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Monday, December 04, 2017

Where Do I Go With My Mess of a Manuscript?

You did it! You wrote a draft of at least 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo. Or maybe you just finished a manuscript draft after writing every morning this year before going to work. Or you opened up the memoir file on your computer, which you haven't touched in years. Just reading through the manuscript, which seems like a mess to you, is overwhelming. You're close to the project, and you don't know what to do next. You want to send out a social media message that states you are done with writing and a total failure after spending all this time just reaching 50,000 words of total chaos.

So, what do you do?

First breathe and know you are  normal. Every writer feels this way, whether they spent an entire month cranking out the words for one manuscript or have several in the drawer and are thinking it's time to do something with them. It can be a case of being too close to a project, or you are at a different place with your writing than you were when you started the story. Whatever the reason, you can revise. You can turn your work into something you are proud of.  Here's one way:

1. If you just finished writing, set it aside for at least a few days.
2. Give yourself a pretty good chunk of time (a few hours if you can swing it) to start reading through the story like you would a published novel you purchased. I find printing it out helps--but for some writers, that isn't possible or that task is overwhelming in itself.
3. Grab one pencil and one notebook. Take notes while you are reading through the manuscript, focusing on things you are thinking while reading BUT don't try to fix anything--no line edits, etc.
4. As soon as you finish reading all the way through (even if it takes you a few sessions ), go for a walk, take a shower, do some yoga, clean the bathroom--do any activity, where you usually find yourself getting your best ideas. Hopefully, if you just finished reading and you are doing one of these non-writing activities, your brain will have time to digest your story and where you want to go next will kind of pop in your mind. Have that notebook ready!
5. If not, then read your notes over. Send chapter one to your critique group or a writing friend. Spend a couple days journaling your vision for the story. Try writing a book cover summary of the story. Hire an editor or writing coach to talk over your ideas. One of these activities, or a combination of a couple, will help you figure out where to go next.

The number one thing you should not do is give up. Not all stories are published, we know that. But every story does lead to one that is published and makes you a better writer. However, before you give up on the one in front of you, try some of these strategies above to figure out where to go next with your story.

Margo L. Dill is a writing coach, editor, freelance writer, and children's author in St. Louis, MO. She is currently offering a few editing and coaching packages and discounts on her website, which you can see here. Her next novel writing class begins January 5. To sign up, visit the classroom here

Photo at the top by Morton Skogly on


  1. Margo--I love #3. I tend to revise line by line, and then get bogged down in the enormity of the task, and I never get too far. Making notes in a notebook seems basic and a no-brainer, but I've never done it, so I appreciate the suggestion.


  2. YAY! Sioux! I'm so glad something may help with your revisions. I really find printing out the document and making notes helps me when I am stuck on something or feeling like this manuscript will never be what I hoped. For me, I think it is just stepping away from the usual source (the laptop) and looking at the words printed on a page. Also, more and more, there is something to hand writing things--morning pages, letters, cards, journal entries--I'm starting to be a believer in that also.

    Best of luck!

  3. This is great advice, Margo! I also like to have my computer read the draft to me while I make notes. I usually use "Samantha" or "Victoria" slowed down a little. They read too fast.

    I'm so glad you're doing morning pages! I saw your post on your blog a while back but forgot to leave a comment. The day after I read it, you inspired me to do morning pages. I started writing three pages and kept writing until I was at 5k. So thank you. :) Now, I need to keep at it!

  4. All good advice. I tend to get bogged down doing line edits to early myself, and then I have a mess of sticky notes that gets overwhelming. I like the idea of maybe doing developmental edit ideas in a notebook chapter by chapter.

  5. I've got one of those that's been resting for several years. I have high hopes for digging in to it next year. Thanks for reminding me I'm not alone.

  6. Mary: I have 3 of those!

    Ang: I'm still doing morning pages, but the other thing I am not doing is beating myself up if I miss a morning! :)

    Renee: Oh, me too, me too. It is so hard not to line edit yourself--but I think we lose the big picture when we are first revising if we do.


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