The Joy (Yes, Joy) of Spreadsheets

krob-picLast Thursday, I took my annual trip to DC for my day job and spent the day at the office. I always enjoy seeing my coworkers but am equally happy to come back to my solo workstation in my home. While there, I was surrounded by people and focused on numbers — not the norm for me. The people part is exhausting. The numbers part, well, that I can deal with. My day job is in accounting.

Despite having a deep love of words as a child, I was discouraged as a kid to study something as impractical as English. So what did I do? I decided to go in the opposite direction and embarked on a degree in finance, which led to a job in accounting, a Masters in Accountancy (for something to do in the evenings), and sitting for the CPA exam. Not a well thought out plan on any level. And now, after twenty plus years in both public and private accounting, my license isn’t even current. I don’t work in the field, and I can’t imagine ever working in it again. I’m in full agreement with Kelly Ford when she speaks about going back to her former career, “I’d rather bag groceries.”

Some things get ingrained into our beings, whether we like it or not. Because of my history in accounting, my go-to program for to-do lists, open items, research points, or any number of things needing tracking for my novel is an Excel spreadsheet.

Lest you think I’m totally nuts, I will tell you that I do type my novel in Scrivener and blog posts in Word. Imagine my delight when I learned that you could attach an Excel document inside Scrivener! I could use Excel! Within my Scrivener document! It is the perfect convergence of my two worlds.


So why use spreadsheets? One of the best advantages of a spreadsheet over a Word document is the ability to create multiple spreadsheets in one workbook. For my revision list, I can have one sheet for character revisions, one sheet for chapter revisions, one sheet for plot revisions, or however else I want to break things down. If I wanted, I could also link all of those revisions together into one, giant master list.


Multiple tabs each with a different list and all in one file.

I also like that I can sort the same list in multiple ways in Excel. If I have a list of revisions to make and a due date, I can sort by either. I can add data points such as type of revision, necessity of revision, or even my excitement level of performing each task and sort by any one of these categories. If I feel like only working on plot revisions, I can sort so those items rise to the top of the 100 items or so that I have to do. Then, I can resort them all and not lose track of any of them.


Sorted by Type


Same list sorted by Due Date

And for those long, sloggy days when little of substance gets written, I can cheer myself up by adding colors, shading, or bolding to my spreadsheets, brightening up those long, long lists of changes needed. I can convert the lists into charts or graphs. I can add a seemingly infinite number of items to the list (Excel has 1,048,576 rows. I hope no one has a revision list this long). I can color code words or cells or even the tabs at the bottom. I can create a timeline that goes on forever (or for 16,384 years, which is the number of columns in Excel).


Pretty, pretty colors. Yes, it took time away from the novel, but it made me happy.

For me, Excel has endless possibilities for organization. Perhaps my left brain is not ready to succumb just yet to my right brain. For now, I enjoy straddling the two sides of my gray matter. I recently attended a one-day seminar at GrubStreet. The woman on my right also used spreadsheets (guess what she did for a living?), and the woman on my left peered over at my colorful spreadsheet and said, “That’s an interesting program. What is it?”

So writers, exercise that other side of your brain and give Excel a go. You might like it. At the very least, it’ll be another thing to do under the guise of writing that counts as work on that novel. You may even find yourself reordering those revision lists into a tidier, more pleasant-looking list.

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