As a sci-fi and fantasy writer, I do a lot of world building. I create new words for fictional creatures, places, and concepts. I keep track of them to ensure I’m using them consistently. And I appreciate when the software I’m writing in can help with that, at least in terms of spelling. You probably know that Microsoft Word has a built-in spell checker. You may know you can choose to have the program ignore a particular error or add words to the dictionary when prompted. But did you know that you can create a custom dictionary for each of your fictional worlds and swap them in and out whenever you’d like?
To do this, all you need is a list of your desired words and a program that can create text documents. I recommend Notepad, which came free with my computer and more than likely is on yours as well if you have Windows. On my computer, it can be found under Windows Accessories. Otherwise, I can find it by typing Notepad into the search bar at the bottom of my desktop.
From here, all you need to do is add one word per line, select Save As, and save it with a .dic at the end of the file name and an Encoding of UTF-16 LE. Make sure you’ve changed the “Save as type” to All Files.
Now, in Microsoft Word, go to File and select Options. On the left side, there’s an option called Proofing. Click on it to see a button for Custom Dictionaries. From here you can click Add and select your custom dictionary to have it added to the list.
Any time you want to use your spell checker on a document unrelated to your novel or you want to use a different custom dictionary on a second novel, you can come back and use the remove button. Simple as that!
Once added, you can also use the Edit Word List button to add or remove words without having to open the dictionary file separately. From this same window, you can even add autocorrects for custom words if you’d like them. If there’s one in particular you’re always misspelling, you can pop it right in and Word will fix it for you after you type it incorrectly.
Personally, I find that every little thing like this cuts back on my annoyances substantially. Every time I don’t get a little red line under the name of my fictional country is a time my focus doesn’t get interrupted, and every error the spell checker can catch for me is one less thing to worry about when preparing my final draft to be sent out. I really value putting in a little time upfront to prevent headaches in the long run. If you’re a user of Microsoft Word, feel free to try it out and see if it works for you.
One of the features I use the most in Scrivener is the word count functionality. Sure, Microsoft Word and Google Docs will both tell you how many words are in your document, but Scrivener really takes it to another level. I’m going to be showing off my favorites and giving suggestions for how you can make use of them yourself.
Here in Scrivener’s Project Statistics (accessible under the Project menu), you can see word and character counts for your manuscripts. The statistics for Scrivener 1 are shown on the left and statistics for Scrivener 3 on the right. As you can see, Scrivener 3 contains additional data, including paragraph and sentence counts and the average length of each. Both show an estimated page count.
Under Options, you can change how many words should be counted as a page, as well as what should be counted as part of the manuscript. This means you can have extra sections, like a reader’s guide for pronunciations and definitions of fantasy words, without having to manually subtract the word count for them while trying to determine how long the actual text of your novel is. You can also easily highlight a selection of scenes or chapters to see how long just those are, which can be particularly helpful if you’re trying to find chapters that are longer or shorter than the others or find out if you’re spending too much time on the exposition, a particular sub-plot, etc.
You can also set word count goals for each scene, which you can set ahead of time if you’re writing a first draft and have an idea of how long you want it to be or after the fact if you’re revising. Personally, I use this to set a maximum number of words because I have a problem with expanding while I revise. Having something like this helps me keep the writing under control, by forcing me to go back and take out the sentences and words that aren’t really serving a purpose. This can be edited at the bottom of every text by clicking on the little circle at the bottom right-hand corner in Scrivener 1 (shown beside the green progress bar in the image above) or clicking on the green bar in Scrivener 3.
If you like goal setting, you can really take it all the way with the Project Targets window, one more option to be found under the Project menu. Here, you can set a target word count for your entire manuscript, as well as for your session (which starts when you open the program and continues until you close it in Scrivener 1 or resets daily in Scrivener 3, unless you choose to change the settings or click Reset). For everyone who likes to target a certain number of words per day, this is an excellent option. For people like me, it will even count backwards as I try to push my manuscript back down to 120,000 words or less following my latest round of revisions!
All of these are little things, but I find that they really improve my writing experience. If you have Scrivener and haven’t explored it fully, I hope I’ve helped you find some new features to try. If you have, feel free to leave a comment about how you make use of these. Everybody has a different process, but I’m sure we can all learn something from each other.
I’ve used a few different types of writing software over the years. The first program I used was simply the only option available to me at the time: Microsoft Word. It was the early 2000’s, and my family had one desktop computer and no internet access. Microsoft Word was the program I’d been taught to use in school, and I still use it often. It has the advantage of familiarity, which leads to ease of usability, but it also has some disadvantages when it comes to working on a novel.
As I began working on long form fiction more and more, I found myself getting into the habit of saving multiple versions of the same piece. Towards the end of my time using it this way, I had taken to a naming system reminiscent of software versioning. I had Working Title 1.0 and Working Title 1.1 and Working Title 2.0 and so on for as many different rewrites as I had wanted to create as separate documents. I didn’t want to delete my first draft, especially because I often wanted to just experiment with changes. I often created a version 1.1 in order to try a new approach, only to abandon it because it didn’t pan out. Later, when I did a full rewrite, it became version 2.0, but I didn’t want to delete my experiments either. They often had something about them that I still wanted to find a way to incorporate, and sometimes they had helped give me a better understanding of the characters or the world that I wanted to be able to go back and reference. The problem, of course, was that it became annoyingly difficult to keep track of which version was which, especially when returning to a project after a long break.
Another annoyance was that the files became so large that it was difficult to find the part I wanted to edit. Search functionality exists in Word, but often I couldn’t remember the exact wording of a specific phrase, and searches for character names or other commonly occurring words brought back many results to sift through. It certainly didn’t prevent me from working on my novel, but it did make the process more cumbersome.
Eventually, I shifted into using Google Docs, which has automatic version history, as well as features for easy collaboration. I still use this when I’m seeking feedback from a beta reader, but I no longer use it for versioning. Automatic is nice, but it results in so many versions that it again becomes difficult to keep track of which is which. I realize that it is possible to name certain versions, and I probably could make better use of it if I made the effort, but even then it would be inferior to the versioning capabilities that I found in Scrivener.
Here in Google Docs, you can see that the document has been saved each time I’ve made changes to it. Times and dates are saved by default, and I can choose to name any that I choose to.
Here in Scrivener, on the other hand, I choose when I want to save a version. The time and date are filled in automatically, and I am prompted to add a title.
The biggest difference, however, is that Google Docs saves off a version of your entire document. Scrivener saves off a version of your individual chapter or scene. This particular image shows the versions (called snapshots) that I’ve taken of just chapter two of my current novel. The first snapshot shows me trying out a different character perspective. The second shows me keeping track of the version that I had sent to a beta reader as part of my official third draft. Any time I want to do so, I can restore an old version or click into it for reference, and it will affect only the one small part of the novel that I’m looking at. This is very different from Google Docs, in which I would often find myself scrolling through the entire document to find the changes when comparing to an older version. I also find that having to create the snapshots manually ensures that I actually do it when I want to start some major changes, rather than saying, “Ah, it’s saved off automatically, let’s just keep going.”
Since I started using Scrivener, I’ve actually been surprised at how much easier and more pleasant the writing experience has become simply because of having each chapter and scene split out into separate pieces that can easily be compiled together into one whole. I don’t just title my snapshots. I title my scenes, labeling them with the most important thing that happens in them. That way, when I get an idea for an improvement I could make to “that one part where…”, I can find it within seconds. I can keep even better track of things by adding keywords, labels, custom meta-data, and more.
Here you can see my preferred setup, in which every chapter is represented by a folder and each folder contains one or more scenes. In this view, you can see each scene in the chapter visually represented by a notecard, which has a short synopsis of events, a label that I created to show which character the scene is focused on, a status that lets me easily find the parts I have flagged for updates, and keywords that I use to show which character’s perspectives are included. Because my book is told by an omniscient narrator and has many characters, I often find it helpful to be able to pick out the one character I’ve made a change to and hop through every part they are included in to make sure they’re consistent. Features like this make it easy to do exactly the kind of revisions that I want.
Another advantage to this format is that rearranging scenes and chapters is just as easy as a click and drag. No more scrolling through and highlighting multiple pages just to cut and paste. This is another thing that’s saved me more time and effort than I ever would have thought of, and it’s the little things like this that really add up. Since making the switch, I’ve found that every little annoyance I’ve taken out has increased the time that I spend working on my novel, simply because I’m enjoying myself more while I’m doing it.
Another thing that has increased time spent working on my novel is the fact that there are so many things related to my novel that I can work on from within the same file. From labeling, planning, and organizing to creating character sheets and notes related to worldbuilding, even when I’m not in the mood to write I can be making progress on something. And the real secret? Sometimes just working on a character sheet is enough to put me in the mood to write, and then the novel is right there, just one click away. Conversely, if I’m working on the novel and can’t remember how tall a particular character is compared to another or what the name of so-and-so’s second child was, I can pull up the character sheet with just one click and get right back to what I was doing.
Scrivener lets you create different categories for your notes, create templates for things like character sheets, and generally store anything you want to keep track of. I have notes on all my characters, lists of magic spells and enchantments, a complete timeline of events, a family tree, a reference for a complicated plan that some villainous characters have in secret, and more. I even use this as a place to store the query, pitch, and synopsis that I created for querying agents, which is very helpful.
Honestly, I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the things Scrivener is capable of doing. It takes some time to learn, but I found that I was so excited by each new feature I discovered that the process felt like playing more than anything else. If you pick up on software really quickly the way I do, I think you’ll love how robust it is and how many options it gives you. I was wary to spend the money on it at first, especially when options like Google Docs are free, but I really have not been disappointed in it. It fits exactly with my writing preferences, and I would really recommend it to anyone who has a similar workflow to mine.