Back to the Beginning: Composition Notebooks and Microsoft Word

My favorite word processor of all time is Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5. This is the word processor I was using circa 1992 (30 years ago!) when I first began to write stories with the intention of submitting them for publication. I liked the simplicity of the interface: whitish font on blue background; neat, clear menus that were easy to navigate; simplicity of functions that I used most commonly (spell check, searching, etc.). I still have many of the original Word for DOS files that I saved back then. They not only include drafts of those first stories, but letters I wrote, class notes, as well as papers for various classes.

Since then, as readers of this blog know well, I’ve tried just about every word processing tool out there. I was a long-time user of Google Docs; I was a long-time user of Scrivener. Both of these are outstanding word processors, and each has their own particular speciality. Google Docs excels at collaboration, and I’ve used it more than once in working with an editor to prepare a story for publication. Scrivener is like word processor and project management tool combined, and I’ve probably written more of the stories and articles I’ve sold using that tool than any other.

I’ve tried other tool: Ulysses and IA Writer, for instance. And since January 2021, I’ve done the bulk of all my writing using Obsidian. Indeed, I’ve done just about everything in Obsidian, from writing, to notes, to lists. You name it.

But the thought of Microsoft Word for DOS’s simplicity–the way it simply got out of my way and allowed me to write when I wanted to write, and print when I wanted to print–has alway stuck with me. One of that old word processor’s best features was that it was naturally distraction-free, before that was the trendy concept that it has become. As I recently “rebooted1” my fiction writing, I was looking for something that would allow me to focus on my writing and not distract me with settings and features and bells and whistles. I wanted something that would stay out of my way, let me write, and when I was ready, let me print.

I’ve solved this problem in 2 ways:

  1. I’m using composition notebooks for the first two drafts of everthing I write.
  2. I’ve returned to Microsoft Word for the third draft and beyond.

Composition notebooks for composing

I struggled for so long with writer’s block when it came to fiction writing that when I finally got back to writing, I wanted something completely different. I felt that I needed to slow down, and I felt that I needed to avoid distactions at all costs and harness whatever creative inspiration I had without the intercession of a keyboard, a CPU, and a screen. So I bought myself a dozen composition notebooks2, scribbled the word “Stories” on the cover a yellow composition book, and I began writing.

What a joy it is! Each day I write, I begin by scribbling the date in the margin of the place that I begin for that day. I alternate between blue and black ink each day, a tip I took from Neil Gaiman. It makes it easy to distinguish one day’s work from the rest. I write in cursive, not worrying about how much or how little I get in. I’ve estimated that a complete page contains about 270 words, but I tend to note how many pages I’ve written on a given day, as opposed to word counts–another break from the past.

I also make lots of notes as I go along, something that is note nearly as easy to do in a word processor or text editor, at least not in the way I prefer. I’ll scribble notes in the margins after completing a scene, giving myself instructions for how to improve it. Or I’ll go back to an earlier scene and add some notes to myself. Occasionally, I’ll think about the story structure or something conceptual that requires more notes. In these cases, I’ll simple insert them after whatever it is I have just written, but always do so in red ink to distinguish it from the narrative of the story itself.

A typical page from my composition notebook, with writing, markup, marginal notes, etc.
A typical page from my composition notebook.

When I complete a draft in the notebook, I read through it, and jot circled numbers (in red ink) in the margins which refer to longer assessments that I make on the pages that follow the story. With those notes completed, I can start on a second draft, also in the pages that follow. The first story I wrote this way I began on May 13, 2022. I finished the first draft 13 days later, on May 26. Over the next 6 days, the pages in my notebook are all red: my notes on the first draft of the story. Then, based on that first draft, on page 43 of my composition book, I jotted an outline of 14 scenes for the second draft of the story and I began that second draft on page 44 of the notebook on June 2, 2022.

Having this all together in the composition book is delightful. It is, in many ways, easier than using a word processor to achieve the same. I can easily flip back and forth between the pages, see my writing and my notes, and my corrections all at a glance.

And when I completed the second draft of the story (on June 22), and made my notes (June 23-26), I began writing the third draft in Microsoft Word.

Microsoft Word for drafting the manuscript

Not too long ago, I wrote about my process for managing my writing in Obsidian. In the first use case of that post, I talked about drafting stories in Obsidian–doing the actual writing. I demonstrated the templates that I use for first and second drafts, and how I tied these to the overall project I kept in Obsidian, all the while, using just plain text files. This works well, but after some trial and error with it, I decided it was far too much overhead. I was constantly distracted by the mechanisms that held everything together. Rather than writing, I was tinkering with templates and tweaking scripts that would take a markdown document and covert it to a neatly formatted manuscript using Pandoc. This–at least for me–is the fatal flaw of a tool like Obsidian for creative writing. There is too much ability to tinker.

This is one of the things I loved about Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS. That tool no longer exists in any practical sense, so I have been using the latest version of Misrosoft Word for Office 365 for my drafts. I have a template for standard manuscript format, so I that I spend no time tweaking formatting. I open a new document, spread my composition notebook pages open before me, and begin typing.

When I have a completed draft, I don’t have to do anything special to print it (I do tend to print a hardcopy and mark it up with a red pen), nor do I have to jump through hoops to share the draft. Because, it is often the third draft of a story that I will share with trusted friends for an initial reading beyond my own. In Word, I can click a Share button, and the friends I share the draft with have access to the manuscript at once; they can add their own comments, correct things, etc.

Finally, when the manuscript is ready for submissions, I can email it off to whatever market I am sending it to. No special conversions involved.

Back to the beginning

I see this latest round of my fiction writing as a restart for me, after a long drought. I wanted to take lessons from my earlier writing, as well as lessons from that period of writer’s block. The composition books have been a huge help to both my creative flow and productivity. And going back to Microsoft Word has removed the friction caused by many of the other tools that I have worked with over the years.

I am still using Obsidian for almost everything else, including tracking my writing projects, submissions, etc. But for the actual writing, notebooks and Word seem to be the ideal mix for me.

Written on July 12, 2022.

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  1. I’m not particularly fond of that term, but it does a decent job of conveying my meaning here.
  2. I’ve also started using these notebooks for my journal, a change from the large Moleskine sketchbooks I’d been using, but that is a story for another day.


  1. Jamie,

    You should check out this cool tool, XXXXXXXXX. It’s great!

    j/k. But seriously, I can hear your pain with the tinkering bug. I’m still torn between Scrivener and Word (or Write…?), but even then am quickly coming to grips with the fact that one of the biggest blockers isn’t my ability to write or having a story to tell, but in getting too distracted with the mechanics and formatting and tools around the writing. It goes hand in hand with another observation I have (finally, after all these decades) made – momentum is a large factor in my ability to finish what I’m writing. So long as there is progress, preferably daily, but at the very least every few days, everything is fine. But as soon as there is any kind of gap in the writing of significance, it all starts to go downhill and I never quite recover. I try – and try – but the truth is once a story has been allowed to escape the front of my brain, I never quite recapture it again, no matter how I try to restart, rewrite, or pick up. I recall reading that King and a few others subscribe to the notion that you should spend three months (unitnerrupted) on the first draft [of a novel], and I think I get that. Momentum is the key, and distractions or breaks ruin it.

    ~quoth some guy that finally wrote the first draft of a story after a many year break thanks to the world ending and other tragedies

  2. Thank you. This has given me something more to think about. It might be good to handwrite fiction. I’ve been using word processors for non-fiction for 35+ years (starting with Wordstar on a CP/M computer). Handwriting might be just the difference that prompts that part of my brain to start working again.

  3. I was constantly distracted by the mechanisms that held everything together. Rather than writing, I was tinkering with templates and tweaking scripts that would take a markdown document and covert it to a neatly formatted manuscript using Pandoc.

    Ironically, back when I was a lawyer using Word (the standard word processor back then at least), I found Word’s styles way too fiddly and distracting to use.

    My experience with Word drove me to use Markdown so I could just write. 😁


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