How to Write a Manuscript: 5 Key Tips

how to write a manuscriptGetting started on any writing project is always the toughest. For years I talked about turning an idea I had from college into a novel so amazing that Oprah would beg to have me on—probably twice! I had notes for the novel in my head and, once in a blue moon, I’d actually sit down to try to write the damn thing. But what did I know about how to write a manuscript? The most I could ever hammer out was about 2,000 words. Considering most first-time novels fall between 80,000-100,000 words, I think it was safe to say that I was more likely to publish a sneeze than this book.

It wasn’t until I got serious about it that I started to make real progress (not on that manuscript, mind you, but on a nonfiction project). I don’t think I would have had any luck writing a manuscript if I hadn’t learned these five tips. I recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing a manuscript or has even toyed with the idea of writing novels. Here they are.

1. Don’t worry about format until you are finished.

Details like this only stand in your way from writing a great story. Worry about cooking the meal first before concerning yourself with presentation. You can wait until much, much later to adjust your manuscript and adhere to formatting guidelines. And, when you are ready, read this piece on how to format a manuscript.

2. Set aside 45-60 minutes a day to write your novel.

Who are we kidding, we all have super busy lives of driving kids to soccer, caring for sick parents, paying bills, posting witty Facebook status updates (after all, we are writers so our updates are the best), and who knows what else. But the dirty truth is if you can’t carve at least 45 minutes out of your day to dedicate to writing, then you aren’t serious about writing a manuscript. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] It’s time to take it seriously. If you need extra help, check out 90 Days to Your Novel —it’s a great resource.

3. Outline your novel.

Some people are able to freewheel it and write from beginning to end with just a general idea. I find that those people are few and far between. By creating an outline, you not only give your novel or nonfiction book structure, you also give yourself a much needed map. It’s much easier to stick with your goal of writing a manuscript when you have a structure in place. If you’re not sure which is the best outline method for you, check out this piece on how to write an outline. Also, here’s additional advice on how to turn your outline into a first draft.

4. Write the beginning sentence and last sentence to each chapter.

Much like a road trip, your goal of each chapter is to get from point A to point B. Write up and plug a first sentence and a last sentence into your Chapter Writing GPS, then watch as it guides you throughout each section of your manuscript. Like any fun trip, the coordinates may change a bit, but by having them you’ll be able to get to where you need to go

5. Have some freaking fun.

No one is forcing you to write. You’re doing it because you love creating, informing and inspiring. You love the twists and turns you create out of thin air. You love the challenge of making interesting characters grow and change. (You also secretly love being able to bump people off without the threat of serious jail time). Remember that—even during the most difficult times (like when facing writer’s block or when you realize a scene isn’t working and you need to rewrite it). Just by reading these tips you’ve shown your hand: Writing is in your blood. Enjoy it.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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24 thoughts on “How to Write a Manuscript: 5 Key Tips

  1. AvatarFootloose

    One of the things I struggle with when writing nonfiction which deals with events that happened to my main character between say, the 1890s and 1930s, but the way these events unfold, means I cannot write this out in chronological order, because things that happened in for instance 1930, need to also refer to incidents that occurred in 1920, which in turn, need to be mentioned when what happened in 1930 eventually had an impact on another event, in the 1940s!

    How does one deal with things like the past, present and future tense which need to be employed in this story, so that the ‘grammar-nazis’ don’t rip what I’ve written to pieces? It should also be pointed out that as often as not these same individuals, don’t bother to explain what I did wrong, or how I go about correcting them!

  2. AvatarMloveriza

    I am a newbie here at Writer’s Digest. I must say that your blog post helped me realize one important thing in writing. No. 5 Tip is nothing but the most essential part in writing – : “No one is forcing you to write. You’re doing it because you love creating, informing and inspiring. You love the twists and turns you create out of thin air. You love the challenge of making interesting characters grow and change… Just by reading these tips you’ve shown your hand: Writing is in your blood. Enjoy it.” ENJOY writing! I am overwhelmed with this and I can say that I am now ready to indeed WRITE. I am not used to writing blogs or doing comments on blog posts but your blog is really SOMETHING.

    Continue to inspire more writers out there to come out in their own closets. Merci Beaucoup! 🙂

  3. Avatarjannertfol

    I would agree with all of this, except the first suggestion. I wrote my first novel without paying any attention to formatting, and it’s a nightmare to go back and change all the things I did wrong.

    I’ve set up my second manuscript template so that I get an automatic indent whenever I press ‘return,’ instead of using the tab key. EVERY SINGLE TAB has to be removed individually in order to submit the MS for either eBook formats or for submission to an agent.

    I also needed to remove every double-space after a period (full stop) because that, too, is a no-no these days.

    Of course choosing fonts and spacing, etc, is something you can do later on. But these two formatting errors cost me a heck of a lot of time getting straight. Might as well get them right the first time, eh?

    1. Avatarjannertfol

      I forgot to mention, it’s a help to pay attention to requirements for chapter and scene breaks as well. I believe it’s a hash mark with a single space above and below for a scene break? Might as well do that right first time, too.

  4. Avatarmnl

    Urrrrrgggggggg! This article is awesome, with great ideas! Number 1 is definitely for me because that is exactly how I came across this site and your article! Instead of doing number 2/Just writing, I came online to find info on “how to write” a manuscript. I have a template that I got from somewhere online. I set it up but still haven’t started! I was inspired with my project In 2008, I started writing in a notebook back then. I stopped and picked it up along the way! I have been struggling with transferring what I wrote, to my computer and still haven’t completed that task! Urrrrrrgggg! I read the comments below the article as well and they are all great too! Hopefully all of what I’ve read brings me closer to completing my first project!

  5. AvatarCristina Marin

    It’s a good article this one also. With my book I had a really funny road to walk on: first I just started to write and didn’t even knew were I was heading – and adding that is my first book I am talking about – well it was an adventure alright. As I had some progress everything seemed to fit into it’s place just perfectly and pretty soon I knew all the steps the novel should take, having no prior education or documentation on how I should write a small novel, much less a big one. I’ve just done a bit of research on how big I should make it(words count) and thought of 50k. That was it. So I just kept on writing more and more. I had some fun also and now as i am heading to the climax parts my skin turns into chicken skin. I love my book and I’m definitely glad that I have what it takes to write, and have no problems with inspiration at this volume. For the future I don’t know how it will be and now i just want to thank you James for this post!
    Great job!

  6. AvatarRobertCordaro

    This is my “outline”
    I’ll have a dream, or an idea, or something very large with lots of legs just run under my feet in the yard.
    Giant intelligent “Spiders” from outerspace!
    Wait, why are they here? To make contact.
    Why are they hiding? A) Humans are stupid. B) Humans are afraid of spiders.
    Why are they talking to me? (I’m always in first person till I tell the story) Because they still want to make contact but don’t know how and another race want to do bad things to us.
    And now I’m on an alien planet trying to save our planet.

  7. Avataradriennedewolfe

    For harried writers — and who among us doesn’t have a bazillion other things to do besides write? — I have been practicing 2 techniques that keep me moving toward my writing goals each day, no matter what:

    1) I set a time to write each day and stick to it. I make sure the rest of my household knows this is MY TIME for writing, so I am not disturbed. I turn off all electronic devices and do not check email. Then I write forward. I do not waste time on editing. (Editing comes later.)
    2) When I’m tempted to avoid the computer, because the Muse isn’t speaking to me, I set a timer for 15 minutes and tell myself, “Anyone can write for 15 minutes!” and practice stream-of-consciousness writing. If I’m still stuck when the timer rings, I set it for another 15 minutes. Within 15-30 minutes, I’m usually so deep into the creative flow, that you couldn’t pry me from the chair with a crow bar!

    Adrienne deWolfe
    How to Write a Novel: Tips & Best Practices

    1. Avatardesawrites

      Me, too! That was the part for me I hadn’t heard before, but I am intrigued and will add this to my bag of tricks. Just remember, like he said, we don’t have to keep these first and last sentences of the chapters the same later on, but they will help steer and guide us, giving us a little mini target – the end of a chapter. Repeat 15 times or so and you have yourself a novel. Baby steps!

  8. AvatarCoyote

    I’m one of those that can just ‘make it up as I go along’. I tried the outline process and found it too restrictive. I guess it really does all boil down to ‘Having Fun’, and I do.

  9. AvatarDragonry

    Heh. The formatting while writing is definitely me. I’ll have to remember to not do that. But that’s great advice to write out the first and last sentence of each chapter.

    1. Brian A. KlemsBrian A. Klems Post author

      I found that my favorite writing prompts were ones where I was given a first line and a last line. I started applying that to my blogs, my chapter works, etc, and found it to be such a major help. Hopefully that tip helps you too, Dragonry.

      Online Editor

  10. AvatarSandraSR


    I’m the same way. I’ve tried outlining twice (with short stories) and it completely killed the stories for me. I’ve discovered that many successful, published writers don’t outline either.

    My daughter & I went to a book signing with Kelley Armstrong and six other successful female fantasy authors. Of the seven authors only three did a conventional outline, and two of those said their’s weren’t highly detailed but stayed rather general. The third did a highly detailed outline. The rest wrote in varying degrees of loose structure, and one said she often has little more than a one or two sentence idea and just starts writing.

    Even the outliners still needed to rewrite and revise.

    Write what works for you, the way your mind works. Don’t worry about fitting into someone else’s box. For a while, I had myself so bound up with this that I couldn’t write at all until I just said, “Hang this!” and went back to writing my way.

    One thing that has helped me is a program called Inspiration 8. It lets you do timelines and thought bubble scatter graphs as well as conventional outlines. The timeline really clicked for me and helped me greatly.

    Good luck & be yourself! 🙂


  11. Avatarshadesdown2001

    I like to think of my work as my children. I create it, give it a name, give it a life and in the end, I send it on its way to become something. My problem is raising Unlike my real children, for some reason I just can’t seem to get their life story down pat.

    I have what a lot of people consider “brain farts” where I will and can most likely get through the first chapter of its life and then it all just disappears. That’s when I get discouraged, put it off to the side and start a new project – (child). I am now down to five projects – all in its beginning stages..

    Since 2007, I have ONLY completed one children’s book, one screenplay, and just recently, one adult novel. Now, if only I could adopt them out!!

    1. Avatardesawrites

      You are falling victim to a classic fatal flaw of us writers – that death of the middle zone, the doldrums of the novel. It is VERY easy (and a lot of fun) to start work on a new project – for most of us anyways. Often, you’ll get an idea for a new project when you are right in that middle part of the first project, but resist to urge to give in to the siren call of this new story. It is a trap! Just jot down those notes and get back to work on the project at hand (that new story idea will still be waiting for you AFTER you’re done with this one).

      The end of a project is also usually easy to write because you are just going around tying up the loose ends of the unraveling plot. Don’t let that middle zone get you! Like another reader below has commented, just try the 15 minutes stream of consciousness style writing, because that right there – the getting started again part – is the hardest part of the middle.

      You can do it. Give us your stories. The world is waiting for them!

  12. AvatarSuzy7664

    Why do I find an outline so stifling to my creative process? I’ve tried, really I have, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I have an ending in mind, and I just head towards it. New characters pop up along the way. How am I supposed to know this beforehand? They just show up when they are good and ready. Sure I can try to put something down on paper, but I can almost guarantee things will not go that way. The plot will change as the characters are fleshed out and begin to drive the story home. That’s just how it works for me.

    1. Avatarulalume

      Yes, Suzy, I utterly agree… and sometimes, as I am writing my story, I find that the events are leading to a different, much better ending, so I totally disregard my original thought and as they say, just go with the flow :))) I don’t need need to emphasize that this would not work with an outline, which is why you stating that it feels “stifling to my creative process” is totally how I feel 🙂

    2. Avatardesawrites

      Suzy, your method is perfectly right – for you! And that is what matters. All of us writers are different, and the words flow to us and onto the page via different, individualized techniques. Just like with everything else – we all have our own way. So don’t force yourself into using an outline if you have that “stream of consciousness” style that works well for you. That is, apparently, the same way Stephen King and some of the most prolific writers do their work, too, so you are in good company (and I am a tad jealous).

      For example, I have sort of a middle of the road method where I do use an outline, but it is absolutely bare bones…a rough and dirty guide. As I write, I peek at it to keep my ship pointed north to the end of my manuscript, but I just let everything else flow to me as it comes with no other sort of planning. No one taught me to write this way, it just came to me naturally over the years and I stick to it because it works for me.

      So as we say here in Texas, Suzy: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


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