Tuesday, May 17, 2011

24 Using MS Word to Auto-Outline and Keep Track of Revelations

Figure 1

I'm not a pantser. Much. I have my complications worksheet which gives me a basic outline, and my character worksheets which give me a good idea of my characters' quirks and attributes. I usually fill these out after I write the first three chapters. BUT (and it's a great, big, hairy but) I am a closet pantser. I HATE doing the worksheets. Also, inevitably, once I've got them done, the story evolves organically. In technical terms, sh** happens.

It's not so much that the plot changes. The story can take left turns while staying within the plot. The revelations change, and what I reveal (backstory, subplot, worldbuilding, character, stakes, etc.), and when I reveal it, will alter my readers' perceptions of the story. I hate to stop writing to change all those worksheets, outlines, synopses or whatever. Ditto on revision. 

Figure 2

I've tried Scrivener, yWriter, and various writing programs hoping to find an easier way. Unfortunately, Word's track changes feature is still the industry standard for editing, so once the first draft is done, the specific writing tools are more headache than help. Import, export, cut, paste, blah, blah, rinse, repeat.

I wanted a way to do all my writerly housekeeping in Word, and just recently, I figured part of it out.

Are you ready? Ta daaaaa. You can use Word to automatically outline as you go, and automatically keep track of the information you reveal.

(Note: Click on the pictures to see better detail. I've kept them small here to conserve space.)

Figure 3
1. Start with an existing manuscript, so you have a chapter heading, and at least a chapter of text.

2. Select your Chapter 1 heading. Set it to [Heading 1] style using the style options displayed on your [Home] tab.

3. Using the [Paragraph] dialogue box (See Figure 1), specify that the style should be centered. Set your desired space above and below the paragraph. I use 240 pt above, and 30 pt below. (See Figure 2) 

Figure 4
4. Then click on the [Line and Page Breaks] tab of the [Paragraph] dialogue box, and check the [Page Break before] option. (See Figure 3)

5. Set your font options according to your own preferences. (I use bold, Times New Roman 14 pt.) Right click on the newly-formatted Chapter 1 heading on your manuscript, and choose [Styles] - [Update Heading 1 style to match selection]. (See Figure 4)

Figure 5

6. To keep from having to renumber chapters as you make changes, let Word handle the chapter numbering for you. With your  newly-formatted Chapter 1 heading selected,  pull down the multi-level list icon (See Figure 5) on the Home tab. Choose the list option on the third line that starts with Chapter 1 Heading 1.

Now the next time you are ready to create a new chapter, all you need to do is hit the carriage return, and on the newly created line, change the style to Heading 1. Microsoft Word will automatically add your page break, line spacing, "Chapter" label, and the chapter number for you. If you delete a chapter, Word will automatically renumber the subsequent chapters.

Figure 6

7. Next, set Heading 2 to designate your scene breaks. Start a new paragraph. Add your break symbols (### or ***), select them, and set them to Heading 2 style. Center. Modify the paragraph settings to add an extra 12 pts above and below the paragraph. Apply the paragraph changes, then right click and choose [Styles] - [Update Heading 2 style to match selection]. 

8. Starting with Heading 3, change all the Heading styles to include the same [Normal] style characteristics as your main body text. To do this easily, just select a random piece of text. Set it to Heading 3 style. Apply the various font and paragraph changes, then right click and choose [Styles] - [Update Heading 3 style to match selection]. Repeat this process until all your headings look like your [Normal] style. Set your sample text back to [Normal].

Figure 7
9. Right click somewhere on the toolbar at the top of your Word document. Select [Customize Quick Access Toolbar]. (See Figure 6) In the leftmost pull down box, [Choose Commands From] pick [All Commands]. Scroll down until you see [Style Separator].  Click the [Add] button between the two boxes. (See Figure 7) If desired, move the new [Style Separator] command up to position it wherever you want it on your custom Quick Access Toolbar.  It will look like two paragraph break symbols on the toolbar.

Figure 8

10. And now the outlining magic. As you write or edit, simply choose a heading level for any paragraph that contains information you want to track. You can apply a heading style to the whole paragraph, or by using the [Style Separator], to a single word or line. 
To use the [Style Separator],  while typing, just position your cursor where you want the new included section or word to start, and click the [Style Separator] button. When you finish the section, click the [Style Separator] button a second time. If you are editing, the easiest way to avoid confusing yourself with the way Word handles this is to add a temporary hard carriage return before the included information, then click the [Style Separator] button. It will automatically delete the carriage return. (Be sure you also add a carriage return at the end before you click the [Style Separator] a second time. This really threw me the first few times Word messed up my paragraphs!)

Figure 9
8. To see your outline, go to the [View] tab and click [Outline] mode. If you have set important text to Heading 3, set the outline to show only Level 3 (or 4 or whatever). You will see just the relevant data.

 * * *

Obviously, if you need to show this outline to your agent or editor, you'll have some cleanup to do. But for keeping track of your plot and information, this is an easy way to keep yourself current on the fly.

In addition, if you insert a Table of Contents into your document, you can see the page number for all these different bits of information. You can even get fancy and color code your heading styles. Apply different heading levels (with color codes) to action, reaction, description, or whatever. You'll be able to see pacing issues instantly and find where you've lingered too long on a scene or section at a glance. (If anyone is interested, I can cover more on the Table of Contents in another post.)

Phew. What do you think? Is this something you could use? What are your favorite tips or tricks for writing in Word? (And if you tell me how to set Word to automatically do a plotting board, I'll kiss your feet AND send you free YA books!)

Happy outlining!



  1. Wow! You know way more about Word than I do. What version do you have? I'm not sure mine has all these features.

  2. Awesome. I use Scrivener b/c I like having the outline to the left and any notes on the scene on the right without having notebooks laying around the entire life of the novel. But I do agree that it's a pain to export out to a word doc, which I do after any major rewrites. But sometimes I think it's b/c I'm still new to Scrivener and haven't quite figured it out. Thanks for these great tips!

  3. Seriously, I've been wanting to do some Word housecleaning, too; just didn't know what or how. You rock! I'm so trying this today. Thanks!!

  4. Wow, I'm going to check this out. I use an outline, but sometimes the final product doens't resemble the outline. :)

  5. I did not know this was possible! Thanks for sharing, Martina! I'm a total pantster, but I may try this out anyway.

  6. OMG, this is the best information ever. I'm a totally organic writer who then has to find some way to organize after the first draft. Thank you so much!!!

  7. Wow, who knew? You are brilliant! Thanks for sharing this!

  8. I love learning more about Word, so I'll be excited to try this out.

  9. I've been working with Word on so many levels for so many years and had NO idea this was even possible! Thank you, I'm so trying this out.

  10. Very cool. Especially the auto-numbered chapter headings. :)

  11. This is great! I DID know this was possible but it gave me such fits I gave up in despair. Your tips cleared up almost all my confusion! Thanks!

  12. Thanks, everyone! I'm so glad this was helpful. I wish you could see my happy dance when I figured it out.

    Natalie, this is all supposed to be viable with anything after 2002. I personally use 2007.

    Corrie, if you have something that still isn't clear, let me know!


  13. Wow, what a great tip! Think I might give this one a go :)



  14. I LOVE Word. I'm a die-hard Word purist. I tried out Scrivener type software for NaNo and it took hours for me to figure it out and I still don't have it down...I wasted so much writing time.

    I stand by Word!

  15. Didn't know you could do this. Thanks!

  16. I had no idea!! I'm a total pantster (although I'm trying to change!) so this sounds awesome! I'm bookmarking it for when I have a bit of time to play with it - thanks :)

  17. Woohoo! Brilliant, just what I needed and it's been sitting under my nose all this time. Thanks for the post (hugely!) :)

  18. Wow! I love this. I've also tried out a few writing softwares, but I keep coming back to Word.

    Thanks for sharing!

  19. Gah! You mean I don't have to type in all those chapter headings and center them by hand? (and end up with TWO chapter fourteens) Amazing what Word can do, that most people--myself included--don't know about. Thanks so much for the info!!

  20. This is really valuable information! Thanks. I'm going to try it out

  21. Sounds great - hope Word for Mac has these features - I'll check it out! Many thanks for this very informative post! :)

  22. Thanks for this! I love the find button, it has been brilliant for editing. I use the comment boxes to remind myself of errors. This way I can keep writing and then edit. It saves writing time.

  23. This is so helpful. Thank you! I wish I'd seen this before I manually changed the numbering of 40+ chapters.

  24. Word is frustrating when it comes to outlining. Its defaults are not what you want, and there's no easy way to change tabs in and other formatting. It's rather useless to me and I have to resort to paragraph formatting and manually create my outline just as used to do on my typewriter. Everything about Word is counter-intuitive and rather useless.


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