Writing Tips for Making Your Manuscript Manageable
If you’re serious about writing your own book but are still intimidated by the size of the task, here are a few tips to help you stay on track and make penning your manuscript more manageable.
Start with an Outline
I’ll admit that from grade school all the way into my foray with college, I despised creating outlines for my essays or research papers. In fact, most of the time I would finish my project and then go back and outline it if the teacher required one (of course, this never worked for those evil educators who made us turn in the outline first). However, my attitude toward outlining changed when I started to get interested in writing a book.
For a non-fiction book, this could just mean making a list of your chapters, sections, and subsections and what you’ll cover in each. This type of outline will probably end up bearing a resemblance to one you might make for an essay — complete with Roman numerals — but on a larger scale. Alternatively, you may opt for a less formal outline and instead just make a chronological list of everything you want to cover.
When it comes to writing novels, you may want to create a different kind of outline and participate in other pre-writing activities. For example, Writer’s Digest offers a number of templates and tools you can use to create character sheets and map out the beats of your story.
The first reason I like outlining my manuscript before diving in is that it gets me to think about everything I want to say along with what would be the best way to present my arguments, themes, or stories. Doing this then, in turn, provides me a better idea of what medium would be best for the project — sometimes there’s just not enough there to justify pursuing a printed book but perhaps an ebook would fit the bill. This brainstorming also often leads me to new ideas, anecdotes I’d forgotten about, or different elements of my theme I hadn’t considered. In short: planning ahead will make your finished book better.
Of course, your outline isn’t (or shouldn’t be) written in stone. Sometimes the process of writing will take you in a different direction. In other cases, ideas that seemed like they would work fall flat.
Bottom line: there’s zero harm in changing things and deviating from your outline, but there’s tremendous value in at least starting with one.
When you’re first arranging all of your book plans — outlining, jotting down ideas, perhaps even “writing” sections in your head — it can be an extremely exciting time. In Writing the Damn Book, author Stacy Nelson actually refers to this as the “honeymoon phase” where writers are infatuated with the prospects of their projects and passion is at a high point. Unfortunately, this stage rarely lasts and, as it gets time to actually write, the motivation that pushed and excited you in the first place begins to fade.
Don’t let this happen to you! Sure the initial rush you felt when you first started dreaming up your project idea will subside, that is why looking at your outline and various other notes is important to remind you why this book needs to be written.
Break Your Manuscript into Chunks
Even with an outline as your roadmap, the thought of penning an entire book-length manuscript can seem mighty daunting. But just as many hands make light work, breaking the job down into manageable pieces can make completing your project much easier.
One natural way of doing this is to craft shorter chapters. This will not only make them easier to write and complete but could also encourage readers to take in another chapter when they eventually have your book in their hot little hands. That said, shorter chapters won’t always make narrative sense for fiction titles or organizational sense for non-fiction titles. Thus, you may want to consider other ways of managing your writing tasks without affecting the final product. That’s where setting and meeting writing goals come into play.
Set Daily Writing Goals
A common saying among authors is that the easiest thing in the world to do is not write. To combat the multitude of distractions and the apparent instinct many of us have to procrastinate, try setting aside time each day to write and create goals for what you want to accomplish in each daily section. Your goal could be comprised of a word/page count, an amount of time you want to spend during each session, or even narrative beats you want to cover before calling it a day.
When possible, many authors prefer to schedule their writing sessions for the same time each day. However, that’s not always realistic. Still, you should strive to be as consistent as you can and ensure that you’re meeting your goals each day/week.
Don’t Pass Up Inspiration
In addition to your daily writing sessions, there may be times when you’re suddenly struck with the urge to write or perhaps you get a great idea you want to put on paper as soon as possible. Don’t let these moments of inspiration go to waste! Such breakthroughs are not only key for the completion of your manuscript but will often provide you some of your strongest material. So whether you end up doing some overtime at the end of your writing session goal or heading back to your keyboard later on, you’ll want to make every effort to take advantage of these special moments.
Since you never know when inspiration may strike and you’re likely not always near a computer, you might want to figure out a way to take down notes on the go. While I used to just jot down things I wanted to remember on my basic iPhone Notes app, I recently decided to (finally) try Evernote. This app allows you to make text notes, record audio clips, or include an image and easily sync it to your computer for later. On a tangential note, I’ve also found their Web Clipper plugin for the desktop to be extremely helpful as I come across articles that would be good to cite in my project.
As mentioned, distractions are all too easy to come by even when you try your best to avoid them. That’s why it’s imperative that you find or create an environment that allows you to focus on your craft and accomplish your goals.
For many, this simply means retreating to their home office while others prefer to get out of the house and perhaps head to a coffee shop to get their writing done. Yet others (like me) prefer to mix it up. While I do the vast majority of my time working at my desk, every once in a while, a few hours at Starbucks is just what I need to break out of my manuscript-writing funk.
Heck, back when I lived in California, I’d even take my laptop to Disneyland to write! I suppose the incentive to finish my work allowed me to cut through the noise and really concentrate on what I was doing. So, no matter how unconventional, find what type of environment sparks your creativity and productivity and use it to your advantage.
Even If It’s Not Great, Just Write (For Now)
You’d be hard pressed to find an author who didn’t, at some point, feel like what they had just written was complete and utter crap. The truth is, when you’re forcing yourself to write each day, what you produce might not always be ready for primetime. Still, instead of getting frustrated, throwing in the towel, or deleting your day’s work in a fit of rage, just let it be and come back to it later.
In a weird way, writing weak material is actually a good thing — at least you know that it can be improved. Additionally, even on the worst of days, you’re likely to find at least one moment or point that works. Just keep in mind that you can always go back later and fix whatever isn’t working later. On the other hand, letting yourself fall short of your writing goals and claiming “writer’s block” could ultimately derail your project.
Like I mentioned above, not everything you write on a given day will be 100% gold. While you could wait until you have a rough draft of your manuscript before doing your first round of rewrites, this could once again be a tall task. Instead, I prefer to review my work more frequently in the writing process.
Personally, what I like to do is schedule my regular writing sessions on weekdays but set aside time each weekend to review my work from the rest of the week. This allows me to take another pass at what I’ve just written, making my strong material stronger, while working on fixes for what wasn’t working. Although I’ve only written non-fiction titles, I can imagine that this technique would be even more important in narrative storytelling where your rewrites could have substantial impacts on your subsequent pages.
While I enjoy weekly rewrites along with some random reviews in my downtime, it’s really up to you how often you want to go back and polish up your work. In fact, some authors may need to reach the end of their book before they can truly determine what works and what doesn’t.
Know When Your Book is Done
A word of warning: don’t let yourself fall down a rabbit hole of rewrites. This is to say you shouldn’t let your desire to consistently make what you’ve already written better get in the way of producing new material and moving your manuscript ahead. Similarly, there will come a time when it’s time to close the book (if you will) on your manuscript and release it to the world.
While I’m extremely proud of my book and much of the material in it, I’d be lying if I said there aren’t parts I read now and wish I could change. This is only natural —as you grow as a writer, you’ll surely look back to your earlier work and think you could do better. One of my favorite quotes comes from an author friend of mine who once told me, “’Tis the writer’s curse to cringe.”
Striving for perfection is a fool’s pursuit that will prevent you from ever releasing your work. Instead, take pride in what you’ve crafted and let readers enjoy what you’ve created. Besides, there’s always your next project.
Writing and publishing a book is a major accomplishment that you should be proud of. Unfortunately, all too often would-be authors never reach the finish line because they get overwhelmed by the process. Don’t let this happen to you! By setting attainable goals for yourself, creating the right writing environment, and avoiding perfectionism, you’ll have a far better shot at completing your manuscript and making your book a reality.
Also published on Medium.