WRITING TIPS: How to plan your novel as you write it

In the old ‘are you a planner or a pantser’ writing debate, I’ve always sat thoroughly in the middle. I’ll plan, but not meticulously, and just see how the garden grows. I’ll keep a plan up to date with paper and pen as I go, jotting down notes and thoughts as they come to me.

But this approach does have some issues.

At the end of the draft, I’m left with notebooks and notebooks of scatty thoughts, many of which aren’t even relevant by the end of the draft. To find any meaningful thoughts or notes, I have to trawl through it all, which is a horrible and dull task. Often I end up ignoring it all. And my plan – which is edited as I go – becomes a vague mess.

As a result, my approach to writing and editing the second draft of a novel is as daunting a task as writing the first draft. I re-read the manuscript and jot down what every chapter is about, plan it like a new novel, and then rewrite this whole thing.

This approach to writing a novel has always really worked for me, but this time I wanted to try something more focused. And you know what? IT WORKED!


So, what was my process this time?

How to format your novel planning notes

This is the time to create a one-stop shop for all your novel notes. It’s vital that they’re all in one place at the same time, so you don’t end up with loads of scrappy notes.

Some writers use Scrivener to help them. I’ve tried it, but I couldn’t warm up to the interface. It jarred somehow. So I basically recreated some of the functionality and tailored it to my needs in a simple spreadsheet, which I’ll guide you through in the next section.

Though I LOVE pen and paper, and will always use a notepad or two at some point, it’s been invaluable to keep my plan online in an editable format. No more angry crossings-out, no more searching through pages of discarded notes for something I think I wrote a few weeks ago.

So this time, I used Microsoft Excel to keep my notes neat, clean, and organised.

Never leave anything to luck with an ongoing editable novel plan in a format that works for YOU.

Your free novel planning template for Excel

I used Microsoft Excel for my writing plan, mainly because I like everything to be squared off in its neat little boxes. But if there’s another program that works for you – use that!

I set up different tabs for the following elements of the story:


With one column for dates and one column for wordcount, this is an easy way of keeping track of progress and ensuring you hit your novel-writing goals.

Chapter plan

Set this up with the flowing columns:

Chapter numberEventTimeline / Day / NightNotes

Update this as you go along and by the end of your draft, you’ll have a carefully constructed novel plan you can refer back to for quick editing and format choices.


Set this one out however you like, but I wrote notes for each setting, with descriptions of items, relevant meanings, and that sort of thing. Keeping note of these as you write, means that you won’t make so many continuity errors when you repeat settings. Very handy.


Set this up with the following columns:

 Character 1Character 2Character 3Character 4
Tone of voice    
Goals / Dreams    
Fears / Phobias    
What they want    
Additional notes    

Depending on how many characters you have, this tab can become a beast, but it’s so useful to drop details in as you write your first draft so that you have a clear and continuous understanding of your characters’ idiosyncrasies and journeys.


Set this up with the following columns:

MysteryFirst introduced…SolutionResolved in chapter…

We’ve all been annoyed when a story introduced a juicy subplot that fizzles away to nothing in the background. It leaves us thinking – what did all that mean?!

Whether they reveal crucial clues or end up as red herrings, this tab is where you can make sure that any mysteries you set up in the story are resolved.


This is a tab that will vary widely depending on the type of story you’re telling.

This tab is a way of recording the time period your story takes place over, whether it be hours, days, months, or years. You could format it as a table with headings for chapters and time lapses between, or you could draw out a timeline of the main events.

Plot points to add

This is a tab for adding additional plot points that you don’t have the time or energy to go back and write in while you’re drafting your novel. You can format this as a list, a chart, or whatever works best for you. The important thing is that all your ideas are kept in one place and won’t go missing!

Themes to layer in

Similarly to the ‘Plot points’ tab, this is a place to record the themes in your story as you discover them, and to note ways of seeding them more thoroughly through your novel.

Set this up with the following columns:

ThemeWhat is meansSymbolismMore ways to seed

Blurb notes

This is a good tab to job down notes for the future blurb or elevator pitch you’ll write for your novel. I also saved some meaningful novel extracts here too, ideally to help with writing a future synopsis and even a future title for the book (I don’t usually decide on a title until near the end of the process).

Edit your plan as you write your novel

As you write your novel, it’s important to keep your plans up to date so that – by the time you’re finished – you know what each chapter covers, and you have extensive notes for everything that you need to know about the settings, characters, themes, and plots.

Bye-bye continuity errors. Hello coherent storytelling!

Use a daily diary for notes on-the-go

But what if you like to make notes on the go? Well, I couldn’t quite give up my fountain pen entirely.

Use a daily diary to jot down notes when you think of them. Always write them on the day they come to mind, and – even if you only have a vague idea of when you wrote it down – you’ll always find them again. Genius!

So what’s next for me and my pen?

Now that I can luxuriate in knowing my first draft is done, I can rest for a bit. But only for a little bit, because already I hear the wild editor-bird calling, and I want to begin the next draft while the tune is still in my ears.

In the meantime, I have a big commissioned poem to write, and then I’m editing three short manuscripts I wrote last year before they – hopefully – go on their own exciting journey. Hmm. And I’m expecting the final copy edit for another book I wrote.

So all in all, it feels busier than when I was writing the first draft of my novel! Oh well. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Looking for more advice on how to be a writer? Find out more in my handy hub, packed full of writing tips and tricks for all.


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