How to keep your rewrite organized – Stephanie Morrill

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By Stephanie Morrill

You finished your first draft — hooray! Hopefully you celebrated, because that’s a big milestone for you. Even though you know there’s more work to be done, completing the first draft is still a moment to be savored.

If, like me, you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing so many times you’ve lost count, perhaps you’ve decided to take his advice and get some space from your manuscript. I often pull up my Google calendar, count off his suggested six weeks, and write “Start edits!!!” on that day.

Whether or not you’ve taken time away from the manuscript, eventually you open your completed first draft and now must figure out how to make it read like a book. The process gets messy and can feel overwhelming. Here are a few methods I’ve adopted for keeping my rewrite as organized as possible.

The first thing I do is make a list.

I like to read my manuscript in as few sittings as possible. I read on my Kindle so that I’m not tempted to make any changes — this step is just about surveying the landscape — and I keep a notebook handy. In my notebook, I make lists of issues I notice and want to fix. These are things like a character sounding bland or inconsistent, a plot twist that I didn’t set up well, or my main character knowing something before she should.

Because I write historicals, I typically have a separate list of details I need to spend more time researching.

After I make my list, I organize the items from biggest issues to smallest.

I know it’s tempting to start editing at chapter one and work through chronologically. That seems like it would make the most sense, right? But I’ve found that it works best to take care of my biggest issues first, regardless of what order they come in.

This never fails to leave me feeling like my book is an incoherent mess. Because it is. When I’m in this stage of edits, I find myself worrying much more about dying; what if I don’t have a chance to fix the manuscript, and my husband finds it on my hard drive?

Despite the side effect of irrational fears, I think editing big to small rather than beginning to end is the most efficient way. If I need to cut a character who appears in chapters 10, 13, and 18, it’s easier to just go to those chapters and rework them without that character, than it is to try to fix all of chapter ones issues before fixing all over chapter twos issues, and so forth. That’s too much change for me to try and hold in my head, and I end up doing a so-so job on all of it.

Having the focus of fixing a specific issue at a specific place in the manuscript works much better for me.

If I haven’t yet, I make my Story Workbook.

This is a resource I give away for free on, and yes, it’s a spreadsheet, but I swear there’s no math involved.

The Story Workbook is a tool I’ve developed to capture all the details of my story and see them summarized side-by-side. If I were a more patient person, I would start my workbook before my first draft, or fill it out as I wrote, but I’m not.

I use the workbook to track a variety of things, but the two most helpful are the details of my characters and the timelines. Those sheets look like this:



Maybe a spreadsheet isn’t your thing, but it’s important to find some kind of way to track details like the eye color of your main character’s best friend, and where your bad guy is while your main character is off trying to save the day.

I examine my big changes and consider how to weave them in to my current narrative.

Often in the second draft I’m adding a big plot thread, or adding/removing a character. Because these are the kinds of changes that touch almost every scene of the book, I start my edits with those.

For a massive plot change, I typically turn to color coding. I have a big bulletin board in my office, and in the past I’ve written out my scenes as they currently are on cards, one for each. I pin them up in order. Then I grab a different color of card, and I write the new scenes that I know need to be added. Then I can start pinning them up where I think they might go.

If you prefer to do this on your computer, you can recreate something similar in Scrivener, or you could do it in a spreadsheet with different colored cells.

Laying the story out like this always helps me see how the new material is going to fit with the original story. When I’m in the middle of the edits, and the story feels like a hopeless mess, it’s nice to be able to look at the scenes all laid out and know that I’m working toward a cohesive whole.

Work the list, polish, and rest

After doing all those big changes, I work my way down the list until I’m just tweaking small elements of the story.

Once I’ve finished everything on my list, it’s time for another read-through. The story is disjointed because of my out-of-order additions, and it needs some massaging to read in a cohesive way.

Typically during this draft, I can also focus on drawing out sensory details, fussing with the dialogue, and other fine-tuning issues.

At this point in the process, I typically feel impatient to get the story off my desk and into the hands of critique partners. After I send it to them, my job is to rest from the manuscript. That way by the time they send suggestions to me, I’ll actually feel like making the changes.

Making a mess is part of creating a story, but hopefully these ideas will help you to be efficient and organized so that you have time to create even more stories that you love!

Stephanie Morrill lives in Overland Park, Kansas, with her husband and three kids. She is the author of The Lost Girl of Astor Street, The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series, Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft Into a Published Book, and the Ellie Sweet series. She enjoys encouraging and teaching teen writers on her blog,

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