and Tricks to Get More Out of OneNote” via LifeHacker
- “Create Your Literal Writer's Toolbox with OneNote” by Angela Quarles via Fiction University
EverNote from Evernote
What is it?
Like OneNote, EverNote is virtual notebook that is also not specifically geared toward writers and does not include a word processor. Unlike OneNote, EverNote by default is a “cloud program,” meaning the things you add to your Notebooks goes into an online server that you can access from any device where EverNote is installed.
Where do I get it?
- Access your notes from practically any device.
- Can create reminders.
- No need to set up a separate cloud storage service.
- EverNote Web Clipper lets you dump articles, blog posts, etc. directly from your browser to your notebooks.
- iOS users can download the free Scannable app to scan paper notes.
- Mobile version is about on par with the desktop version.
- (Update: Jan. 17, 2017) Mobile version was recently redesigned. Starting a new note is easier, navigation is better, and search is faster. However, Casey Newton at The Verge believes "Evernote’s redesign is too little, too late."
- The free version throttles new uploads to 60 MB/month, after which you have to pay a subscription to increase that limit to either 1 GB/month for $35/yr or 10 GB/month for $70/yr. Thankfully, I doubt most fiction authors would need to worry about hitting either limit unless they intend to save high-resolution images, which will have large file sizes.
- EverNote recently limited the number of devices a Basic (free) account can use to access your notebooks to two (2).
- Clicking and dragging media into EverNote attaches it rather than embeds it.
- Some users prefer EverNote’s minimalistic layout, but others complain that it’s overly simplistic and its formatting/editing tools aren’t powerful enough.
- Unlike Scrivener, EverNote doesn’t include features such as the “virtual corkboard” for story-planning or a built-in word processor that works in close conjunction with the virtual corkboard.
How do I use it?
- EverNote’s tutorial section
- “I've Been Using EverNote All Wrong. Here's Why It's Actually Amazing” via LifeHacker
- “Evernote for Beginners: The Basics of the Most Popular Notebook App” via tuts+
Scrivener from Literature and Latte
What is it?
While virtual notebooks like OneNote and EverNote can be used by anyone for any organizational need, Scrivener is a souped-up word processor or “all-in-one writing studio.” (source)
Where do I get it?
- Great at keeping everything you need for a writing project in one place: notes, research, a story outline, and your first draft.
- Intuitive user interface, according to some.
- Has features not found in other word processor programs, such as a way to set a daily word count and track it.
- “Virtual corkboard” feature lets you create virtual, color-coded notecards to storyboard your novel, which you can edit and move around as needed.
- Keep multimedia scene notes “close” to the actual draft of the scene.
- If you’re a panster or just suddenly inspired, you can’t simply start typing. Starting your draft requires creating an outline and then a subsection for each scene.
- Some of the program’s best features are not in the Windows version.
- Currently, the developer-made tutorials are only geared toward Mac users.
- It takes at least one if not two or three hours of tutorials to understand the interface and all the features.
- No mobile integration.
- The program’s “Snapshot” feature paired with its “Compare” feature is a poor man’s “Track Changes."
How do I use it?
- Developer’s tutorials section (Mac only)
- “How Scrivener Helped Me Organize All My Writing” via LifeHacker
- “8 Ways Scrivener Will Help You Become A Proficient Writer Overnight” via The Creative Penn
- “How to Use Scrivener (The Basics)” via Sterling & Stone
Microsoft Excel & Google Sheets
What is it?
Excel and Sheets are the two most popular spreadsheet applications, which organize and analyze data in tabular form.
While authors out there do use spreadsheets to organize their writing projects rather than or in addition to using it for their sales data or budgets (it’s what they’re used to doing), I would not recommend using a spreadsheet application for organizing your writing projects. Everything Excel can be made to do, OneNote/EverNote does better (and prettier). To drive this point home, I’d also like to add that if you ever do have some urgent need to put something into Excel (maybe you just don’t like the Tables in OneNote), you can easily embed an Excel worksheet in your OneNote.
Where do I get it?
- Google Sheets for Web/Android/iPhone/iPad (free)
- Microsoft’s Excel requires either a purchase of Office 2016 for PC/Mac ($150) or a yearly subscription to Office 365 for PC/Mac ($70/yr)
- Even if you’re only traditionally published, it’s smart to use a spreadsheet application to track your royalties. For hybrid and self-publishers, such applications are essential for tracking sales data, expenses, and profit.
- If you use Excel in conjunction with OneDrive, you can look at your spreadsheets from any device with Office installed, even on your favorite web browser. Google Sheets is accessible on the web, Android, and iPhone/iPad.
- Google Sheets’ biggest boast is how easy it is for multiple people to collaborate on a file as compared to Excel, but that’s not typically a high-priority need for authors unless they write with a partner or are part of an anthology.
- Let’s state the obvious. Microsoft Office is expensive. Thankfully, Google Sheets is an excellent alternative, and it can use any Microsoft Excel file you might need to view or edit. Though Excel churns through huge amounts of data better and faster than Google Sheets, the data an author needs to store and analyze probably won’t be a burden on Google Sheets.
- Neither application really lends itself toward the non-accounting tasks an author must complete, but that’s okay! We don’t need a single, silver bullet.
How do I use it?
Authors won’t need to use the most complex and powerful tools in a spreadsheet application, so simply searching “how do I use Excel” or “how do I use Google Sheets” might get you broader tutorials than you meant to find.
- Author Bree Bridges offers two pre-formatted Excel sheets on her Downloads page for tracking sales data on both a year-to-date and month-to-date basis.
- “How to Add Up Your E-Book Sales in A Snap” via Jenny Hansen
- “Writerly Uses For Microsoft Excel — Part I, Part II, Part III” via Jenny Hansen
Back up your work. Unless you stick to pen and paper—even then, consider scanning your paper notes once in a while—make regular backups so that if the worst ever happens, you won’t have lost all your hard work. Nowadays a USB thumb drive can typically hold quite a lot. One that holds 16 GB of data can be bought for less than $15. You can also get an external hard drive if the USB drive isn’t sufficient. Set up a recurring reminder so that making a backup becomes a habit and not something you do only when you remember to do it. It’s up to you how often, whether it’s monthly, weekly, or some other interval.
If you delete something from the cloud, it’s gone for good. Unlike deleting a file on your desktop, which sends it to your Recycle Bin and can be undone, deleting or changing a file that is solely stored in a cloud storage service is not something you can reverse later. Small changes you’ve made while editing a file could be undone with ctrl + z (or cmd + z for Mac users), but that’s the extent of it.
Be wary of random data corruption. If you replace a working file on your cloud storage service with a local copy that’s corrupted, the corrupted file will be what’s available to all the devices you use to access the cloud.
While a cloud storage service should not replace a secondary backup method like a USB thumb drive, it could still be a lifesaver. Let’s say the worst happens. Your desktop dies. A fire destroys your machines. Burglars steal your devices. There is hope! Once you get access to a computer, whether it’s a friend’s, the library’s, or a new replacement machine, just log into your cloud storage service to save or sync your files.
Require a password in order to use your computer, even when waking it from Sleep mode. It’s not at all common for run-of-the-mill burglars to try to log into stolen machines and look for private or financial information, but identity theft could happen more easily if a thief has no barrier to accessing your computer files. More likely, they’ll reformat it to sell it. And don’t worry, someone reformatting your computer will not wipe out the files you’ve stored in your cloud.