Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How to Use Headings in Microsoft Word to Organize Your Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

When I gear up to write a first draft, whether I'm starting from scratch or doing a rewrite, I like to organize my Word file. I do this because being organized sets me up for success. In the case of Onyx Eyes, I'm doing a bit of a rewrite, but since I only ever wrote out the first few chapters, I don't have to rearrange an entire first draft, I just need to create new chapters for the whole book. As always, doing this doesn't mean the story will stay like this. Later on, I very likely might end up deleting a chapter or adding several. Who knows? But doing this really helps me get ready to write a full novel. Here is now I tackle such a project.

First, I open my story file. Then I need to open the navigation sidebar. To find it, click on the "View" tab, then click the little box that says "Navigation Pane," which is in the left center of the toolbar under the "Ruler" and "Gridlines" boxes. Here is an image to help you find it:

Once you select that box, the navigation sidebar will open to the left of your document. If you have already created headings in your document, those will show up in a list. If they don't, make sure you click on the word "Headings" under the search box. Mine looks like this:

And since that is very small, here is a much closer look at my navigation sidebar. See how the word "Headings" is dark blue? That's because I clicked on it. You can also click on "Pages" or "Results" if you want to look at your pages or the results of a word search.

As you can see, I divided my story into chapters, then I divided the chapters of my story into parts, with part two starting between chapters six and seven. I did this by starting each new chapter or part page on a new page break. Then I wrote the chapter number, or "Part Two: Idaho" or whatever the case, selected the text, then chose a heading style. For the part pages, that title is all I'll ever write on those pages. But with the chapter pages, I will write the book after the chapter titles. The words of the book don't show up in the navigation sidebar because I did not choose a special heading for them. The text for your book should be "normal," which it likely is already by default. (FYI, in the image above, Part Three: Idaho has already changed to Part Three: Kenmare. And who knows? It all might change again.)

Heading styles are what enable the text to show up in the headings list on the navigation sidebar. I put my part three between chapters twelve and thirteen since that will be my midpoint, then I put my part four between chapters eighteen and nineteen. You don't have to have parts in your book, but I wanted them for this story.

If you don't have any headings showing up and don't know how to make them, it's pretty simple. You type out one or more words, select them, then click on the "Home" tab and choose a heading from the selections on the right side of the toolbar, like this:

If you use headings and subheadings, your list will stack, like an outline. It's pretty handy. Play around with it until you get a good feel for how it works.

Once I've reorganized my book file, I can copy and paste sections of my first draft so that everything is in the right place. Then I use my outline to write my plans into each chapter. If I've done a major rewrite, I will use my storyboard cards to go through each chapter and write any notes into that chapter so that when I come to it in my rewrite, all my notes are right there waiting to remind me what to write or change. I might type these notes into the document itself at the start of the chapter, or I might put them in a comment so they don't affect my word count. Once I've added in all my notes or instructions, I'm ready to write. Or rewrite. Being organized like this makes writing a lot easier.

Do you organize your document file before you start writing? Share in the comments.


  1. Ooh, this is awesome! I'm not so much of a planner that I'm really /capable/ of organizing this far ahead, at least not on the first draft, but I think that once I get to rewrites this will be REALLY helpful. <3

  2. I've used headings for my last 3 books, and I love how they keep me organized! They are also really handy for editing because you can click on the chapter in the navigation pane and jump right to it.

    Since my books usually aren't long enough to come in parts, I usually (in the first draft and revisions) title each chapter "Chapter 1 - (name of POV character or characters)" By having the POV character for each chapter listed, I can easily see how balanced my POVs are throughout the book, and it is easier to find the chapter I'm looking for when revising.

    1. Yes, they help so much with editing, Tricia! And that's a great point. I did a book with names for titles, and being able to see them all in that list helped me too. :-)

  3. This is so helpful! I'm not very tech savvy, so I adore tutorials like this! Thank you!!

    -Gray Marie |