Writing Advice

The Three Documents Every Writer Should Keep

Let’s see a show of hands. When was the last time you got a simple detail like a character’s hair or eye colour wrong? Or when was the last time you wrote a really weird scene because the emotions of your character didn’t match from one writing session to the next? Worst, when was the last time you felt like your writing life lacked focus, or you struggled with feelings of inadequacy as a writer?

If any of those resonated, you’re not alone. They’re common issues, and I’ve personally faced all of those problems. While I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I have found some surprisingly simple things that help. All you need to do is write – though staying organized is helpful as well.

Let me introduce you to the three documents that every writer should keep.

1. Story Notes

You’ve probably heard about this type of document a million times, so I’ll keep this brief. For anyone who struggles to remember details about their story, this is an important document to keep tidy. A quick Ctrl+F will show you whatever you need to find.

Your story notes document is where you can dump literally everything about your story. It’s a great place for character profiles, plot outlines, character arc outlines, and worldbuilding notes, to name just a few ideas.

I also find that it’s a great place for keeping notes on any research I’ve done. Important findings and links all have a safe place in this document. Not having to do my research twice is definitely a timesaver!

Another handy section is a character name bank. This can include a directory of characters in a larger project, but I also like to keep a list of extra names for new characters. I usually have 20-30 names on hand that fit my story world for when I need to name a new character. That way instead of interrupting my writing session to brainstorm, I can just grab a fitting name off the list.

2. Continuity Tracker

The idea for this document actually sprang from a project where my characters kept getting shot. I wanted to keep track of the injuries and properly carry them forward to future chapters, but knew I couldn’t juggle the details in my head. I quickly discovered that the concept of a continuity tracker made sense for things other than injuries.

The basic idea is that after each writing session you jot down what’s happening. Bullet points work well. Next time you sit down to write, you can glance at that document and immediately pick up where you left off (or you can keep track of details that will need to come up later in a story). I personally have three categories that I use: Emotional state, physical state and of course injuries.

Let’s say that one of your characters is upset, but they’re not telling the other characters. This detail isn’t at the forefront, and the next time you sit down to write you may forget about it. But if you jot it down under the emotional state category, you’re much more likely to remember. You can also use this idea to track something like how the different characters respond to grief.

Physical state helps you pay attention to things like how characters are feeling, when they last slept, whether they’ve got a headache, etc. These details won’t always be important, but since the physical state of a character often impacts their emotional state, it can be helpful to keep track of this. It might also make you realize that one of your characters hasn’t slept in three days. Whoops.

Another category that you may find helpful is character relationships. Especially if you have a large cast, writing down how the characters feel about each other can be useful. Readers will be confused if two characters are arguing in one scene and best buds in the next.

One of the best things about continuity journals is that they allow you to jump back into your stories if you’ve been away for a while. Sometimes life drags us away from our writing, and it’s really nice when you don’t have to read through several chapters just to figure out where you’re at.

3. Writing Life Journal

I’ve been keeping a journal devoted to my writing life for close to a year now, and it’s amazingly helpful. It gives me clarity on my writing journey and keeps me focused on the steps I need to take in the future. It’s also just really fun to look back on previous entries.

My personal process is to start by reflecting on the previous week. What went well, and what didn’t go so well? From there, I look at the week to come. What am I hoping to accomplish? I often end by setting some short-term goals to keep myself focused.

If I’m feeling discouraged about my writing, I use my journalling time to process that and try to think through what might be affecting me. Quite often, if I can pinpoint specific causes I’m able to work to remedy them. 

Within my journal, I also keep my writing manifesto, a list of long-term goals, and a list of “high points” in my writing life.

My writing manifesto and long-term goals help keep me on track. It’s easy to lose focus with everything that goes on in daily life, but these two vital documents always bring me back to where I need to be.

The “high points” are a list of things that I want to remember. Things like publishing my first article or attending my first writing conference. These are great for a morale boost on hard days.

Staying Organized

Unarguably, the hardest part of using these documents is staying organized. It’s incredibly important to keep all of the documents in good order. The best course of action is to come up with a system early on and stick with it.

I personally use Scrivener for all of these documents. It allows me to keep the Story Notes and Continuity Tracker within my manuscript for easy access, and allows me to create multiple folders to keep everything organized inside of my writing life journal.

Excel or Google Sheets can be a great alternative for the Story Notes and Continuity Tracker, since they allow you to create tabs for each section. At the end of the day, though, any word processor or notebook will do the trick. What matters is how comfortable you are with using it!

Have you used any of these documents before? If not, which ones do you think you’ll try? I would love to hear your answers!

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1 year ago

Great tips! I need to use these kinds of documents more often. I love the idea of writing down names that fit your story world beforehand so you don’t have to stop writing to brainstorm–I’ve run into that problem more than once before, so I’ll have to try this. Thanks for sharing!

R.M. Archer
1 year ago

I should definitely start keeping continuity trackers. That’s something I’ve considered once or twice, but I think I’ve always tried to over-complicate it in my head so I’ve never actually started one. Bullet points are such an obvious, simple way to do it. XD

I have done some journaling specifically about writing, which has been helpful on the occasions I’ve remembered to do it.

Thanks for the push to try keeping some of these documents again!

I would love to hear your thoughts!x