What To Do When You’ve Made A Mess Of Your MS

Recently, I received some feedback from beta readers after sending them what seemed like the millionth version of my latest WIP.

Already up to draft 9, I was hoping this was the one where I’d ironed out the problems raised in the previous round of feedback.

I had not.

The issues were still there, and I’d made them worse. That’s not fun feedback to get when you were genuinely happy with the draft you’d sent off.

Not only did I feel bad for wasting my beta readers’ time, but I honestly wasn’t sure how to fix the mess I’d made.

My first instinct was to give up. I’d already been having a crappy few months, and this was another disappointment in a long line of disappointments.

I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to go back to the drawing board and carry out yet another rewrite, but I gave myself a day to wallow and emailed about it with a beta who thankfully convinced me that my declaration I was no longer the right writer for my story was not true, and I enacted the following plan…

What To Do When You’ve Made A Mess Of Your MS

Don’t Make Any Rash Decisions

While your first instinct may be to ignore the feedback you’re getting or to delete your MS and go back to a life where the pressure of being creative is not on you—don’t.

Read the feedback a few times. Pull out the good bits, note down the constructive parts, and sit with it.

Give yourself time to process the fact the MS still needs more work. Take a day, a week, a month to put some distance between yourself and how you’re feeling, and when you’re ready, prepare to make changes.

Read, Summarize, And Reverse Outline

Read the feedback again, understand what the issues were and note them down. Then it’s time to read your MS again. While at this point you should know it pretty well, reading it as a reader instead of a writer or editor will help you see the manuscript how your betas did.

As you’re reading, note down a summary at the end of each scene:

  • What Happens.
  • The POV Character.
  • Issues Raised By Betas (If Any).
  • What You Could Do To Improve The Scene (If Applicable).

Once you’ve done this for all of your scenes, take the What Happens part and reverse outline your story.

If you’re never done it before, reverse outlining is where you put together a story outline once the MS is complete and you know what happens from beginning to end (as opposed to a traditional outline where you’re outlining what you plan to write).

This outline will not only help you get a grasp on what your story currently includes, but you can use the outline later to write a synopsis for querying or a blurb for publishing.

Now that you have the ins and outs of your plot and characters on hand, it’s time to make a new friend.

Make The Note Feature Your Friend

Most writing software has a note-taking feature. Word has the Comment function and Scrivener (which is what I use) has an inspector pane you can add to the right-hand side of your screen that gives you a Synopsis panel and a Notes panel.

If you’re using Scrivener, add your summary notes for each scene in the Synopsis part.

As for the Notes panel or the Comment feature in Word, use it to record what changes you want to make to every scene. This can include snatches of ideas, new dialogue, basically anything that you will be fixing, deleting, or creating.

With your notes next to the relevant scene, it’s easy to see what the plan is for fixing your mess, and to get started on it.

Go Back To Basics

Before you get started, however, there are a few other things to do.

The first is to uncomplicate things and go back to basics, both with your story and in your approach.

The reason my MS was such a mess was that it was two and half different story ideas tenuously mushed together and some scenes that were written in a way that made sense for some plot twists that were removed after the first round of beta reading.

With those plot twists gone, the scenes and events didn’t have the same impact and were coming off as confusing. As the person who’d written and read all 8 drafts of this book, I couldn’t see that taking out certain aspects in draft 9 was making the readers who were new to the story completely confused.

Now that I was aware of my mess, it was time to take out those parts, kill off some darlings, and put new ideas in place. Ones that would work with what the current story is, not the version I was clinging to because I’d been working on it since 2016.

As for my/your approach to writing when you have to do big rewrites, I suggest forgetting deadlines, complicated twists that don’t work, and trying to force the plot to be something you once thought it should be.

Get your love for writing back instead. Write like no one else will read it and rediscover why you started the story in the first place.

If you’re like me, you might have forgotten that over the countless rewrites. Being reminded of it will bring back your passion for the story and for writing.

Create A Plan & Mini-Goals

When you’ve accepted that you’ll need to put in more work, and you’re mentally ready to do that, it’s time to create a plan!

With a plan, you’ve got something to work on and to work toward.

Vague plans like “write today” are no good here. Be specific. Plan how you’re going to tackle this draft and the changes you want to make to it.

Use the summary, notes, and outline you made to get the plot in order, plus work out what new scenes are going to be added and where.

If you now need to add 5 new scenes, create your plan for them and set mini-goals for when you want to achieve them. Working on a new scene each day, or two a week, are some brilliant suggestions. Break your plan into mini-goals to keep them from being overwhelming.

Now you can sit at your desk, look at your MS notes, and work on exactly what you need to for that writing session.

Just Start

After all the acceptance, preparation, and planning, the last step for cleaning up your messy manuscript is to just start.

You know what to do, so just do it.

Get on with the edits. Let them take the time they will take. Don’t try to get every sentence right the first go. Burn from your memory the plot you thought you had and free write and see where it takes you.

I found doing all of this changed my attitude, to not only this story, but also to writing.

Allowing myself to approach it differently and to clean up the mess I’d made really helped. If you’re in the same situation, I hope it does the same for you too.

— K.M. Allan

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43 thoughts on “What To Do When You’ve Made A Mess Of Your MS

  1. Maricel Sothers

    Thank you for this post. I’ve run across these issues before and it helps to have a concrete plan for dealing with it it in the future. I’ll be saving this post as an important reference for the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome 😊. Thanks for reading. Yes, I very quickly discovered a plan was the best way to work out what I’d done wrong and how to fix it. I hope this post helps you with your MS planning.

      Like

  2. Lindsey Russell

    I’m a pantser – however while I only have an idea of where the story is going (other than the end) I need to know where it’s been so I do a ‘reverse outline’ as I write the FIRST draft – that way I can see at a glance what has gone before.. I’m no writing expert but I think you would have saved yourself a lot of time and frustration if you had done your ‘reverse outline’ before the 9th edit – just my opinion. Best wishes in getting it sorted 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lindsey! I’m a panster and I reverse outline after I have the first draft complete too. I then do it on any other drafts where I’ve been working on the MS for a long time and I need to remind myself of the overall story. I already had a few outlines of this particular WIP as I worked over the 8 drafts. It wasn’t not knowing the story or needing an outline that was the problem for the 9th draft, it was that the overall story wasn’t working for readers. That’s why it’s so great to get beta feedback. As the writer, I couldn’t see what wasn’t working, and now that I can, I’m fixing things.

      Like

      1. Lindsey Russell

        Apologies but it came across as you didn’t do the outline until draft 9. But that’s out problem isn’t it – as you pointed out in the article – we read in what we intended and even what we’ve written then cut 😦 And we are all great in spotting mistakes in others work but not our own.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, okay. No, I definitely outlined this MS before, I just thought the outline was fine and the story worked. It did for me, just not anyone else 🤣. Yes! It’s so true that we can see mistakes in other works but never our own.

        Like

  3. Avoiding rash decisions is something I can identify with, though it’s often difficult to do when your ego is bruised! I use those same steps when faced with negative reviews – they can teach you a lot if you remain calm and teachable. I use Word but never realized it had a “comment” feature! I’m glad you mentioned it and will check it out. “Get your love for writing back instead…” Now, those are powerful words and so true! The encouraging part of all this is that your hard work will improve the story, resulting in a better book and pleased readers. A good plan, Kate – thanks for sharing what you have learned.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Alexander! I hope this hard work will improve the story. The comment feature in Word is great for adding feedback when you’re beta reading for others or they are beta reading for you. If I used Word to write, I would also use to leave myself notes. I didn’t think to apply this plan for reviews, but you’re right, it would work really well.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. The Note feature on Scrivener really beats Docs’ Comments feature, hands down. The latter is great when collaborating with editors and such, but nothing’s better than having everything you need in one glance. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting advice. I do wonder if sometimes too many major feedbacks could be what makes a mess of a manuscript? With my manuscripts, the feedbacks come in big, small, smaller, and so on until it’s (mostly) done. I think constant, major feedbacks that also constantly changes huge chunks of a story may be what leads to a manuscript relatively falling apart. While a story needs to be polished to be at its best, if the main core is changed, I fear the writer will find doubtlessly themselves flailing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good take on it. I can see how lots of different feedback can make things confusing, especially for a writer trying to work out what to do. I was lucky, in a way, that with this particular MS, the betas who read it all pointed out the same main issues. That made it easy for me to know what to change. It was knowing what to change it to that brought me unstuck. I didn’t know until I started working through the steps in this plan, and now I think I have good new story options to choose from. It’s now just a matter of pulling them off successfully.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Grant

    Your post is an encouragement for all of us stuck in that write, rewrite cycle. With Scrivener, I embed the 18 story beats in the binder with detailed notes. This makes it easy to reference plotting structure as I go all pantser.

    The other trick I now use (after overwriting and losing text preferred by beta readers) is to create two separate copies of the content in the binder. I have a staging area called Draft for the original, and another labeled Manuscript containing what I hope are the final edits.

    Whenever feedback nixes those final edits, it’s easy for me to restore the text preferred by beta readers. Snapshot does a similar function, but I prefer to keep the two separate copies so I can read side-by-side text in adjacent windows. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 😊. I love how you use Scrivener! I have a folder named “Cut” where I remove the parts that aren’t working but keep them incase I need them later. I like the system you’ve set up, though. It sounds more thought-out. Thanks for sharing your process.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I faced a tough point recently, too. The feedback I received wasn’t bad – the story itself is in a decent place – but it doesn’t come together well. The individual subplots feel far too… individual. The suggestion was to rearrange some of the events to the subplots overlap more which, for a 180k manuscript, is a daunting task. What helped me was to take a break for 3-4 weeks. Go for a couple of walk through the misty autumn woods, read a couple of books, and then come back with fresh eyes. And when I did, I was in a better state of mind to face the reality – and confront it. So maybe that’s an idea – take a break and come back fresh.
    Good luck with your story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tomas! I had the same problem. It’s a good overall story, but feels like separate plots. Rearranging and adding new scenes is the plan I’m going with now, and thankfully my betas are awesome and happy to take a look at things again when I’ve changed them to see if I finally fixed the issues. I love your advice and I’m so glad it helped you. I totally agree that taking a break helps. I wish I could walk through misty autumn woods like you, that would so inspiring! Best of luck with your edits 😊. I’m sure you’ll get there!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It must have been excruciating to find your baby was a humongous mess. My current rewrite is a manuscript from 2014, so I, pretty much, know how you feel. With that stated, however, I’m only on my 2nd rewrite, and it hasn’t been read by betas yet. I think you’re wise not to have a deadline. That way, you will allow yourself the time to make sure you’re writing what you want people to read.

    I’ve taken many notes from this post, plus notes from the links in this post as well. You know the craft, and I know I can learn from you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Glynis 😊. I was more frustrated by the fact I’d been given the feedback with the first round of betas, thought I’d fixed the issues, but then the second round of different betas pointed out the same problems. Yes, getting rid of any deadline has helped me get in a much better headspace to tackle things. So glad to hear this post and others are helping you. That’s why I write them 😊. Wishing you the best of luck with your 2014 rewrite. The best thing about working on old manuscripts is that you can usually see how much better current you is at writing. It’s also really easy to see all the typos too. I always find them when reading old stuff 😅.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Antoinette Truglio Martin

    All good advice. I have to walk away for awhile (weeks into a month) while scenes and dialog replay in my head. It’s not efficient but I have always been that laborious writer. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. vishalbheeroo

    I just took note on the TIPs, including POV and reverse outline, right now and what amazing ideas to flesh out editing and MS. I have two half abandoned drafts scattered and am going to bookmark it the moment, I go back to them all:) Thanks loads for this and certainly the best thing read in the morning to kickstart my writing:)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Writing: back to the drawing board? | Tomas - the wandering dreamer

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