Manuscript organization

As a story grows and becomes more concise, the working manuscript can become difficult to navigate. I find this especially true the deeper I get into a project. I have a few methods for keeping track of things and getting them where they belong.

Transcribed audio notes. I’m big on recording, whether it’s quick thoughts on a bit of dialogue or flash of inspiration for a scene, to marathon brainstorming sessions for working out plot points or sorting through an obstacle. Early in a project, I’ll type them in a separate document, then copy and paste into the relevant chapter. These notes can include dialogue that needs little to no reworking, and anything from basic to heavily detailed ideas on how a scene needs to play out. I sometimes discuss subtext. The great thing is that I use the notes as writing prompts. Repetition occurs often at this stage, but it gets addressed later.

Highlighting. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those notes aren’t perfect. When I put them in my working manuscript, I need to differentiate them from the well thought out, well written parts. Enter highlighting. I’m partial to ‘classic blue’ from the old days, so that’s my go-to (hint: the hex color code is #CFE7F5). I highlight notes, half-formed paragraphs, or portions that need work. I like the light blue because it’s easy on the eyes, yet still easy to spot when scrolling through page after page of text. When I order early proofs of my incomplete book, I leave those highlighted paragraphs in place. The color isn’t so dark that I can’t read the text on the page, but the light gray boxes are noticeable when riffling through pages.

The shuffle. Remember how I mentioned repetition before? That’s where what I call the shuffle comes in. Since those partial ideas are highlighted, I can scan over them and begin to put similar ideas one after the other by cutting and pasting. I also put things in the logical order they’re meant to occur. After that, I start to eliminate the duplicates, choosing the best written, or combining elements of several. I refer to this step as either winnowing, whittling, or parsing down, removing the highlighting when appropriate. It’s not unusual during these two steps for me to start writing; as things become more cohesive in written form in front of me, I’m prompted to continue the thought.

Highlighters. Not to be confused with highlighting, discussed above. I’m talking the physical highlighter markers. When proofing a hard copy, I’ll use one color to mark the easy items; simple punctuation, a word to cut, etc. If need be, I’ll write a quick correction in pen on a sticky note with a number, which I’ll jot in the margin of the sentence in my proof. If I have something pitiful that’s in need of work, I generally make a bracket around the paragraphs that need surgery.

Flair pens. This is a new bit of fun for me. My most recent proof copy (already obsolete) had a lot of notes that were all over the place in a couple of chapters. It was getting a bit overwhelming. I picked up a couple packages of different colored Flair pens for some precise organizing. I needed to arrange the sequence of events in those sections, but with the notes scattered, I had to easily identify what went where. I sat down with the proof and my pens, combing over the pages. I assigned a specific bracket color and letter to sections that belonged together for one part; for instance ‘A’ in sky blue. The next section was ‘B’ in magenta, followed by ‘C’ paragraphs in green. With that sorted out, I could quickly shuffle the paragraphs on my computer file by referencing the physical book.

It may seem a bit meticulous, but it’s a system that works for me. Over the last two months, I’ve made great headway, inching ever closer to completing the novel.

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