Posted by on Oct 27, 2010 in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), On Writing: Craft and Commiseration | 3 comments

Most of the things I’ve posted about NaNoWriMo have to do more with the writing, about getting your story to the 50,000 word mark and beyond. Now however I want to focus a little bit more on the nitty-gritty. I think you should separate your NaNoWriMo novel into multiple documents.

I can hear some of you objecting already, some people just love to open a shiny new Word document and plunk their entire book in it. I will concede, it does make the word count a little bit easier because the word count of your document is the work out of your entire book, but there are quite a few reasons why putting your entire novel on one document is a bad idea.

For NaNoWriMo, or really any time you’re attempting a first draft, I highly recommend starting a new document for every writing session. There a few big reasons to do this:

  1. You’re less likely to lose your whole novel. Sometimes terrible things happen to computer files. It’s just a fact of life. Sometimes when you’re trying to backup a file, you end up overwriting the file you really needed with an older version. Sometimes your whole computer crashes spectacularly and you lose everything. When you’re talking about relying on one file to house your entire novel, that’s putting a hell of a lot of faith into something as unreliable as computer files can be. Stop and think about how you’d feel if an entire month’s worth of work was corrupted, overwritten, accidentally deleted or was trapped on a computer that had crashed or was virus ridden. When you separate out your book into multiple files, you greatly reduce the chances of losing the entire thing. The occasional file fail, would, in this case, only affect a part of your story and not the whole thing.
  2. You get less bogged down on what you’ve written before and focus on moving forward with the story. One of the hardest things about writing a first draft is the temptation to go back and edit what you’ve written before. If you force yourself to start an entirely new document every time you sit down to write, this temptation not only isn’t there each day, it’s gone completely. Instead of getting bogged down in questions of how good yesterday’s writing was or whether the last scene still needs work or not, it forces you to move ahead on the plot, which gets you to the end of your story that much quicker. Editing is something you do after you finish your first draft and separating your document into multiple documents helps you remember the important fact.
  3. A first draft of multiple documents makes for an easier editing experience later. When it comes time to edit your book, you’re going to be moving things around. Having your novel spread out over multiple documents to begin with makes this process that much easier. It also helps you to get more into the spirit of the slash and burn that editing requires if you’re not looking at one big chunk. I like to start a new document for my second draft, and then evaluate each piece of my first draft separately. Only the stuff that’s good enough to be in the second draft actually makes it into that second file.
  4. Multiple files simplifies the backup process. The real trouble starts when you’re using the same file all the time. Questions come up like which version is newest? Which version did I fix that scene in? With multiple files, you write it, back it up, then leave it the hell alone until it’s time to edit it. The less fooling around you do with the file, the less chance something can go horribly wrong with it. Google Docs can be very helpful for this.
  5. I saved the most important reason for last because it’s not going to seem like the most important reason at first. Separating your first draft into multiple documents is the best way to learn more about yourself as a writer. Taking note of exactly how many words you wrote in each writing session can teach you a lot of things about your writing habits there really is no other way to learn. For more detail on this benefit, please consult this article.

To me, those are the biggest reasons to separate your work in progress into multiple documents. But if you’re a firm believer in the single document draft, please share some of the benefits of that method with us below in the comments. In the end, you’ll need to stick with whatever works for you.