TTT – Non-Linear Writing

Today’s tip is a follow-up on a previous post, where I highlighted non-linear techniques as a method of beating procrastination and getting the creative juices flowing again. But, what exactly do I mean by non-linear writing?

Non-linear writing is a method of drafting your novel by jumping from one part of the prose to another. Sometimes working from the beginning of the chapter, sometimes the middle. For traditional writers, it can be a difficult concept to grasp.

The traditional method of writing involves putting one word after another until you have enough to tell the story you want to tell. By that, I mean that the prose is written in the order the author intends it to be read. This is great but has one problem: what do you do when you get stuck?

It’s happened to all of us, we’ve just written that exciting chase scene and the action has started to wind down…for now. We know the outcome we want for the character but we’re just not sure how we can get from A to B. We were supposed to research a method of breaking a padlock with only a toothpick but we got distracted by those cute cats pulling faces (aww…they think they’re people).

Our writing stalls.

Time ticks by, days tick by. Everytime we open our manuscript, we can’t progress it – we have no idea how to plausibly get into the next scene.

This doesn’t happen with non-linear working (well it does, but you’re not confined by your own story). When a scene presents itself that has you stumped, you can skip ahead to another scene, even another chapter and continue writing. If you open that manuscript and you find inspiration lacking for that big fight, you can write another part that’s crying out to you.

So, how do you write in a non-linear fashion?

The hardest part of non-linear writing is keeping track of the scenes you’ve complete and those you haven’t. There’s plenty of software out there that can help with this and the drafting, but you don’t need any specialist software. This can easily be accomplished with text documents and a spreadsheet.

How to write non-linear using MS Word and Excel

I know the title said MS Word and Excel but the principle applies to any office-like package e.g. Open Office, Mac’s Pages and Numbers etc. The only requirements are a word processing package and a spreadsheet that allows hyperlinks.

This method assumes you’re working from an outline – it’s not essential, but it really helps.

1. Create your Spreadsheet Outline



This allows you to easily track the scenes you’ve already completed and can be used to keep a record of the total word count per scene/chapter.

2. Set up your folder structure


Keeping track of drafts is one thing but, for the tracker to work, strict file discipline is required. How you organise your folders is up to you. I like to use chapter headings to group scenes but I’ve known others use act parts and even just a folder for the whole novel (not recommended).

3. Write your scene

Look through your outline and chose a scene or chapter that appeals to you and write it.

4. Give your documents meaningful names



When it comes to saving your scene draft, give it a meaningful name and put it in the appropriate folder. As your novel progresses, it’s likely you’ll have hundreds of files and finding which fight.docx is the one you’re looking for will be a nightmare so get into this habit early.

5. Update your tracker

The tracker’s useless unless it’s up to date. Get into the habit.

Bonus Tip: add a hyperlink for the scene draft into your tracker against the outline part it’s intended to fulfill.

6. When your draft is complete, use the tracker to arrange it into a full manuscript.

How to write non-linear using Scrivener

As I’ve mentioned before, I made the move to Scrivener only recently and, in part, because of the way it simplifies this process. There is other software out there that offers similar features but I don’t own them and so can’t comment.

Scrivener seems to be built with non-linear working in mind. As the outline is created, each index card on the corkboard is also a text document where you can write the complete prose for that scene. When the program is opened, any scene on the corkboard can be chosen and it opens the text document attached to it.

Scrivener corkboard

Scrivener gives the added the benefit of been able to drag and drop scenes anywhere within the manuscript allowing you total control over the timeline of your prose. So, if you feel that a scene would be better suited at the beginning of a chapter rather than the end, its placement can be readily amended.  Non-linear working has helped me greatly in my own writing and has reduced the number of projects I’ve started only to abandon later when I got stuck. It doesn’t stop you from writing yourself into a corner, but it does give you time to think about how to rewrite your way out. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not for everyone. It can be difficult to keep track of the story and what has and hasn’t been completed. It also relies on you spending the time at the end to fully compile your manuscript. What it can offer is a way out of that writing rut and, at times, inspiration and ideas you never saw coming.

6 thoughts on “TTT – Non-Linear Writing

  1. I used to skip scenes all the time. Now I have Scrivener to help keep track of scenes, and it definitely helps in the writing process. That’s pretty genius what you did with Word and Excel. 🙂

  2. I agree with hesthermay… very clever with incorporating Word and Excel. Lucky for me, my whole way of writing depends on non-linear thought processes, so for now, I’ll leave Excel and Word for my accounts and tour itineraries, but you’ve opened up a new way of non-linear linear thinking for me to consider 🙂

  3. I tend to use the traditional method and have many, many projects that have stalled. I think I may be revisiting them from the non-linear method! On another note, I think writing flash fiction has a non-linear feel in that you find something that inspires you an go with! Thanks for your TTT!

  4. I use yWriter5. It may not have all the spit and polish Scrivener has, but it’s free and was written and is still maintained by a successful software developer turned author.

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