There are a number of writing practices and software tools that can help you manage longer and more complex writing tasks. This guide covers a few key techniques and introduces custom writing software that supports these techniques in unique ways.
When you’re writing a paper that’s more complex than a short essay, like a research paper, a thesis or capstone project, or even a dissertation, you face new challenges. First, you need some way to know what to write in each section while keeping the structure of the whole document in mind. Next, you need some way of managing feedback, since it’s more likely a longer document is more important and will go through several rounds of revision. Finally, you need ways of managing the various versions of the document–what you sent to your mentor, the version she sent back to you, the new version you’re working on, the version where you totally changed the introduction, etc.
By this point, you may have already had a taste of this in writing a research paper or some other longer assignment. You may have approached these challenges instinctively, maybe by writing the paper from the first page to the last to keep it all straight, or by using improvised file names to indicate versions (e.g.,
research paper final version 2.docx). This guide aims to give you several options to address each challenge, so that you can make more deliberate choices about how to manage these issues in future large writing projects.
Writing in Chunks
Once you’re faced with a writing task that will span several writing sessions, it’s necessary to find some way to keep it all straight between sessions. One way to do this is to break down the writing project into chunks of text. If you’re not used to working this way, it can feel odd at first. You might try this out on an assignment you feel comfortable with, rather than waiting until you’re overwhelmed by a big project and your existing mode of writing isn’t working. That way you can try out a few different tools and get a feel for whether you find this method useful without the pressure of needing to make progress on a more important and complex project.
One way to get started writing in chunks is by writing an outline beforehand so that you have a good sense of the sections to write and each section can be a separate chunk to work on during different writing sessions. Check out the other guide for more on outlining.
However, it’s not necessary to start with an outline. You might prefer starting out writing to find out what you have to say. If you do this via handwriting, you could lay out the pages on a big table when you’re done and see if some kind of structure emerges from those pages. If you do this via a computer, there are several different ways you could go.
Word Processors vs. Specialized Writing Applications
Word processors, like Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and Google Docs, represent the most common writing tools, yet their feature sets are mainly focused on activities other than writing. Microsoft Word and Apple Pages both have pretty good page layout features and can make documents look nice and standardized. Word also has a strong “track changes” view, which is useful for collaborating or managing documents like contracts. These features can be useful, and anyway, people may request that you share documents with them in one of these formats so it’s easy to default to just using these tools.
However, there are many alternatives now available that offer unique features explicitly designed to help when you are actually writing. These applications make it especially easy to write in chunks because they help manage the chunks in useful ways–displaying them as cards on a cork board, as sections of an outline, or even as nodes in a mind map. They also let you rearrange those chunks quickly and efficiently by dragging them around, not by laboriously cutting and pasting.
Additionally, these alternatives typically make it easy to produce a final document in the same file format that Microsoft Word makes, so it’s easy to share that document with someone that expects this format.
The following sections will describe a few strategies for writing in chunks, focusing first on more general strategies that can work with word processors, then strategies that are more specific to these alternative, more specialized, writing tools.
Managing Chunks with Headings
If you’ve already written an outline, it can be straightforward to write in chunks in Word or Google Docs by just drafting under each heading. You can just pick whichever heading you want to write in for that session. No need to start at the beginning! Writers often know the middle material best, the part that explains the central idea or the details that are most interesting. After getting that section written up, it might be more clear what has to come first, or where the paper has to develop from there. And if it turns out that you need to move a few sections around, you can do it with cut and paste functions. This approach works especially well if you use the “heading” function of the application or if you’ve used Word’s outline mode to create the outline. This way you can see the document structure to the side of the document while you’re working, giving you an overview of the other chunks you’ve planned to write.
You can also use this method if you don’t want to write an outline first, perhaps if you know what you want to say to some extent, but you don’t know the overall structure of the paper. To do this, simply start writing. If you feel like you’ve started writing a new chunk, just using the “heading” function of the word processor (see video above) to add a new heading. Then, you can view the headings in the outline view or sidebar of the app. You can use copy and paste to move the sections around. If you end up rearranging the order of these chunks significantly, you might benefit from writing in a different kind of application, one that puts “chunks” at the forefront.
Managing Chunks in Print
One way of working with “chunks” of writing is to simply print out your paper, cut each paragraph into a separate piece of paper, and arrange them all out on a table. Obviously, this works best if you make sure paragraphs print out together on the same page–so go through the file before printing and put page breaks at appropriate places.
If you know in advance that you will adopt this strategy, you don’t even have to try to make your paragraphs sequential as you are drafting–just write whatever comes in to your mind next and don’t worry about transition sentences. Once you’ve got it all on the table and start moving things around, you can make a plan for how things will fit together and can write transitions or revise paragraphs to make them fit the new structure you’ve developed.
This is also a great activity to pair with the reverse outline, described below.
Managing Chunks with Writing Software
A few writing applications are built completely on the concept of writing in chunks and fully support that writing practice through their interface. With these applications, you can manipulate chunks in a wide variety of ways so that you can focus on a particular chunk, see multiple chunks at once as a single text, or view the entire outline and text at once.
Viewing the Outline and Text Together
There are three applications currently that work in this model well: Scrivener, SmartEdit Writer, and Ulysses. Other apps may display outlines and chunks, but often in an interface that looks more like a data-entry program. Further, these other tools rarely have any of the additional features that make writing in the three apps just listed so nice.
The interface each of these apps presents is an outline on the left side, a writing space in the middle, and (sometimes) another panel on the right with additional information. You can select a topic from the outline on the left, and the corresponding text from that topic will appear in the middle (or a blank space ready for you to write that text).
With Scrivener and Ulysses, you can select multiple topics from the outline, then see the combined text from all of those topics displayed in the middle area.
And, of course, the outline on the left side of the screen can easily be manipulated via drag and drop, so sections can be moved around or re-arranged so that one topic is now under another.
Storing PDFs, Images, and Other Files With Your Writing
Additionally, these applications can manage more than just the text for the document you are writing. Each can store PDF files, images, and text from notes or research sources. Each application manages this somewhat differently–SmartEdit writer stores them in a separate “research” outline, Scrivener allows you to store them wherever in the outline but also provides a research section in the default outline for each project, and Ulysses allows you to store them as an attachment to any particular chunk of text.
Even better, Scrivener and Ulysses allow you to view more than one piece of text (or research file) at once. With Scrivener, you can open two parts of the outline side-by-side (or top and bottom) in the main window. With Ulysses, you can open multiple windows and arrange them on the desktop as you wish. With these features, you can view notes on one side and the section you are composing on the other. Or you could view a draft version of the section on one side and the revised version on the other. Or you could view the main part of the paper on one side and the introduction or conclusion in the other. Or a PDF for a research article on one side and your draft on the other. There are a variety of ways to use these multiple views to keep various parts of the project in mind while composing.
You can also apply various information to each chunk in order to label, categorize, or otherwise record information about it. For example, both Scrivener and Ulysses allow you to identify a target word count for each chunk, so that you can watch your progress. This is especially useful if you’re used to thinking about your writing progress in terms of “pages written,” since these applications do away with the ability to see a representation of a printed page. Additionally, you might apply labels to different chunks in order to record status–
completed, etc. In Scrivener, these labels can be color-coded as well to allow you to quickly see where you at with each section.
Displaying Chunks Creatively
Lastly, Scrivener in particular provides a few additional views of the outline of the project. You can view each main topic in the outline as an “index card” that can be moved around on a virtual table, you can view a more complex outline with multiple columns tracking different bits of information about each topic, and you can view the main text area solely with all the other parts of the interface blacked out.
How Many Pages Have I Written?
Writing in chunks requires some new habits and ways of working. You will likely be able to tell from the images above if the outline / chunk views are appealing. However, other aspects may take some getting used to, so you should be prepared for a small period of adjustment. As alluded to above, one key difference is that it can be difficult to tell how long your text is if you’re used to thinking about it in terms of printed “pages.” One way around this is to instead get used to thinking about how many overall words you aim to write. Each of the applications mentioned in this section have various ways to display word counts. Smart Edit Writer shows the word count of the project and records your written word count for the day, and both Scrivener and Ulysses show the word counts of particular chunks and allow you to set target word counts for each chunk or set of chunks, which can function in the same way as you might be used to working with page views–you can tell when you’re half done or almost done by checking those targets. You can see some basic words per page figures and do some more custom calculations on this wordcounter website.
Sharing Your Writing in Word or PDF format
The next main difference to get used to is saving the text as a “normal” file that can be shared or printed. With Word or Google Docs, you just share the exact file you’ve been working on. With these applications, you need to do an extra step or two to produce a “doc” file or PDF file. With all three of these applications, this process is fairly straightforward but does require a bit of thought. With Smart Edit, you just click the “Export as a Single Document” button, and it collects all your chunks together in the order they appear in the outline and saves them as a single file. It will not collect any notes or research files, just the chunks from the main outline. Scrivener works in a similar way, but with more customization available. When you press the “compile” button, you are presented with a view of your outline and are able to click checkboxes next to each chunk that you want to export, so that you can remove or add draft chunks or research chunks if you wish. Additionally, Scrivener comes with many customization options (that you can completely ignore if you wish) for setting the fonts, styles, and other layout options for the exported file.
With Ulysses, it’s necessary to select each chunk you want to be included in the exported file, then choose “quick export” from the menu or the “share” button. You can select multiple chunks by holding the shift key while clicking with the mouse. Their website provides a good overview of the process. Ulysses provides many different styles for exporting the text, which customize the font, layout, margins, etc. You can review the available styles on their website, or even make your own.
Of course, with any of these applications, it’s possible to manipulate the Word file in a variety of ways once you’ve exported it from the application–changing the font, adding a header or footer, etc.
One additional wrinkle here is that you will be receiving feedback in a file whose format is different from where you are writing. A comment on page 12 of the Word file your instructor read may appear in section 3.4 in your outline in Scrivener. This can be a little frustrating when trying to make changes based on substantial feedback. However, some writers do end up preferring to have feedback in a separate file/window from the file where they are drafting. This keeps things clean and also makes clear which is the current version and which is the previous version. Or, you can import the commented file directly into your Scrivener file or Smart Edit project (just like with any file).
Responding to Feedback
While writing a more complex paper you will likely receive feedback at various points, especially if you are in a course or a degree program. However, even if you are not a student, you will likely want to request feedback from some readers to see how others take up the material. This section of the guide will describe various ways to manage this feedback and revise in response to it.
As mentioned above, Microsoft Word and Google Docs may not provide the features of more specialized software for managing longer and more complex writing projects, but they do provide useful features for receiving feedback. For situations where you expect to frequently request and respond to feedback, it might even make sense to do your writing in Word or Google Docs to take advantage of those features. Or perhaps you might start in an app like Scrivener, and use the techniques mentioned above in the “Sharing Your Writing” section to incorporate feedback by importing the commented file into your project file. Later, after the document structure is mostly set, you could transition to making changes directly in Word and no longer work in Scrivener. Each approach has tradeoffs. This guide can point them out, but you may need to experiment with a few different approaches before you have a clear sense of which you prefer in which contexts.
Typically, readers will want to review your work by receiving a Word file, a Google Docs link, a PDF file, or possibly a text file like “rtf.” If readers don’t specifically request a particular format, there are a few options to consider when making a choice yourself.
First, you can consider whether you want to have a conversation with your readers in response to their feedback. With Google Docs, you can reply to comments and your readers will receive your replies as emails or notifications, and then they can respond. There are also ways to achieve this via Dropbox or using Word’s online service, but Google Docs is currently the most common and straightforward way to achieve this.
Next, if you are requesting feedback from multiple people, you can decide whether you want all those readers to see each other’s comments or not. With Google Docs, you can share a single document with many readers and they can all see every comment (and reply) made. This process can make it more efficient, so that multiple people aren’t making the same comment on the same section. It can also be nice to have all the feedback collected on the same copy of the document.
However, some situations may call for a different approach. Sometimes, readers will not be interested to see the feedback of others, or may find those comments distracting as they read. In this case, sending Word files or PDF files via email makes more sense. This way each reader gets a clean copy. If you use Word, you can even merge each document and its comments when you receive them all, leaving you with the same outcome as Google Docs: one document with all of the comments collected together. To do this, you need to use the “combine” feature in Word. This feature is described in Microsoft’s support document, and the writer Jami Gold provides a good tutorial for how to use the feature to combine comments from multiple readers.
Reviewing and Responding to Feedback
After you’ve received feedback on your writing, you may feel overwhelmed and frustrated that the text you sweated over wasn’t as clearly understood by readers as you hoped. You may feel tempted to click through each comment bubble in Word or Google Docs and fix the sentence highlighted by each comment. While this is sometimes appropriate, often the comment may be pointing to a broader issue that may need to be addressed through writing a new paragraph, or revising a few sentences throughout the paper, or by reordering paragraphs. Remember, your reader may also use Word’s or Google Docs’ “compare” features to see what has changed between versions of your paper and may not be impressed with only seeing superficial changes next to their comments instead of broader changes throughout the document.
Fortunately, you can use the commenting and review features to devise a revision plan that will help you make more large-scale changes. Instead of trying to fix the document right away, instead review each comment and write a sentence or two about what you could change to address the comment. You could even write this as a reply to the comment–but if you’re using Google Docs and don’t want to start a conversation with your reader, then you should first download the document as a Word file.
Or, as you write up your plan in a separate document, you could “resolve” or “reject” each comment. “Resolving” a comment makes it dim, so that you can see that you’ve added it to the plan, but it stays in the document so you can see it when you’re revising. “Rejecting” a comment deletes it from the document entirely. You may want to reject a comment, even if you plan on addressing it, if you don’t need or want to see it while revising.
As you work on your revision plan, you may want to experiment with creating a "reverse outline." To make one of these, you write a single-sentence summary of each paragraph in your draft, fitting it into outline form. Can't write a good summary sentence for a paragraph? Then it's probably got too much going on and you should break it in two. Or maybe its main point isn't clear and you need to reconsider what this paragraph is about. Once you've got your new outline, you can pair that with your revising plan to know exactly what you need to do to get to the revised version.
Your readers may also want to see the revised document with the “track changes” feature on (even though they can use the “compare” documents feature, some readers prefer “track changes”). If you find the colored text of “track changes” annoying or confusing, remember you can leave the feature on but also hide the colored text through the options. Just switch from “all markup” to “no markup.” If you start making a lot of changes and forget what the document looked like before, you can switch to “original” to see the colored text and then back to “no markup.”
The most important technique when responding to feedback is to save a new version of the document before you begin revising. This will allow you to document differences if “track changes” doesn’t work for some reason (or if you’re not using it) and it will preserve comments if you need to review them later. If, for example, a reader suggests in a late version of a document that you should make “X” change, but in an earlier version of the document they suggested the exact opposite, you will have a record of these opposing requests if you save versions, but not if you just keep editing the exact same file. The next section describes the varying options for saving and managing versions.
When you’re writing a complex document, you will likely go through several drafts. Each of these drafts may have significant or superficial changes at various places. Typically, as writers we simply move forward and abandon what we wrote earlier and never look back. However, this approach can also introduce some writer’s block or paralysis, as we attempt to only write what is better and make sure each change is better than what existed before. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know what is better until the new text is on the page, and even then you may need feedback to help you determine whether the changes have improved the document–especially if the changes are substantial and distributed across the document.
Making sure that you have a clear and easy way of returning to a previous version of a particular section of text can help you feel confident in deleting a paragraph, or making large scale changes to the structure of the paper. By making sure you are familiar with the options for creating versions you can rest easy knowing you can return to a previous version or compare the changes you have made with an earlier version.
Unfortunately, each writing application deals with versions in fairly different ways. Therefore, this section will simply present several common writing applications and detail how you can create and use versions with each one.
Save Multiple Files
First, with nearly any writing application that saves discrete files (this, then, excludes Ulysses and some other apps like it), you can save a new file for each version. Typically, every time you sit down to start working on a new version, you would open the old version, choose “Save As” from the File menu, give it a new name, and start working. With discipline and a consistent file-naming process, this procedure can work well. Without discipline or consistency, you can end up with multiple folders full of files with names like:
big research paper ver2
big research paper 3 v2 final
big research paper FINAL 2
john smith paper
john smith paper revised 2
These might even all be versions of the same paper, after the writer realizes that they need to change the file name in order to submit it to their instructor for class. These various names lead to confusion and don’t help writers know which copy to open if they’re looking for that earlier version of paragraph 2 that turns out to be better than what they’ve got now.
If you want to go this route and save multiple versions (because the features described below aren’t appealing or feasible for you), you can avoid the problems above by enforcing consistency. One method is to use page 1 of your document to create a table documenting the key changes in any given version, then to use a consistent file naming scheme. For example, your files could be named like this instead:
john smith research paper v1.0
john smith research paper v1.1
john smith research paper v1.2
john smith research paper v2.0
john smith research paper v3.0
On the first page of each file, you could have the following table:
|v1.0||Initial draft of first few paragraphs||beginning of the paper|
|v1.1||initial draft of first five pages||this is rough and will likely need significant revision|
|v1.2||Full draft of entire paper||maybe sections 2 and 3 should be swapped?|
|v2.0||swaps sections 2 and 3 and further revision to section 2 now that it has been moved||responding to peer workshop feedback|
|v3.0||changes example used in section 4||responding to instructor feedback|
This method is also valuable for collaborative writing projects, where you could add another column to the table for “author,” so that group members can record the revisions / additions they have made to the paper.
Then, using Word or Google Docs, you could compare these different files to see what exactly is different between any two versions, using the comments in your table to know which files to select (and, of course, you can compare distant versions, like version 1.2 and version 4).
You might also choose to keep this table in a separate document. However, this requires more discipline because seeing the table on page 1 of the document is a handy reminder to continue recording the changes made between each version and to save a new copy.
If you save your files in Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, or other cloud storage services, then each time you save the file, a new version is created by the service. However, there are limits on each service about how many versions are kept and for how long. For example, Dropbox only keeps 30 days of versions for users on the free plan, and Box only keeps 1 version for its users on the free plan. Additionally, these versions do not have any information beyond the date they were created to help you go back in two weeks and find the version that had that first take on paragraph 3 with the better example. There might be 10 or 20 versions for each day you worked on the file depending on how often you saved. Mac users may also use the Time Machine backup app to achieve the same results, with the same constraints and trade offs.
While the above “separate file” strategy works well with Microsoft Word, there are also specific version features that you can use instead. However, these require that you save your files in Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage system. Depending on how you gained access to Microsoft Word, you may or may not have free access to this service. Kent State students do have access for free.
Word’s version features work nearly identically to those of other cloud storage providers, only here they are accessed through the Word application rather than a website. This means you can see the date/time of every version saved, but no comments or other information is kept. This makes it difficult to use this feature to restore specific paragraphs or particular changes you’ve made.
LibreOffice is a free and open source suite of applications comparable to Microsoft Office. Like Google Docs, it can read and write Word files, but there may be some compatibility issues with formatting.
LibreOffice Writer is the word processing application and provides a very robust versioning feature that can replace the “table” described above in the “separate file” strategy. It has a separate “versions” window, which you can open from the File menu.
In this window, you can see a list of all existing versions, their date stamps, their authors, and any associated comments. From this window you can also save a new version with a comment, and indicate whether a new version should automatically be saved when the document is closed. You can also open an older version in a new window, or compare two different versions. When you send the document to another person, they can also access this version history and add to it.
Like LibreOffice, with Google Docs you can name different versions to make it easier to return to previous versions to review older text. You can do this by choosing the “File” menu, then “version history,” then “name current version.” This means you can receive feedback on your first draft, make a plan to revise, then name a new version for each step in your plan. Before you revise the introduction example to something different, you can choose “name current version” and give it a meaningful name (e.g., “old intro example”) then when you’ve made the change, you can name the version again (e.g., “new intro example”).
Then, when you want to review the version history, you can “view version history” (in the same menu as above) and choose the option “only show named versions” in the top right corner. Because Google Docs saves versions constantly while you are typing, there may be many different versions saved for when you are working on the same chunk. By choose “only show named versions” you remove these automatically saved versions from the list.
Additionally, in the version history view, you can name an automatically saved version manually, by selecting the version you want to name, then clicking the three dot icon on the right. In this menu you can also save any version as a separate copy of the document, in case you want to send two different versions to someone for review.
One key limitation with Google Docs is that if you ever want to save a version as a new copy of the document–that is, to create a second file in Google Docs–the new copy will not carry over any of the comments from the original.
Scrivener offers one of the most robust and useful version history features of any of these applications, but it does work a bit differently than the others so it may not always fit every writing project perfectly well. As with Scrivener in general, this feature doesn’t work with a complete document, but with each chunk. This means that each chunk will have its own version history and that you can name versions individually for each chunk. Scrivener calls these versions “snapshots.” Fortunately, you can also select multiple chunks at once and save a snapshot for them all with the same name if you’ve made changes across many places. Snapshots can also be taken automatically when you save the project manually.
Scrivener provides many options for reviewing snapshots. There is a snapshot manager that appears in a column on the right side of the screen when chosen from the menu. From this manager, you can see any snapshots made of the selected chunk, along with their names. If you select an older snapshot, you can “compare” it with the current version and the differences will be shown in color in the manager. You can also drag the snapshot to the main part of the window to view the current and older versions side-by-side.
The snapshots features may be more compelling if you watch them in action. Check out the brief tutorial video on the Scrivener site.
Because the snapshots are connected to chunks, it’s much easier to go back and grab that older version of the introduction, or take that paragraph deleted from section 1 and repurpose it for the conclusion. When it is this easy to restore older versions, you may gain some extra confidence when revising. You can feel free to make large-scale changes, or to just delete things and try new versions. Often, we can’t really know whether a new take on a sentence or section will “work” until we’ve written it out. Once it’s on the page, we can see clearly whether it’s better or not. Even if it’s not better, we can save the new text as a new version, then restore to the older version. Down the road we may want to see that experiment again!
Unfortunately, neither SmartEdit nor Ulysses have similar version history features. SmartEdit has no features like this and Ulysses only allows you to review older auto-saved versions without names.