NaNo Tip No. 8: Square Brackets

By now I’m sure you’re all racing along in the land of NaNoWriMo: tap tap tappety tap tap. Your little fingers tripping across your keyboard. What a blessed sound that is!

But, wait, you’ve stopped? Why?

Is it because the bit you have to write next is a tad too complicated (how does a nuclear reactor work?) and/or requires research (when a car explodes do the windows go flying out? how far? what does it sound like exactly?) or is too squishy (you got to the love scene, didn’t you?) or you’re not in the mood (writing journeys is boring).

Rather than come to a grinding halt why not square bracket it?

By which I mean do this:

Janice Lardano got out of the car and stared pensively at the nuclear reactor. It made her nervous to go in there but go in there she must.

[scene in nuclear reactor]

As Janice left the nuclear reactor she saw a strange man sprinting away from the parking lot.

[car explodes]

As Janice picked the bits of car from her hair she became aware of a beautiful man looking at her. His teeth gleamed.

[love scene]

Janice finished buttoning her blouse, picked up her purse, and looked back at the gleaming beauty. It would be hard to leave him, but she must. The continued survival of the world was at stake!

[journey in which Janice meets wise woman and saves world]

Janice smiled, reaching out to hold his gleaming hand. Sometimes life really was perfect.

Added bonus: when you get stuck you can go back and fill them in. I also use them for research [how much does mercury weigh?] or for really generic stuff [something else needed here] [they talk and discover they like each other] [denouement] or for instructions or notes to self [make this bit better] [she’s supposed to be angry here she just sounds annoyed].1

There you have it: the glory of square brackets. [Ending could be punchier.]

  1. Though now I use Scrivener I use square brackets a lot less. []


  1. Rachel on #

    Yes, I like using brackets as reminders, but for nanowrimo not so much, because I don’t really want to add them on to my word count.
    Good tips though

  2. Unfocused Me on #

    Why do you use square brackets less now that you use Scrivener? I use it for most of my writing but still see the utility of the square brackets.

  3. Zeborah on #

    One caveat is that while this works really well for some writers, for others… Well, for me, skipping scenes with square brackets has two bad consequences:

    1) It means I write all the easy parts of the book first, meaning I have to write all the hard parts later in a single chunk, meaning I probably won’t finish the book. Whereas if I force myself to write entirely in order, I can use a future easy-and-fun scene as a reward for getting through a hard scene.

    2) This always happens to me if I try it. Seriously, *always*. When I go back to write that scene in the nuclear reactor, Janice spots the strange man, prevents him setting the bomb, but discovers an even greater danger is afoot, and I have to scrap and rewrite absolutely everything that came after that now-obviated car explosion.

    So I’ve stopped doing that.

    I still use square brackets (or, rather, a black apple-shaped character that you can get on Macs by holding down shift-option-k — the advantage is that it stands out really well when you’re skimming) to signal minor gaps in research (eg “Change this fake Latin into real Latin!”, “Find out the name of a random Catholic nobleman in 1527 Copenhagen!”, and “Check the previous book for the location of that abandoned church!”) It doesn’t work so well for major gaps in research (“Read 134 digitised pages of manuscript 14th century Danish provincial law to find out the punishment for abducting and torturing a fellow nobleman!” — fortunately said manuscript turned out to have an index) because again, the difference between arresting the perpetrator or just fining him is going to make the plot go in wildly different directions.

    Also I know people who can’t even use square brackets for character names, because for them changing the name changes the entire personality and thus the plot. Fortunately I don’t have that problem myself, and change character names all over the place whenever I discover that I’ve got 5 men called “Hans” and half a dozen other people with names beginning with “B”.

    –But yeah, anyway. Not to deny the fact that, for those writers for whom it works, square brackets really are a godsend!

  4. Justine on #

    Unfocused me: I put my notes to myself on the side in Scrivener so they’re not part of my word count. As Rachel mentions above.

    Zeborah: You must hush! You’re pre-empting my next tip!

  5. Laura Sibson on #

    Thanks for the post – I love it! In response to some posts above – I also use Scrivener and I enjoy using the highlight function for the parts I need to go back to. That way they jump out at me when I re-read later. It definitely helps in terms of keeping my fingers on the keyboard and my mind in the story.

    Happy Typing everyone!

  6. simmone on #

    ah, you’re great! I want to write my whole novel like this.

    Chapter 1

    [rather a lot of stuff happens, most of it good and exciting]

    The End

  7. Emma on #

    What I do is I bold and highlight what I’m supposed to write about there later, since I don’t want to get stuck trying to figure things out 🙂 That way, whenever I know what it is that I want to write, it will be easier to find.

  8. Meg on #

    Thanks for posting this tip….it’s a writing tip I got a while back which I use a lot. I tend to like stories with historical content & using this method keep me from getting bogged down in researching minutiae while I am writing (current story involves time travel to the 1930s and 1930s dance marathons, thus it’s a research fest requiring copious amounts of refreshing myself on minor details, like length of dance marathon rest periods, or what time of a particular year a movie was released, etc.). I think I like research almost as much as writing, so this is one way I keep myself on track!

    I’m loving all the tips from both of you…keep them coming, and thanks for undertaking this!

  9. rebecca on #

    i am going to be using this!

  10. Lorin on #

    Square brackets are awesome. Though most of mine are filled with self-doubt [Oh, God, this is awful. Must keep writing. If fingers come off keyboard they’ll never go back.] And its all fair game for NaNo as far as I’m concerned. I wrote, it goes in the word count. Though I did resist the urge to add in a letter I wrote today.

  11. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I love brackets, and use them all the time. Actually, I use “TK” plus brackets, which I learned from a Cory Doctorow article. Apparently the letters TK appear together almost nowhere in the English language, so you can search your document for instances of TK and quickly find all your brackets (and every time you used the word Atkins).

    TK [clever closing comment to showcase my witty-ness]



  12. wandering-dreamer on #

    I think the only time I did that was when I absolutely could not think of a name for a character and just added it in last. Confused my teacher though when he came across one of the places I forgot to change to the name. Otherwise I don’t really do it since I love hammering out the nitty-gritty details, those are what I live for in writing, keep me focused, get all my ideas out, AND they raise the word count! But I do think I’m going to go back to my earlier bits and add in tons of scenery details in bold so I can remember it later, reverse square brackets?

  13. Harry Connolly on #

    Recently, while doing edits on my latest book, I found a square-bracket note to myself that read [I assume that these four empty lines are here to indicate that I meant to add something to this scene, but at this point I can’t remember what it was supposed to be. Note to self: Make notes to self.]

    Most of the time, though, I write [to here] to mark the spot where I stopped revising.

  14. mpe on #

    In-text commenting messes me up completely, so I never do that. But a similar idea: I keep a “Notes” page at the end of every manuscript where I jot down page number and comment as I go.

    If you do use in-text, for the love of Word do a thorough search later. (I’ve heard about a published book that had “Scene where X happens” still in it…)

  15. Jessie Sams on #

    Thanks to Zeborah for the Apple icon trick–that’s handy! I, too, like using square brackets for many things (usually they’re for notes to myself that won’t change the plot like the above suggested, “Change this to real Latin!”). I have a problem seeing just the brackets, though, and have a fear of doing exactly what mpe is warning against: forgetting the bracketed information is in there and sending it off to a potential agent like that. So to ward that fear off, I write the note in all caps, bold the text, AND make it a bright color like neon green that I won’t be able to miss while I’m scrolling through (even if I’m scrolling quickly) the document. I like this tip so much that I’ve got to go back and read all your other tips!

  16. Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books on #

    Good tip – Makes more sense than ellipses, which I tend to use in dialogue, anyway!

    I hear so many good things about Scrivener, kind of wish I was a Mac user!!

  17. Walter Underwood on #

    “TK” is short for “ToKum”, a journalism shorthand for info that you’ll fill in later. It is often better to use that than to put in a guess which might get published. Like “ToKum percent of US households have a toaster oven.”

    It is intentionally misspelled variant of “to come” so that it will be caught before publication.

    I learned about this in a Columbia Journalism Review article, probably in the early 80’s, titled something like “There are ToKum Fact Checkers in the US”.

  18. {insert interesting name here] on #

    Oh my God! Thank you! I get stuck in my writing all the time, and now I have a way to get unstuck! Thank you! [thanks Justine a ton of times for how amazingly amazing she is for giving me a new writing technique] See how much time that saves? Thank you!

  19. PixelFish on #

    Ya know, it makes me feel good when a pro offers up a tip…and I already do it.

    It’s pretty handy, and it has saved me a lot from getting stuck or blocked or distracted.

  20. PixelFish on #

    Oh, wanted to add that square brackets have one advantage over highlighted, bolded, or italicized text–if your file gets mangled or sent to a friend for critique and comes back sans formatting, you can still tell where your notes were.

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