How to Return to your Manuscript
Every writer knows what it’s like to set a manuscript down for an evening and just… not pick it up again.
Usually when this happens, we have every intention of returning to it the next day, but for some reason or another, we don’t.
One day turns into a week. Which turns into a month. Maybe two.
The longer the manuscript’s been set aside, the harder it becomes to pick up again. It turns into this dark, hulking presence lurking at the edge of your consciousness, like something in a horror movie, eating away at that piece of your identity labeled “writer.”
The reasons for not picking it up may change, but there’s always one.
You may not know where to start again, or doubt that your abilities are up to the standard its plot or characters require. You may not know where to find the time to write anymore. You may have even sat down to write just a few minutes ago, and ended up here on Tumblr instead, unable to bring yourself to open the manuscript file.
If you’re reading this post and feel personally attacked…
I have a writing exercise for you.
Set aside ten minutes of your day to look at your manuscript.
- I recommend reading the last scene you completed, but this is your manuscript and your time. You can look at the first page. Or that one scene in the middle that you actually kind of like. Just don’t look at a blank page. Blank pages are scary and this is all about eliminating writing anxiety.
- Personally, I make this the last thing I do in the day, so I go to sleep with my manuscript in my head. Sometimes it helps to let my unconscious mind have a go at sorting through what I’ve read. However, I think it’s helpful to do this before any long period of time when you can let your mind wander. You may find writing more helpful before work/school or during lunch. Before a commute. Whatever works best for you.
But don’t write and don’t look for more than ten minutes.
- You’re not allowed to change a single thing in the document. Not a comma. Not a misspelled word.
- When the ten minutes are up, simply close the document and go on with your day/night.
- There will probably be some things that you do want to change in the manuscript. They may be very simple, sentence-level fixes, but they may be as big as an idea for continuing the scene or the start of the next chapter. Let those thoughts sit with you, instead of all of the manuscript doubt and anxiety that were sitting with you before.
- And yes, keeping your time down to ten minutes is important. You want a focus on a bite-sized portion of the manuscript. If you read too much, you’ll give yourself too much to consider for the next day, you’ll find too much to change, and you’ll run the risk of making your work as anxiety-inducing as ever.
The next day, sit down with your document for another ten minutes.
- Allow yourself to make the changes you didn’t make the first day, or ones you’ve come up with since. This may mean adding a few commas and removing a few ‘that’s. This may mean continuing with the scene. Ten minutes is the perfect amount of time to set down a good paragraph. Try that.
- Again, force yourself to stop after ten minutes, even if you’re on a roll now. The stopping means that you have to keep all of those changes that you’re excited to make inside your head. It means that your thoughts about your manuscript are good and productive. It’ll keep you looking forward to your next writing session. Key advice: at the end of every writing session, always leave an edit in your head. It’ll be that small, tangible thing you can start with in your next session.
Rinse, repeat, and develop a routine.
- Sit down for at least ten minutes every day. Make it a routine. Once the manuscript is open, do whatever feels comfortable to you: whether that means reading a chapter, editing something old, or writing something new.
- If you’re coming up with edits and scenes that simply require more than ten minutes, start amping up your writing time. Write for an hour. Write for two or three.
- Have a super busy day and know you can’t write for an hour? Those ten minutes are still fine. They’re still enough. Never feel like having spent three hours writing yesterday means you have to spend three hours writing today. Never feel like a failure for not spending X hours a day writing. That will only lead to not writing at all.
- What if you get stuck again? Go back to a shorter writing time, go back to reading and not writing. Reduce the pressure you’ve put on yourself and relax your expectations. The most important thing is simply returning to your manuscript every day whether you have something good to set on the page or not.
- Never got un-stuck in the first place? That’s still okay! Keep spending your ten minutes with your manuscript. Write or just read. Keep it in your thoughts. Make it a defined, real, thing instead of that monster lurking in your head. It may take time, but eventually, something will click, and by that point, opening that file and getting started will be a piece of cake.
- If you are able to write for an hour or two each day, you may find it useful to continue setting aside ten minutes each evening to read that day’s work–read but not edit–and keep a few edits in your head for the next day’s session.
By the end of a week, whether you’ve written a hundred new pages or fixed a lot of bad grammar, you’ll at least be in a place where you’re once again thinking about your manuscript in tangible terms, as a thing made up of words and paragraphs instead of anxiety and blank pages.
Maybe in the end, you’ll decide that you simply need to abandon this story and pick up a new one. If this happens, you’ll be in a great place to start, with a writing routine already in place.
More likely than not, just spending time with your story will fan up your love for it again. And once more, your manuscript will be the annoying, stubborn, untameable child you adore instead of a lurking horror.
For more advice on working through writer’s block, check out another post of mine: What to Do When You Can’t Write