The Five Stages of Writing a Manuscript

Let’s face it, no one writes perfect first drafts. It may seem frustrating to devote so much time to perfecting something and working in stages, but anything worth publishing is worth the time and effort it takes to do it right. Considering how much ugly text is out there in the universe, crafting good prose should be the goal of every aspiring author.

Working in stages helps break down the task of writing into manageable chunks so that it doesn’t seem overwhelming. The staged approach also defuses the tendency toward perfectionism that can keep you from even getting started.

I break down the writing process into five stages: Brainstorming, Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Proofreading. A brief summary of each stage follows. Upcoming posts will be dedicated to describing each of these stages in depth.

1. Brainstorming
Brainstorming takes place early on, from the moment an idea comes to mind or a writer sets out to write, and can involve mind maps, sketches, lists, outlines, and mockups—whatever works—as well as actual prose. At this stage, anything goes. Don’t restrain yourself. Tap into your thoughts, memory, and imagination.

2. Drafting
During the drafting stage, you will further develop your ideas and put them into words. Keep in mind that writing is not just a matter of generating text but also of refining ideas. By the end of this stage, the idea you started with may look entirely different, the writing will likely be stronger, and the text body will be structured into parts and chapters. You should also decide whether to include an introduction and a conclusion. At this stage, you may also want to enlist the help of a developmental editor to help you shape your book. A developmental editor will read through the text with the big picture in mind, suggesting places that need more work as well as ways to restructure the parts to create a more coherent whole. It may take several drafts before your text is ready to move on to the next stage, revising.

3. Revising
Once you have developed your book into a recognizable whole and have the basic structure in place, you should begin revising—after taking a short break from it, at least a day or two to refresh you mind before you get back to work.

Every writer approaches revising differently. You may want to revise part by part, but I recommend reading the text through in its entirety at least once before beginning to revise, noting any restructuring you need to do as you go. At this stage, your goal is to improve the flow of your prose and strengthening the connections between ideas as you move from paragraph to paragraph. Catch grammatical errors and typos if you see them, but at this point try to focus on the big picture: the structure of your book, the relationship between parts, and the logical connections linking paragraph to paragraph.

4. Editing
Once you have fully developed the body of the manuscript, the next step is line editing. Editing is a very general term; in publishing terms, there are actually a number of different kinds of editing, roughly correlating to various stages in the writing process. The editing that takes place in stage four is line-by-line editing to improve flow at the sentence level. This is a good point at which to bring in a copyeditor to help you improve clarity and concision in your prose and to catch grammatical errors. Even if you were an A+ English student, a copyeditor will establish consistency, find problems you’ve missed, and suggest areas that need development.

5. Proofreading
Proofreading is not editing. Editing takes place before the final formatting of the text. Proofreading is the quality control that occurs after the book has gone through the production process. You should proofread your book once all parts are complete, in place, and fully formatted, and you should enlist the assistance of others to proofread it as well. One set of eyes is never enough.

© Copyright Heather Dubnick 2013

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