Just as there are millions of writers, there are millions of ways of organizing how we write and how we keep up with that information.
There are basically two “camps” when it comes to writing: outliners and SOTP—seat of the pants. What amazes me is that some of the most right-brain/creative people in the world can be so left-brain/logical when it comes to how they write. When they get a story idea, they sit down and write a complete outline, sometimes chapter-by-chapter before they even begin writing!
There are also two basic “camps” when it comes to storing that writing electronically—all in one document or separate files for each document.
I am a beginning-to-end, chapter-by-chapter, SOTP writer (how’s that for a description??). I set out with a general idea for the storyline, knowing how I need for it to end (I’m a romance writer, after all), and start at the beginning, letting the characters guide me as I go, working toward that ultimate climax.
I approach each chapter the same way. When I sit down to start writing a chapter, I know about where I need to go storywise in about 3,500-4,000 words, but my goal is to write to a hook. What can I build up in that chapter to get the reader caught up in the story and then leave them hanging by ending the chapter?
The reason I save all of my chapters as separate files is because it makes it a whole lot easier when I get to a point that I realize I need to change something—maybe just a sentence or maybe a whole scene—to access it in a contained environment, especially if it’s a major change. For example, if I decide that the current Chapter 10 isn’t working for me, but Chapters 9 and 11 are okay, I can go to my Chapter 10 file, save it as 10a (or b or c or whatever version I’m on at that point in time) and revise or start over without disrupting anything else. There’s also less of a likelihood of losing all of the files if one happens to become corrupt (haven’t had that happen to me in years, but I have everything saved in 3 places when I’m actively working on it and in 2 places when I’m not—desktop, laptop, and memory stick when it’s an active manuscript).
When I first started writing, I did keep everything all in one file, but with slow computers and unreliable software fifteen or twenty years ago, if something happened to that file, I lost everything. Plus, back then, it was harder to navigate and find things in a long document (there was no “find” command in WordStar). I also like to occasionally work with hard copies of a chapter or two if I’m traveling or going to be somewhere like a doctor’s office where I’ll need something to do—it’s a lot easier to print two chapter files than to try to print the pages from an entire manuscript file.
As far as writing outside of or ahead of the chapter I’m currently working on, if that happens (which with me it rarely does), I write it and then save it as a separate file with a descriptive name so I’ll remember what it is when the right time comes to incorporate it.
Keeping separate chapter files is really handy when it comes to editing, as well. When I got my edits back from my faculty mentor on my 28 chapter novel, it was so much easier to go through it chapter by chapter to make the changes than it would have been to try to find things sometimes thirty or forty pages apart in the full manuscript.
Now, once I complete a manuscript, I do create a single file version of it as well, but that is really more for archive purposes (and to send to my mother and grandmother so they can read it).
Would I, as a single-chapter-file girl recommend that to everyone? No. Because just like the way I organize my character files, figure out the plot of my story, or write my novels is unique to me, so is the way that I choose to save that data–I’m also about 50-50 left/right brain, so I have to have my files highly organized.
If keeping everything in one file works for you—do it that way! If you can’t stand constantly scrolling back and forth through a 300+ page document to find what it is you want to work on or where you last inserted something, maybe splitting it up is a good idea. If you don’t write a chapter at a time, but episodically, make the “date” the episodes take place the title of the document — your word processor will automatically show you the documents in chronological order when you click “OPEN.”