7 Ways to Fix a Messy Manuscript

The first draft of my YA novel BLANK was a complete disaster. I had taken a random approach to writing it, jotting down whatever I could between diaper changes and other distractions. I tried not to concern myself with structure or plot, thinking I would fix all that “later.” When “later” became hundreds of pages that somewhat resembled a novel, I knew the task ahead of me was not for the faint-hearted. I experimented with many approaches to get BLANK ready for submission (and eventual publication), and survived, only slightly traumatized, to share these tips for repairing even the most chaotic of first drafts.

GIVEAWAY: Trina is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. ghleach has won the giveaway. 

trina-st.-jean-author-writer blank-book-cover

Column by Trina St. Jean, author of debut novel BLANK
(April 2015, Orca Book Publishers). Trina grew up in northern
Canada, with wolves howling in the woods behind her house
and northern lights as entertainment. She has an MFA in
Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College
and now teaches ESL in Calgary, Alberta and enjoys adventures
in the nearby Rockies with her husband and two daughters. 
Connect with her on Facebook.

1. Take in the Big Picture. Before you can even think about fiddling around with the details in your novel, take a look at the overall plot and structure. Lock yourself away from the world and do a read-through, in one sitting if possible, with these questions in mind: What am I trying to say? What’s this story about? Writing a synopsis helps nail things down.

2. Find your tricks. Experiment with ways of seeing the story that work for you. Jot down scenes on sticky notes and cover your office wall with the plot line. Take long walks and let ideas percolate. Try out storyboarding or novel organizing software (I love Scrivener). Change the font of your manuscript and read it again: this can fool your mind into seeing it as something other than your own writing. Essentially, you don’t know what will help you see things in another light until you’ve tried it. The goal is to get your theme, character motivations and plot structure clear in your mind.

3. Talk things out. It can really help to toss ideas around with people whose opinion you trust. My husband, for example, is extremely logical. So I know that if I am stuck on a plot point, he will quickly shut down any solutions that don’t make sense. The mere process of explaining issues can help you think through possible fixes, so even talking to yourself can be productive. Close the windows so the neighbors don’t hear and blab away.

4. Jot thoughts down. Immediately. Throughout the process of revision, carry a notebook at all times. Write down possible changes whenever they come to you, no matter how crazy or irrelevant they may seem. They might be the ticket you’re looking for.

5. Tackle “weasel words.” “Weasel words” are those useless, often meaningless words that have a tendency to sneak into your writing. My list includes words like “just” and “really”. Do a search (use Find in the Edit menu in Microsoft Word) and eliminate or change as many of them as you can. Along the way, look for ways to make your prose more lively, interesting, and unique. Shorten rambling description. Cut out scenes that don’t serve the story’s purpose. Be harsh and don’t accept anything that you’re not satisfied with.

6. Host a private story time. Read your book out loud to yourself, record, and listen. Or have the computer read it to you using Text to Speech function in Word (warning: it will sound robotic!). I used Garage Band on my Mac to record myself but you can also download Audacity for free. Hearing your story will help you find sentences that don’t sound right and need a little more work.

7. Rinse, repeat. If you have time, sit back a bit and relax. Reward yourself for your hard work. But it’s not finished yet! After you’ve recuperated a little, read the whole thing again, jotting down any impressions you have. You will be sick of the thing. Looking at the thing will make you nauseous. But push on. This is your time to make your prose shine.

BONUS! Chill. Let it go. Be satisfied that you did all that you could to make it the best book you could at this point in your career.  It’s easy to become obsessed and enter into a vicious circle of changing things then changing them back again. But now is the time to get your story out there in the world, and start your next project … that is, until an editor asks you to start the process all over again!

GIVEAWAY: Trina is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. ghleach has won the giveaway. 


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31 thoughts on “7 Ways to Fix a Messy Manuscript

  1. sefmac20

    Excellent advice, Trina! I recently finished my first manuscript which was flawless…or so I thought. After friends, family, and a lit agent’s feedback, and after regularly rereading chapters, I realized it was far from perfect. Time and eyes are essential!

  2. jdmstudios

    Hi Trina! I loved reading this! It comes at a perfect time, just rounding out the second half of Nanowrimo, and I am wondering, how in tarnation am I ever going to sort through this mess? I haven’t even sorted through last year’s Nano manuscript! LOL Great advice, will definitely put it all to good use, especially #1, taking a really good look at the Big Picture. Thank you!

  3. cmatthias

    I’ll be sharing this with my writing group. We’ve been helping each other with “weasel words”, but without the great name! I’m especially excited to try changing the font and reading my story again. Thanks so much.

    1. joebos53@hotmail.com

      My weasel words – that, so, was (too often), there
      Good article. Speaking from the point of view of an amateur writer, thanks! It boosted my confidence to discover some of the things that I do.
      J.Adams, The Handler

  4. Mike Crowl

    My weasel words? just, really, very, seems, like, suppose, some. My characters also “decide to do things,” instead of just “doing them.” Ahh! There’s that “just” sneaking in there again!

    It just seems like sometimes, these very unproductive words tend to crop up everywhere. I suppose they really have their place, but some of them just seem useless. I decide to remove them.

  5. cjthe1writer

    Ha, I thought I knew ALL of this, but only in theory — not PRACTICE. So printing it out, now! I’m working on my first YA/NA sci-fi fantasy, about 250 pages in and resisting the “index cards” approach — but I realize this is something I need to PUSH through and just effin’ do it! Got Storyist instead of Scrivener, but found it’s not as sexy as it sounds. Would also love to see an article on how to juggle multiple manuscripts, especially when you make you make your living as a ghostwriter and editor of other peep’s books (as I do). I’ve been feeling very antsy about not spending enough time on this sci-fi fantasy, my own dreams. When do you know it’s time to “call forth” your own story to the front of the room … and still manifest enough to cover your bills?

  6. jenwriter1

    Awesome tips- incredibly useful and valid. I can’t wait to eliminate my ‘weasel words’!! Your tips give a simplistic approach to a daunting task. Excited to read your book! Thanks

  7. ghleach

    Trina, thanks for a great article. I’d heard and used some of these points before, but the use of a different font really struck me and will definitely go on my list of things to do. I also love your advice about doing all you can and then going on to the next book . . . something I have trouble doing, and your reminder is timely. I think your concise list of great hints will benefit all of us, and I appreciate your taking time to put it together. Congratulations on your book, which sounds like an enjoyable read.

  8. whynot1956

    I am a first time novelist working through NANOWRIMO to start. I have knowledge of some of your great tips and fighting the perfectionist in me before I move on. Never going to finish this month. Maybe if I could just write and worry about all the little things later I would do better.

  9. Clinton A. Seeber

    You probably just can’t write a spontaneous, naturally and organically evolving story – it is a talent that you either have or you don’t.
    (Note: Commenting on my comments is unnecessary – I don’t need to know your opinion of my opinion. Thanks.)

  10. cherie1960

    I find that it’s extremely helpful to let it rest for a day or so and then come back to it with fresh eyes before starting to work on fixing it. Things that need changing seem to jump out at me after I’ve stopped staring at it for awhile. Your suggestions in this article are extremely helpful!

  11. teuliano

    Your blog comes at the perfect time for me. I’m definitely unable to read it anymore without confusing myself about what’s still in and what’s not. Need to take a break I guess. I’ve had the first 10-20 pages read by a dozen people and keep getting opinions 180 degrees apart. Grrrr. Thanks for the encouragement to keep plugging away.

  12. GCAB

    Trina, congratulations on your debut novel! You give us all hope. Your messy creative process sounds similar to mine, so thank you for sharing how you got through. Maybe it’s the pure Calgary air that causes all the bubbles to come forth with abandon in our brains (my home too), but I also relate to the doing it in between other demands like family! Your suggestions all help – reading aloud is very good. I’m going to try the different fonts idea later tonight.

  13. jezebellydancer

    Thanks so much for a very useful article.

    I’m a certified editor and proofreader. Editing other author’s manuscripts have taught me so much about editing my own work. I have learned so much from others’ mistakes.

    I recently editing an author’s novel. He told me she had already been through it three times. While there were three plot lines in it, none of them had a climax. Everything was resolved by Deus ex Machina. 🙁 I kept waiting for the big payoff and there was none. He also had two chars that were pretty much indistinguishable from each other. It felt like my notes to him were nearly as long at the novel itself. I began to believe that he had not looked at his manuscript once after writing the last word. It would have cost him a lot less money for my services and gotten more for his money, had he gone over his draft and made a second one. Now he has to fix giant problems and isn’t ready to get down to the nitty-gritty of making the prose sing. 🙁

    Even if you are a pantser when you write, when you edit–map out your plot and make sure your scenes flow and forward the plot. Make sure the chars are distinctive, and please, please, please, fix all the spots that just tell and don’t show.

  14. AccioWords

    Great article. First, it reassures me that actual, good writing CAN be done in between diaper changes and mommyhood. Secondly, the revision fixes are perfect for me!!


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