Nearly every writer and editor can appreciate the efficiency of Microsoft Word when it comes to editing and polishing large blocks of text. Just for starters, the cut/copy/paste and find/replace functions can shave off hours of tedious scrolling and typing.
But did you know that almost every writer already owns—but never uses—another powerful storytelling tool? I’m talking about Microsoft Excel (or an open-source spreadsheet program); it’s not just for accountants.
Here are six ways writers can harness the power of rows and columns.
1. Step Back and See the Whole Story
Writing a story outline using word processing software can result in pages and pages of unwieldy text and bullet points. When you convert your outline to a spreadsheet, however, and put your story information into cells, you can see much more text at one time. The ability to drag and drop cells can be a huge help with macro-level storyline tinkering, especially when it comes to building suspense. It’s like using the index card strategy without having to write out all those index cards.
2. Create a Storyline Calendar
Recently, I was writing a story that took place over summer. I came to a point where it was useful to break down the narrative into three distinct months, then twelve distinct weeks, and finally ninety individual days. By using a spreadsheet program, I was able to put the major events of each time unit (e.g., “June 20th”) into one specific cell. Then, I could see the full summer “calendar” in a more comprehensive way than with a Word document. This made it easier to ensure my story’s timeline was realistic and that events flowed logically from one to the next.
3. Use Advanced Features to See Your Subplots in New Ways
Spreadsheet programs like Excel are very robust—most people who aren’t doing advanced data analytics use about ten percent of the features. This is good news for writers, though, because there won’t be anything you want Excel to do that it can’t—except write the story for you. In fact, the more complicated your story blueprint gets, the more a spreadsheet program can be of service. For example, you can hide certain rows or columns of your plot “blueprint” without actually deleting them. This can help you envision your overall story with and without certain subplots or sections, which makes it easier to decide whether you want to keep or cut them. Whenever you’re ready, you can simply “Unhide” those columns or rows.
4. Make Your Workbook a One-Stop Shop
You can create multiple spreadsheets within one workbook, which lets you toggle between your spreadsheets like internet browsing tabs. And the possibilities are endless. Usually, I’ll make at least three spreadsheets: one for plotting, one for characters (populating the cells with their motivations, challenges, personality quirks, and so on), and one for research topics. For the latter, I can see which topics I’ve researched already, and which ones I still need to—it’s super easy to track my procrastination that way. The benefit of making multiple spreadsheets in one workbook is the ability to consolidate large amounts of information in a single file, rather than scattering it between several documents.
5. Track Your Submissions Like a Pro
Losing track of your submissions can lead to major embarrassment and missed opportunities. Beyond story organization, gaining a working knowledge of a spreadsheet program can be a huge help in tracking submissions. For years now, I’ve been using an Excel workbook with a separate spreadsheet for each story or essay I’ve submitted. Within the spreadsheet are columns for the title of the submitted piece, when it was submitted and to which venues, dates for following up, and the result: accepted, rejected, or withdrawn. And while I can’t say spreadsheets make rejection any more fun, at least the info is more organized than having to dig through old emails or scraps of paper.
6. Manage Your Writing Income and Expenses
If you happen to be earning money from your writing, a spreadsheet can be a simple but effective bookkeeping tool if you don’t want or need something more complicated like Quicken. Much like the submission chart mentioned above, you can create a spreadsheet to track who owes you what, when you’ve been paid, and what you’ve paid in submission fees and/or postage. This can come in handy, too, during tax season. And if you do need something more advanced than Excel or even Quicken for your writing income, hire an accountant—and congratulations!
Spreadsheet programs might seem complex at first glance, but they’re basically point-and-click: if you can use Word, you can learn Excel without too much trouble. (Hint: putting the mouse cursor over any button will tell you its function.) You can hit your library for a detailed manual, too, and if you’re just using spreadsheets in the ways I’ve described here, you probably don’t need more than the first few chapters, since you won’t be getting into charts, mathematical functions, or advanced data analysis. Why would you want to do any of that, anyway, when you could be writing your story?