Using Spreadsheets To Organize Your Writing: The First Draft

Recently, I’ve been chatting with some of my writer friends about how we keep track of our word counts during the drafting and editing process. Some people use Scrivener, which as far as I understand, is specialist writing software which allows you to write, track and compile your novel. I don’t use Scrivener for two main reasons. Firstly, I don’t think there is an app for it, and I do a fair amount of writing on my phone. And secondly, Scrivener seems more useful for people who write out of order and want to chop and change their scenes. I like to write each chapter consecutively.

So I use Microsoft Word, Dropbox, and some kind of word processing app on my Android Phone. I think I’ve got Word and WPS Office on there. They all have similar functionality.

I like to write each chapter in a separate document, for ease of use, and I do not combine them into one document until the draft is finished, and that document is generally just for backup purposes.

In order to keep track of my progress, I use a spreadsheet. I attach an example of the kind of spreadsheet I would use when preparing a first draft. This spreadsheet is, in fact, the current state of play on the sequel I am currently writing to my first novel.

As you can see, I label each column with the chapter number. I then have a column for the Point of View Character, and a one line sentence describing the chapter (which I have removed here and replaced with vague text … so you don’t get any spoilers!).

The next two columns are chapter word count and cumulative word count. And the final column is percentage, which is more relevant when the draft is complete.

At the bottom, cell D38 calculates the average chapter word count so far. If I multiply this by the number of chapters, I can get a rough estimate of how long the novel will be – cell E38. However, with this novel, I know for a fact that my later chapters will be longer than my earlier ones, and so I’m treating this as a minimum. So this shows that if my chapters continue at similar length, I’m on for a 60k word novel. But I’m expecting it to be closer to 80k (see cells D40 and E40), and I will continue to monitor this as I progress. Obviously, the final word count estimate becomes more accurate as the novel progresses.

When the draft is finished, you can use the percentage points to figure out what stage the story elements hit. For example, if what you consider your midpoint does not come at 50%, is there a reason for this, and are you happy with it. The percentage is based on the estimated word count, and becomes more accurate as you progress.

In the next post, I will be telling you how I use this initial spreadsheet to assist with revisions for future drafts.



  1. A very effective way to keep track of things. Thanks a lot for sharing this, Elise 🙂

    I use Scrivener because I like the look and feel of it and I can have all of the chapters divided, yet accessible in the same document. But, at least as far as I know it’s not as simple to know or get an overview of the word count per chapter in context of the whole novel.

    I have a question: Do you use the same excel to capture critique feedback when you get them or while revising? Or do you have a separate worksheet/ document for them?

    1. magicwriter

      Oh, I assumed Scrivener users would have access to word count features. Interesting. Or maybe I’m just obsessed with word count 😀

      Your questions will be answered in future posts…. Stay tuned! But I will say now that I wait until I’m ready to revise before compiling notes from critiques. When I get a crit, I skim through it, but don’t read it in detail at that point or make notes.

  2. IMHO Scrivener isn’t very good. At least not for me.

    This is so cool to see your spreadsheet and how you organize it! I hereby dub you
    “The Lord and Master of All Things Social Media, Queen of The Novel Exchange, and Goddess of Excel Spreadsheets.”

    *rushes off to make a spreadsheet of my own*

  3. I use an Excel sheet too, though with a little more details on what happens in scenes, though presumably your plot points are usually more descriptive than “Kara does something”, ha ha.

    But I’m also trying to get into Scrivener. I’m hopeful it will be a worthy investment, but it requires quite a lot of time and effort to import your work into it, set up character research notes, glossaries, place descriptions and all the rest of it. I have a feeling it would be a more useful tool when starting afresh.

    That said, on more than one occasion, I’ve had to reorder scenes or make sweeping changes, which should be a much more painless process in Scrivener. We’ll see.

    1. magicwriter

      Yes, I usually put one detailed sentence for the summary, or use the comment feature if I want to put even more detail.

      Being able to switch scenes and chapters around easily does sound like a big advantage in Scrivener.

  4. I’ve played around with spreadsheets before, but not to this level! Might try it sometime during the editing process… It might have come in handy back when I was doing the hardcore editing of Augment. But it could be useful for Upgrade, and the other works I’ve got in progress now. Thanks for sharing your process!

  5. Pingback: Using Spreadsheets to Organise Your Writing: The Second Draft - Magic Writer

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