How to Stay Agile as a Writer

This post was originally published in Epilogue, a Medium publication. Read the original post here.

A person with long brown hair writes with a pen and paper, in reach of a laptop.
Photo by Jacqueline Kelly on Unsplash

Years ago, when I committed to my first (and only) NaNoWriMo project, my husband suggested I try using Scrivener.

For the uninitiated, Scrivener is a magical piece of writing software particularly useful to novelists for its many organizational capabilities, ranging from a corkboard view for plotting to an entire tab for research notes and links.

Plenty of writers of both fiction and non-fiction swear by it, but for all the rave reviews I’d heard, I was wary. Microsoft Word had always served me well enough; and, not being much of a plotter, I didn’t think I’d have much use for all the special features.

I wrote my way to nearly 50,000 words that month—the default goal for NaNoWriMo—but soon after I had passed the mark of 40,000 words, and with just a week or so left in November, my document crashed.

I had not backed up my file.

After some effort, I managed to recover most of the book. But I had lost somewhere around 10,000 words, and I never regained the momentum from before. I didn’t finish that novel.

So the next time I started writing a novel, I wrote it in Google Docs.

I already used Google Docs for work, and I liked not having to constantly worry about saving and backing up my files. I wrote the book itself in a Google Doc; I also created a few color-coded Google Sheets to aid the planning and revision process.

Now I’ve finished that book (my first complete novel, after many abandoned attempts!) and started sending it to literary agents. While I await feedback, I’m doing what agented authors all say to do—I’m writing the next thing.

I had initially hoped to re-create the same set of Google Sheets and Docs I’d used to complete my first book, but I realized soon after diving in that this new project demands a new workflow. It feels a bit more layered, with more moving pieces from the outset, and those straightforward Google Docs don’t fit the bill anymore.

So this time, I’m trying out Scrivener.

This software comes with a steep learning curve, mainly because it packs in so many rich capabilities. So as I begin to brainstorm for my new story, I’m also tinkering with various templates, experimenting with organizational structures, and googling articles from fellow writers about how they like to use Scrivener.

Maybe I could cut down on my actual writing time if I could commit to a single approach for every story. In a perfect world, I’d establish a standard process for ideating and executing a novel, and I’d never have to deviate.

The thing is, I don’t write that way.

My writing benefits, I believe, from me staying on my toes and never getting comfortable. The easier I make things for myself, the more bland I feel my stories become. For me, a crucial part of the writing process is that first stage of reaching out, of blundering forward, as if I can’t suss out what’s ahead of me. The uncertainty torments me, in some ways, but it always keeps me fresh.

I won’t claim that this philosophy works for everyone; in fact, maybe some of you work best when you follow a strict procedure.

But I’m learning to stay agile and adaptable. And I’m liking how it feels.