Writing a novel

I am in a mess. Novel is some 300K words and not well organised. I am thinking of starting again and need advice on a more organised way of doing this. I am prepared to transfer what I have now across. Would it be, for example, best to have one file per chapter/section and link them. Advice on writing a novel in writer appreciated.

Writing a novel is an act of creation. If your mind itself is in a mess, your document will be a mess, whatever the tool.

Writer has a nice feature called styles allowing you to organise your document just like your mind. Don’t think styles as a means of formatting your file. They will be used for that, but only in the end.

Styles are a way to give significance to what you write. From Writer point of view, your text is primarily a set of characters and all characters are equivalent. With *paragraph styles, you tell this paragraph is a heading (with built-in styles Heading n to attach the heading to an outline level), that paragraph is my narrative (built-in style Text Body). Of course, your paragraphs may have other semantic values: note, comment, glose, citation, … Whenever you think the paragraph is not part of the narrative proper, it should have a different style than Text Body. You are free to create any you need. But avoid the common pitfall of creating too many. A “standard” text contains at most 5-10 different paragraph types (not counting the headings).

Within a paragraph, not all words have the same value. Character styles will modify the generic paragraph value with emphasis (built-in Emphasis), strong emphasis (built-in Strong Emphasis), foreign word, irony, quotation, … Again, create what you need. Usually ~5 paragraph styles are enough.

Your book will be made with “parts”, each having a distinct layout: cover page, legalese, TOC, chapters, index, end notes, back cover. Since these parts have different “geometries” (some are unnumbered, numbering type is different, header/footer are specific), there will be one page style per part. You’ll delimit each part with a special page break to make a boundary. Chapters are usually quite similar, except for their header (where the heading is repeated). When similarity is very high, fields allow to use the same page style with dynamically added contents. In the end, ~5 pages styles are enough for an already complex book design.

Styles “label” every “object” in your document with some significance (from author’s point of view). This means you shouldn’t have empty “objects” anywhere. E.g. don’t use empty paragraphs to vertically space text. Vertical space is formatting, not intellectual creation. Vertical space should be considered as part of the significance (e.g. headings have more space above and below; this is set in the paragraph style).

A fully styled document, with absolutely no direct formatting, can be tuned for layout and formatting easily by playing with the styles. Full semantic styling guarantees you’ll have no surprise in the result. For instance, emphasis and foreign words may end up as italics. But if you change your mind to have foreign word in a fancy fraktur font without italics, you do so in the character style for foreign words and it doesn’t impact emphasised words.

So, how to transfer your novel to a new blank document? Copy the whole existing text and pasted it unformatted into the new file. This is very important so that no stray formatting is forwarded to the new doc. Then, apply styles first to paragraphs. Create the boundaries between parts if they can’t be specified in paragraph styles (Heading 1 may be configured to always force a page break towards a specific page style when starting a new chapter).

A 300k-word novel is 500-800 pages depending on spacing (how your text “breathes”). This can be handled as a single file by Writer. Your tool to quickly navigate in such a document is the Navigator which relies on correct styling with Heading n to structure your book into chapters and sub-chapters. If your book is rather on the ~1000-page size, it could be intersting to split it into a master and sub-documents. Not that Writer is unable to manage such a size, no; The weak element is you: you may find difficult to find your way in this sum. However, since mastering the subtleties of master+subs is not immediate, I recommend you begin with a single file. If it becomes really too big, you can still split afterwards. But then to make sure the various files are globally consistent, you should base them on a template file containing your collection of styles.

And finally a last important caveat. All this style machinery has been developed to a superior level in Writer. As a consequence, your formatting and layout will remain unaltered only when you save native .odt. If you save DOC(X) on the ground you must send as .docx to the print shop, you’re wrong and you’ll damage your document beyond repair because most styles are unknown to M$ Word. What they represent must be very approximately converted to some form of direct formatting to be understood by Word. When you reload, styling (except paragraphs) has vanished and you have direct formatting everywhere, which defeats the possibility to tune the document with styles.

If you really need to send .docx, save a copy (not simply “save”, this is different) and keep your native document for work. The copy will have the same visual appearance, though the encoding is totally different.


Many thanks. I have got so far with all this. I need a master template. Does a master template doc have nothing in it except a style list? If I copy and paste, do I leave out the Contents and recreate? Thanks.

This answer deserves to be the very first introductory section on a book about Writer. Read it once, read it twice. Applying these principles will provide you with a document where all formatting, page breaks, etc. proceed automatically. You only need to worry about your contents. Read up about the details in the Writer guide.

Templates contain styles, but also formatting of chapter numbering and possibly other aspects. It can also contain content, which you can delete when the new document is created from it.

You do not need a master template at this point. Just develop your own document properly based on a default empty Writer document. A template is contained within each document, so you will create one as you develop your document. You always can create a template from it later if you want to use it in the future for new documents.

Thanks again. I think I am in the situation where I need a master doc now. I have many files which I want to keep separate (individual chapters I guess). I am now looking in detail and trying to understand the difference between Master Document, master template.

I have an extensive contents in my ‘main’ file which I have been using to develop styles. I will either use the main file and convert to a master doc but maybe better to start afresh i.e. create a master document, transfer the styles in from my ‘main’. Question: does the Contents stay in the master doc.?

I am certainly going to have to take time out to delve in properly!

A template file is the tool to guarantee consistency and homogeneity across a set of documents but it implies a work discipline.
If you go for a template and separate chapter file, then do create a template file. In this template file, store the definition of all your styles: paragraph, character, page, frame (if you have illustrations) and … list (contrary to what the name might suggest, a list file is the configuration for a numbering sequence to be used for bullet or numbered lists). Among these list styles, you have chapter numbering which is a reserved dedicated style of its own.
For maximum flexibility when working with templates, install the Template Changer extension. In particular, it is necessary to base a master document on a template because the normal File>New>Templates creates an ordinary document. You must create first your master then use the extension to link it to the template.
Never modify a style directly in the master or sub-docs because this will mask the version of the style in the template. Instead, do all the changes in the template and reopen the documents. You will be asked if you want to update the styles.

As you see a master and a template are not the same thing. They are somewhat independent and complementary. Many schemes are possible. The classic example is a master with chapter sub-docs, all based on the same template. You can also have several masters sharing the same sub-docs so that layout may differ depending on the release medium. See an example here where the masters override some template styles, mainly page styles.

What should go in a master?

A master document is a kind of binder glueing together chapters and other files. A master can see all the sub-docs while a sub-doc sees only itself. An important consequence of this is the TOC, alphabetical index, … can only be inserted/generated in the master to be exhaustive. Any TOC or index in a sub-doc will contains entries only for this sub-doc. Also, references across sub-docs are rather tricky.

To make it short, you put into the master the cover page, legalese, TOC, perhaps dedication or foreword (as they are generally short and don’t deserve a separate file), index, endnotes, back material. Between TOC (or dedication/foreword) and index, you reference your sub-docs. This is only a “link” or “pointer”. Sub-doc text is not copied into the master. It is accessed when display or output is generated. You can’t edit a sub-doc in the master. You need to open it in its own window (hopefully there are shortcuts from the master itself).

The job is not that easy. Expect to throw away your first two attempts. Begin with a pencil and a sheet of paper. Think thoroughly about your styles. For paragraph, you already have Heading n and Text Body out of the shelf. For character, Lo provides Emphasis and Strong Emphasis but you probably need more. The page case needs more work: keep Default Page Style for the narrative (your main text) and design others for the other parts.

I realise I didn’t mention a very important feature. Paragraph and character styles are structured hierarchically. Select Hierarchical from the bottom menu in the style side pane to have an idea of the relations. A style can inherit from another one. The descendant is first identical to the ancestor. You only need to override a few parameters. The non-overridden ones remains identical to the ancestor. This means that when you change such a parameter in the ancestor, the change propagates down the hierarchy until an overridden parameter is met.

Paragraph style Default Paragraph Style is the ultimate ancestor of all others. Don’t use it anywhere in your text (this is fundamentally different from Word). Its sole purpose is to set global defaults for your document. If you use for text and customise it, this will have surprising effects on, say, headings or TOC and you’ll spend a lot of time trying to understand why.

Very good suggestions, but rather much for a beginner who is writing a novel. Here are some dumbed down hints.

In your novel, you will probably only have chapter titles and narrative. For those two different kinds of text, you need consistent formatting. To get consistency more easily, you use styles. Historical note: in ancient word processors like WordPerfect up to version 4 or 5, when printers were primitive, styles didn’t exist. You had to remember or make notes of how you formatted headings and so on. You can see styles in two ways: as a set of formatting properties that you can apply in one fell swoop to save time and keep your formatting consistent, and you can see it as semantic markup, as @ajlittoz describes.

In your case, you will probably need only two paragraph styles, and you make life easier if you use the inbuilt styles Heading 1 for the chapter titles and Text Body for the main text. If you did much formatting with the buttons on the toolbars or with the key bindings for things like boldface and italics, you should get rid of that first. Boldface in headings can be coded in the Heading 1 style, so you can erase that formatting, but you want to keep single words in italics in the main text.

You don’t need to enable headers and footers in the chapter documents, and you can format each chapter differently (as long as you use those two styles). In the master document, you set the font face and size to what you want for the entire book, and the chapters, when imported in the master document, will all have the same look and feel.

Thanks. I had got to having about five styles including in-para and italics within a Text Body para. I use italics for character thinking and communication mentally (its a Sci-Fi novel).
I have a contents section which works OK. I don’t have a master doc. and have had a lot of good advice here which I am trying to understand. What I haven’t grasped yet it the relationship between ‘Template’ and ‘Master’. Do these go together? I think I understand the Master where one doc has the contents(?) and styles. I like the idea of my chapters being separate files as I work on several at a time. So what is a template is my worry.

A template stores all the formatting in style definitions. If you create your next novel from the same template as the current one, the two novels will differ in content while having the same page layout, fonts, spacings, heading styles, headers, footers and more.

A master document merges the contents of multiple sub-documents. I’m not familiar with the implications of that work flow. If I were the only author of a long text, I would abstain from this feature. Writer can handle very large documents. Just save your current document often and do your daily backups to an external drive so you can revert to yesterday’s version at least no matter what happens to your computer.

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I would also go for a single document in your case. Nowadays, handling a file of two hundred pages with LO is not a problem whatsoever, even it if concerns technical documents with figures, tables, formula’s… The only reason I use master documents in some cases is because it allows to reuse selected chapters in different documents. There are other use cases as well. However, if I do not have a specific need, I avoid the complications coming with using the master doc feature. The case you describe does not require it.

The template file is a “seed” for creating a new document. Keep your styles in a template to create multiple documents with consistent style.

A master file is a way to collect multiple component files into a single document. When styles used in the component files also exist in the master document, the style settings in the master take priority.

This is useful in several settings. like:

  • When there are several contributors. Each work on their own file. You can all use the same template and adhere to predefined styles, and the outcome will be predictable and consistent.
  • When you need to make different editions of your work. Different masters can use different selections of content for varying target audience, and/or alter layout/dimensions to adapt to e.g. the visually impaired.

Well, thanks all. I have enough input know I think to decide a way forward. One big doc and several draft files like I do now may be still best.