Don’t Have Scrivener? How to Use Microsoft Word for All Your Writing Needs

Let me say up front that I DO NOT USE SCRIVENER.  Yes, yes, I know that Scrivener is the be-all-end-all of writing programs, and that 78% of you think I’m missing out massively by not using it.  But… I don’t have it.

Because I don’t have it, I have experimented with a variety of other programs.  You can find reviews for those programs here on my blog.  I even tried Scrivener’s free trial!  But I found Scrivener to have a learning-curve I wasn’t quite ready to tackle.   Learning Scrivener is on my “To-Do Eventually” list.  But do you know what’s on my “To-Do ASAP” list?  Writing.  Like, actually producing books.

And to make that happen as efficiently as possible, as old-school as it seems, I usually use Microsoft Word.

Microsoft Word doesn’t have all the fancy planning features many other writing programs have.  But IT CAN BE MADE TO WORK if you can’t (or don’t want to) invest the money in a more expansive writing software.  While the other programs I’ve tried have lots of cool features, most of those things I prefer to do by hand anyway, at least for now.  When I really need to produce writing as quickly and seamlessly as possible, Microsoft Word is my jam.

This post is for those who don’t have fancier software, but probably have Microsoft Word (or a comparable word processor) and want to know how to make the most of it for the writing process.

Here’s how I make it work for me:

 1. Separate files for outlines, planning, and drafts.

When I start a new project, I create a folder for it on my computer.  Then I create an outline for the project, and save it into its own document.  Any planning files I need — research notes, character bios, setting info, world-building lore — each gets its own separate doc file.  I sort these into folders in whatever way makes the most sense, such as a “Characters” folder that includes separate doc files for each character’s info, or an “Ideas” folder that includes little snippets of scenes or things I want to add in but don’t know where to put yet.  When I begin actually writing, I create a new document and name it as a first draft.   If I make any major changes, I “Save As” into a new document and name it as a second draft.  And so on to the Final Draft, Beta Reader version, E-book format version (once I reach that point), and so on.  I store all these files into labeled folders (Drafts, Outlines, Notes, etc.) within the larger folder titled by the book name, which then goes inside a special “Books for Publication” folder inside a “Writing” folder on my computer.   Simple? Yes.  Effective? Also yes.  I can easily find everything I need simply by accessing and opening that file… and once you’ve opened the relevant folder inside Word, it will default to opening that same folder the next time, so it’s quick and easy to access whatever you need and do most of your outlining, planning, and writing right inside the program.

2. The Comments Feature

While I’m writing, if I notice anything I need to come back to later, or anything I need to rethink or rewrite, I simply use Word’s “Comments” feature to add myself a marginal note about it.  These Comments can be toggled on and off easily from the menu bar, so it’s a quick and simple way to visually see everything you’ll need to revisit later.  This is so valuable for quieting that inner critic who wants to perfect everything right then.  I simply mark it so I can fix it later, and then keep writing.  When it comes time to edit, all my initial notes are already right there, and I can add more as I read through and find other things that need to be fixed.  (This is also how I request my Beta Readers and editors provide feedback — I request that they use the Comments feature to leave me in-line notes, so I can see exactly what they’re referring to in their comments.  They can also use Track Changes to make edits in-text, and then when they send the file back to me, I can easily see anything they changed.   I use this same process as a professional editor, and my clients are always pleased with the ease and specificity of the feedback.)

If you have a word processor other than Word and can’t do marginal Comments, you can achieve a similar effect by simply adding notes to yourself in a bold, red font within your text.  When it comes time to edit, simply scroll through and carefully look for anything red.  If you also add a tag-word with each red insertion (something like NOTE or EDITS), you can easily use the Search & Find feature in your program to locate all of your notes so that you don’t miss any.

3.  Formatted Headings and Page-Breaks

Though I don’t always do this on the first draft, when I reach later drafts or while editing, I use Word’s built-in formatting to make my job easier.  You can select “Title,” “Subtitle,” “Heading 1,” “Heading 2,” “Normal,” and so on from the Home menu bar, enabling you to tag your Chapter Titles, Heading Titles, etc., in a way that Word recognizes.  You can even customize the appearance of each if you don’t like the default style.   I also take the time to insert a Page-Break at the end of each chapter or section.  Why would you do this?  Because it makes your life so much easier later.  If you have all the headings marked, then Word can automatically create an accurate Table of Contents for you… which means you can easily click-and-go to any part of the document you want.  If you’re a self-publisher, it also means that TONS of work just got done for you, especially if you did the Page-Break inserts, too.  The page-breaks mean your chapters won’t run together when your book is converted into another format, and many of the platforms (including Amazon KDP) can read your signified headings, titles, etc., and auto-create an adaptable Table of Contents for your e-book.   It’s also 90% of the way to what you’ll need for formatting a CreateSpace print book, though you’ll need to adjust the page sizes in your document for your selected print size.  Basically, doing these steps in your actual Word document means that Word is doing much of the heavy-lifting of formatting for you.  Thanks, Word.

4.  Store & Sort Notes and Outlines

If you’re a visual planner, you may find that Word’s features are a bit too limited for your full planning process.  That’s okay… I’m a visual planner, too!  This is why if I have a very complex story to plan, I use a hybrid of outlines (inside Word) and a bunch of notecards/sticky notes/diagrams/etc. that end up spread all over my walls and bulletin boards (and sometimes floor) as I’m figuring things out.  But this works for me, because I actually like the tactile nature of it, the ability to physically rearrange sticky notes and spread things out in my tangible space as though I’m standing inside my own brainstorm.  But once I get things a bit more organized, I transfer the important notes into outlines.  I can even snap photos of my boards or notecards and then insert those photos into the appropriate Word document to supplement my typed notes, or simply store the photos within my story folders alongside my doc files, so that they’re in the same place as the other notes and documents for that story.  From that point on, everything is in one place, and the majority of my planning and writing happens within Word.  I also have my Documents folder set to auto-backup to my Google Drive, so anything I create or save through Word gets automatically backed up and protected… and I can access it from anywhere.

Is Word the perfect program to solve all your writing and planning problems?  No.  But then, is anything, really?  Someday I will probably try again to figure out Scrivener, because it does have some cool features.  But right now my time is limited, my priority for what time I do have for writing needs to be actually writing, and the time spent figuring out a new (and rather complex) software isn’t time I can afford.

For now, Word works for me.  And it has for years.  Like, years and years.

I’ve seen some writers say that Word slowed them down or made it difficult for them to navigate drafts or files, but I have never had this issue.  I think this may just come down to forethought in how you title, organize, and store your doc files.  If you have a system for saving and storing your files, you’ll be able to quickly find what you need.

Is there room for me to grow?  Sure!  I’ll admit that I’m probably missing out on some efficiency I could gain from features offered in other programs.  There are also other programs I love for various reasons — Novel Factory, Bibisco, Papel, even some new ones I tried out but haven’t had a chance to review yet.  But many of them also have tons of features I don’t need or use.  I actually love Word’s simplicity, and the fact that it keeps my attention on the writing process itself.

If you don’t have Scrivener, or whatever writing software you have just isn’t working for you, give Word a try.  You might be surprised how useful it can be.


6 thoughts on “Don’t Have Scrivener? How to Use Microsoft Word for All Your Writing Needs

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  1. Thanks for the useful Word advice. We sometimes forget that software we already have may be adequate for all or most of our writings.

    I usually use something simple (WordPad, Jarte, or FocusWriter) for the bulk of writing, and fancier word processors for editing later. Scrivener is not for me, but I like what I’ve seen of Bibisco and TheNovelFactory (thank you for reviewing those and other specialized writing software already)

    I’ll also point out that open-sourced LibreOffice ( or OpenOffice have a completely free word processor called “Writer.” It is 99.9% the same as Microsoft Word, if you are on a budget. I haven’t found a single MSWord function that’s not available in Writer, so your article works for those, too. There are even “portable app” versions (runs entirely from a USB stick) of Writer available, which is handy for authors who travel a lot and may need to use different computers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really happy that you found my blog helpful. I do find some of the other programs I reviewed to be useful for various reasons, but as I said in this blog, Word is basically my tried-and-true tool that I use regularly. It works for me. I am glad to know that there are comparable word processors for free, as I know some people don’t have access to the Microsoft Office Suite. Thank you for your comment!


  2. All the writing software I’ve seen (except one that’s not been updated in nearly 20 years: Dramatica 4, which is meant to be used with Power Writer, not by itself, and each is over $100) are all way way way below the cost of Word. That said, I certainly can understand your issues. For your information, if you want to have more time with Scrivener, right now is the time to do it. THey’re running the beta, what seems right now to be one of the final stages of it for this version, to modernize, and the beta versions are 100% free. The current one expires Dec 15, previosu one was july 1 to sept 30 etc. This is for scriv 3 for windows (biggest peeve about scriv before for me was that it sucked on windows, and i despise everything mac simply on principle) and now the two will be as close to the same as is possible, and the projects can be saved in one opened in the other no problem, jsut not backwards compatible: open old files ok, it will save a backup and create a modernized copy, but save in 3 and you can’t use in the old scriv for windows version.

    There are a lot of things in Word that I like, and many funcitons I know are there, somewhere, but I so prefer the old ui that is no longer there, with dropdown menus and such some thigns jsut hide too easily, but you can always find the answer to your need somewhere online no matter what it is.

    Thatsaid, I’m messingaround iwth several other programs myself, some are trials- which would be nice if the one I went to open yesterday didn’t run out without ever getting used. Luckily, all the other trials for writing software I’ve seen, are by uses not days installed. yWriter has some good things, with the exception of some very basic formatting needs, I really like FreeWriter actually, Open Office still has the menus I prefer that Word’s gotten rid of (just liek the rest of Microsoft products in the search for prettification)and there’s always the trials of Novel Factory and NovelCreator you shoudl try out. One of them is based on the Marshall Plan- I think it’s NovelCreator- the other has a large variety of splot structures built into it for those that like those things (Most of the 20 Master Plots by Tobias are included) You should check those out, they both have a lot of features that aren’t present in the others including Word or Scrivener, though Scrivener can be made to have them if you make a template, or download one, I still don’t like Scriveners compile function, but perhaps when 3’s beta is over it will be usable. The old Windows Scriv (1.9.8?) didnt have anywhere near the options they do on mac, and it’s all quite different in each version so the learning curve is right there. The use of note cards chapters scenes etc to me is extremely simple, the biggest difficulty is in using your manuscript once it’s completed. All these programs have advantages and disadvantages. I certainly wouldnt put cost as an advantage to word. unless you ahve a new computer that you didn’t build yourself (and thus got better machien for less money) then you don’t get free Word without piracy, and that wouldnt be very smart to promote. You can get a discount code fro m NaNoWriMo and a few other places off scriv too bringing the price under 40 bucks. Don’t forget about Google Docs as well, 100% free and protable, but not as feature rich as others and requires internet (unless you download the offline version, but to have the portability you still need to go onlien to upload and sync)

    For yo uand others that like the visual arrangement of outlining etc, try Scapple (an offshoot of scrivener, but I think it might be free, I dont use that so much) although there are numerous programs that allow that sort of visual outlining as well, just less pretty. Or, you can use Inkscape and build it into a pdf or png for later use, but each element can be dragged and dropped and connected and ordered etc. Inkscape is also free. (I use it for my book covers)


    1. Thanks for your comment! I understand that Word is costly. However, I’ve never NOT had it (since junior high, at least) because all of my school/college/later work stuff required the ability to use, send, and receive Word files… There are actually some really good programs similar to Word, now, but Word has just always been a staple and/or I’ve gotten a free trial or pared-down version with my computer or something. This article was mostly for people who already HAVE Microsoft Word, to help them figure out how to utilize it for their story planning/writing needs without purchasing another program. Incidentally, I should probably do a new article on Google Docs because I’m loving that these days! I use it every bit as much as Word if not more, especially for communicating/sharing documents with collaborative teams or beta readers, etc. I’ll have to check into Scapple and Inkscape! I’m also currently trying out a different software for writers that is in Beta stage, and I’m really liking it! It’s not free but is VERY affordable with a good array of features. I have a check-in with the developer this weekend as they’re about to release some new features, and then I’ll be writing up a review… so keep an eye out for that one!


  3. Thanks for this post! I’m thinking about beginning my first novel with an intention to finish (in other words, I started a couple when I was younger without any plan and nothing really happened) and I’ve been reading blogs about “everything you should know before starting writing”. Everything says to use scrivener or something like it, but I want to use Microsoft word. This is definitely validation of my preference and some great tips for how to use effectively. Thank you again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad this was helpful to you! Though I wrote this post a while ago, I still use Microsoft Word (and now Google Docs) for nearly everything. I sometimes create spreadsheets in Google Spreadsheets or Excel or hand-draw timelines or other things when I get stuck in planning, but then I just copy all my notes into doc files on my computer and organize them. It works well for me without being overly complicated. I’ve written 5 novels (and counting!) and numerous novellas, short stories, etc. with this method. Scrivener works great for many authors! But every writer is different and the key is to find what works for YOU. Sometimes that takes trial and error, but don’t be afraid to stick with what works once you find it!

      Liked by 2 people

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