Improving Writing Workflows

I changed my workflow a lot this year. The most important alteration was that I started using markdown as much as possible. I’ve talked about the advantages before so I won’t go into them again here. I’ll just say that I love the way I can work anywhere on anything when I am using it.

I am using Scrivener less. I know, I know– me saying that is one of the signs of the End Times. In the past I used Scrivener for pretty much everything I could. But all is flux as Heraclitus once said.

My workflow is now broken into five stages mostly defined by the program and text format that I use for them.

The first stage is outlining which I do in markdown.

The second stage is writing the first draft which is also done in markdown.

The third stage is revision. If only light revisions are necessary then I make these in markdown. If scenes need to moving around for a major structural edit then I import the file into Scrivener. In Scrivener I can still write in markdown. It is set up for it.

The fourth stage is editing. This is where the files get transferred to Microsoft Word for my test readers and editors.

The final stage for e-book that I happened to be publishing myself is to load the file into Scrivener for production.

When streamlining my revision process I discovered the advantages of using a checklist such as Folding Text. I found that I liked having a separate outline to the one inside Scrivener.

I used to write a synopsis and then transfer my scene by scene descriptions into the index card window in Scrivener. One side-effect of this was that I sometimes found it difficult to get a broad overview of my story. One limit of using the index card method is that you can only put a small number of words on them – at least if you have eyesight like mine. This can be an advantage when you’re sketching out the broad outlines of the story. It becomes a restriction when you need to see more detail.

One way around this was to put a brief description on the index card then put the rest of the information in the documents window. This meant that you could see everything but only when you were looking at that specific document. These days I prefer to keep my synopsis, character descriptions and scene by scene outline in a separate document. This lets me check everything at a glance. Since that document is in plain text, I can access it from pretty much anywhere.

One thing that has not changed has been my reliance on Dropbox. I jump around from computer to computer and operating system to operating system a lot. Syncing between the Windows and OSX versions of Scrivener via Dropbox can be problematical. Files can get corrupted. The problem probably occurred because I did not wait for the file on one computer to finish syncing before opening it on another. It happened often enough for me to be wary of doing this. I don’t like losing work.

These days I have a separate folder in Dropbox for every type of project that I am working on. I have one folder for novels, one for short stories, one for blog posts, one for interviews and so on. I have one folder for outlines as well. Everything that goes into these folders is stored in markdown. I can access these files anywhere, even on my phone.

I try and keep revisions to a minimum during the first draft stage, because I never know what I am going to chop out. Doing a lot of heavy editing on a scene that later gets dropped can waste a lot of time. I prefer to wait until I have a working final draft before polishing things.

I write my first drafts in markdown text processors. On Windows my favourite of these is WriteMonkey. On my Mac I use is Ulysses. Both these programs have excellent export capabilities. They are the only markdown-capable wordprocessors I know of that can export Microsoft Word styles properly.

Most programs seem to spray on header styles locally. They change the appearance of specific paragraphs to give the illusion of coherent styles. They do not insert actual styles such as header one or header two. Ulysses and WriteMonkey can give perfectly formatted Microsoft Word documents if I need them.

I only switch to Microsoft Word when I need to send a document to an editor or to my test readers. Even then I use markdown formatting inside the manuscript instead of local style formatting. The reason I do this is that sometimes Microsoft Word adds many strange and corrupt codes to my text during the editing process. At the end of the editing process if I need clean code all I have to do is save the file as a text file. All of my chapter headings, scene headings, italics and bolds will be preserved.

I use Scrivener either for heavy structural editing or for final production of my indie ebooks. The program does a brilliant job of importing markdown files. It stores them all in one folder and breaks them into scenes based on the header type. It has a compile setting that automagically translates markdown into the correct formatting for the final output version.

When it comes to e-book production I still find Scrivener the way to go. Not only does it produce Kindle and EPUB formats easily, I now have it set up so that it can produce PDF files for CreateSpace books.

Using this system I get all the advantages of Microsoft Word and Scrivener. And I get to keep my files universally accessible for as long as possible. This has been the biggest change to the way I work in years and I just wanted to share it.



  1. This is really interesting (to me) because I see the opposite behaviour in my business life. People who have spent a lot of time learning Excel, use Excel for everything. Powerpoint users produce 50-slide decks which are rammed with text. Word users will run screaming rather than produce a diagram.

    You actually DO have a workflow, which, given that you are a free-swimming dolphin of a creative type, when compared to my fellow battery hens, is a little bit chastening.

    • As I get older I find it’s more and more about systems, mate. Since my natural inclination is to be lazy, I try and reduce the barriers between me and getting work done. With markdown, I just really like the way I can work on anything, anywhere and then transform the result into whatever I like with more or less a push of a button.

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