Organizing Your Writing: A Ten-Step Manuscript Makeover

by Kathy Carter

Everyone likes to be  organized, but the process of getting organized can be overwhelming. That’s just as true when you’re trying to organize your thoughts in a report or article as it is when you’re dealing with piles of clutter in your home. Fortunately, the techniques you see on those home makeover shows—the ones where professional organizers help harried homeowners conquer clutter in a family room or home office—can also help you create a well-organized piece of writing.

First, realize that it’s normal for your first draft to be disorganized. If you think good writing always starts with a detailed roman-numeral outline, think again. Many professional writers begin by freewriting—jotting down everything that comes to mind, without stopping to evaluate or edit. The result often resembles the “before” picture in a home makeover show: a dumping ground for everything from skis to scrapbook supplies.

But fear not—you can create order out of chaos. Just tackle the job step by step, the way the professional organizers on TV do. Follow their example and try this ten-step plan for organizing your manuscript.

1. Identify the purpose.
On home makeover shows, one of the first questions homeowners are asked is “What’s your vision for this space?” In other words, who’s going to use it—parents, kids, friends? What will they do there—relax and read, run a home-based business, play games?

In the same way, your manuscript makeover starts with identifying the audience and purpose of whatever you’re writing. Having a clear idea of “who” and “why” will guide all your later decisions about what stays and what goes.

2. Sort like items together.
Standing in the middle of a family room blanketed with clutter, the professional organizer takes stock of what general types of items are in the room. Then he or she clears some space, tapes big construction-paper labels to the wall or floor, and says “Let’s put all the books here, DVDs here, and toys in that corner.”

Do the same with your manuscript. Skim through your draft, noting general topics or categories of information. Open a new word processing document—your clear work space—and type in a bold heading for each topic. Then start moving individual paragraphs, sentences, and phrases under the right headings. Break them apart if you have to. Don’t worry yet about fitting all these disconnected thoughts back together; just throw each one in the right pile.

3. Get rid of what you don’t need.
As homeowners sort their clutter, they often decide that much of it can be tossed or donated. Once you’ve got your draft sorted, take another look at what you’ve put in each topic category. If you’ve got three phrases or sentences that say pretty much the same thing, combine them or choose the best one. Also let go of anything that doesn’t serve your audience and contribute to your purpose.

But don’t be too quick to hit the delete key. Just as they do on the TV shows, make a “Donate” pile—not for charity, but for anything you might be able to use in a future writing project.

4. Identify what to add.
As you read through your sorted draft, you’ll probably notice that some topics need to be fleshed out. You may also think of topics that are missing. Like a homeowner who needs a new piece of furniture for a specific function, you may need to do some additional freewriting or research to accomplish your purpose.

5. Make an organizational plan.
Once the room has been completely cleared of clutter, it’s time for the home organizer to reveal the new plan for the space. In the writing process, now is the time to start outlining—visualizing the flow of the finished piece.

What’s the best order in which to arrange your topics? Sometimes there’s one obvious choice (historical background, current situation, future directions). Usually there isn’t. Try listing the topics in different sequences until you hit on one that seems logical. Don’t get hung up on creating the best of all possible outlines; just come up with one that will work.

6. Put everything in its place.
Now comes the fun part: putting all the pieces back together to create a room—or a piece of writing—that’s orderly, functional, and pleasing to the eye (or ear).

To reorganize your writing, you might want to keep working in your “sorting” document so you can drag and drop chunks of text. Some people find it easier to cut and paste into a fresh blank document, like filling an empty room.

7. Do the heavy lifting first.
When bringing items back into the room, professional organizers don’t begin with the beer can collection. They arrange the large pieces of furniture first, then work their way down to smaller items.

When you’re reorganizing your manuscript, first grab whole sections (your main topics) and put them in the order you planned. Then go back to each section, one at a time, and arrange the ideas within it in a logical sequence.

8. Choose the right containers.
The professionals on TV have a knack for finding shelving units, bins, and baskets that are exactly the right size to hold specific items without wasting space. Think of sections, paragraphs, and sentences as containers for the ideas you want to communicate.

As you combine related ideas into sentences and paragraphs, check the size of your containers. Major themes need big containers; minor points fit just fine in small ones. Ask yourself: Does this idea really need three paragraphs, or could it be clearly expressed in a sentence?

9. Use labels.
A label on a basket or bin makes it easy for homeowners to put things away and find them later. In an article, labels help you organize your main ideas; later they’ll help your readers find them.

Headings and subheadings are the most obvious kind of label. While you’re revising, use them liberally to help you keep track of what goes where. Later, when you polish the piece, you can decide which headings to leave in place for your readers.

A topic sentence is another kind of label. Use one in each paragraph to clearly identify its main idea.

10. Add the finishing touches.
In a room, the finishing touches are the decorative elements—plants, pillows, pictures—that personalize the space and add beauty. In your manuscript, add the finishing touches by smoothing, tightening, and polishing your prose.

Transitions, sentence structure, and word choice are more than just decorative elements. They turn a potentially dull, dry piece into one that’s not only clear, but a pleasure to read.

When You Need Help

The ten steps described above can make any organizing job easier. But whether you’re making over your home or your manuscript, there’s an alternative to the do-it-yourself approach.

Why is a professional organizer able to achieve such great results—and why didn’t the homeowners ever manage to do it on their own? Because a professional brings two valuable qualities to the project: the objectivity to diagnose problems and the expertise to suggest efficient solutions.

When it comes to manuscripts, professional editors have the objectivity and expertise to help you express your ideas clearly and elegantly. And you won’t have to alphabetize your CD collection in the process!

Copyright 2007 by Kathy Carter. All rights reserved.
This article may not be reprinted without the permission of the author.
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