Is your draft a mess? Step-by-step guide to fixing it. With Outfits.

“Help! I’ve written this draft of my book and now I can’t get it into shape. I know I need to reorganise this chapter, but my brain keeps turning to wool then it explodes. (My brain and the actual writing. Words everywhere. Sentences poking out the ceiling.) I can’t see the wood for the trees. I don’t even know if there is a wood, anymore. What do I do with all these trees? I’ve been shuffling these sheets of paper and willing clarity to descend and… HELP!”

You can pretty much divide writers into two camps: those who plan and write to the plan; those who churn out a first draft, and then redraft and redraft. Each camp has its strengths and most writers will wander between the two at times, for different pieces of writing. If you churn out a first draft, you will need to rearrange and restructure your writing. Even if you write to plan, sometimes the actual info had a different shape and didn’t like the plan, so you may need to restructure. You’re sitting with all these pages and pages of text… Where do you start?

Below is my approach for a full-scale overhaul, broken down into every separate step, plus all the handy tricks of computery and felt-tip wonderment that smooth out the process. If you feel like your writing has turned into a labyrinth, here’s the methodical way to straighten it all out. (And if you panic at the thought of it or just want someone else to swoop down and magic it all better for you, you can start by getting a critique of everything you’ve written so far.) So, start off by putting on your space suit. We’re going up…

Hubble_Space_Telescope_and_Earth_Limb_-_GPN-2000-001064Phase 1: Assess big sections (eg. chapters)

Mindset: space shuttle. (You’re looking at continents, not streets.)
Purpose: identify topics of main sections (not rearranging them yet)

  • Print out the document with generous margins (don’t shrink it) and sit down with it, some spare paper, and coloured pens. (I do this in the garden in summertime. Work away from your desk. The physical distance will give you metaphorical perspective as well.)
  • Read through it as quickly as you can. Mark key topics as they occur to you and jot down a list on the spare paper. Coloured pens & symbols are brilliant because you can mark stuff as belonging together without having to find a name for it immediately. It also helps your visual memory while you’re juggling things. But don’t fret about being too consistent yet. You’re just doing a reccie.
  • Every time you get caught up in the detail, take a break. Do not bring the space shuttle into the atmosphere.
  • When you’ve gone through it and you have your list / mark-ups of sections, shuffle them together. Which ones belong to each other? Which are clearly separate? Look for similarities and differences. At times they will all seem to collapse together and be part of the same section – they are, and that section is called the “book”. If that happens, start looking at differences again.
  • Finalise a rough list of overall sections. I’d aim for 4-7 as a general rule.

Aeroplane_-_Faro_-_The_Algarve,_Portugal_(1470399788)Phase 2: Identify content for big sections

Mindset: aeroplane (you can now see countries – if you’re Sarah Palin, you can probably see Russia)
Purpose: identify content for main sections

  • Now your coloured pens and symbols come into their own. Choose a colour or symbol for each topic. (I’m highly visual-analytic and prefer colours as well as titles.)
  • Go through the whole document, marking what topic the different chunks belong to. Try to work in large sections, though some trickier areas might be switching topic in each paragraph, or even mid-paragraph.
  • Every time you get caught up in the detail, take a break. Do not crash the aeroplane into the ground.
  • When you’ve gone through all of it, go to the computer and cut-and-paste your content into your main sections. Some practical tips on this:
    • Save a new version first! Do not start deleting on your original document!
    • Change the background colour of the old version, so you can see which is which easily.
    • Use highlighting / font colour to distinguish your different topics, then switch to 25% zoom
    • Save different versions for each topic and delete the stuff that’s not relevant OR cut-and-paste chunks around your document

Sky_News_HD_HelicopterPhase 3: Reorganising each section

Mindset: helicopter (you can see fields and even people but you can also go up higher when you need to)
Purpose: identify topics for sections & rearrange the info

  • Print out the content for that section.
  • Identify core topics exactly like you did for Phase 1, but this time for one section.
  • Chop up the content into the topics exactly like you did for Phase 2, but this time for one section.
  • Every time you get caught up in the detail, take a break. Do not crash the helicoper into the ground. For a start, the blades might chop off someone’s head.
  • Repeat for each section.
  • If the sections are still large, you may want to do this again for each sub-section.
  • Rearrange on the computer.

Us_land_survey_officer (1)Phase 4: Ordering each section

Mindset: land surveyer (you’re walking on the ground but keeping the map in mind)
Purpose: get your info into final order

  • Print each section again.
  • Glance through each section looking for the final order. Good organising principles can be the reader’s work flow, chronological, or simply by putting similar topics next to each other. Also remember the principles of structure: every section and sub-section needs an introduction and conclusion; look if you have those already. (If you don’t, don’t fret – we’ll add them in Phase 5.)
  • Use numbers to mark up the order – I often end up with 1, 2, 3, then 1a) 1b) 1c) plus A, B, D …
  • Every time you get caught up in the detail, take a break. You’re on the ground, but you need to remember the map. You’re holding a lot in your head so allow yourself regular breathers.
  • Repeat for each section / sub section
  • Rearrange on the computer. Some tricks I use are…
    • number paragraphs & use A-Z sort to rearrange them. (Easier than cutting & pasting, plus less confusing)
    • highlight light gray for something you’ve moved from another section where it now is
    • highlight dark gray for something you’ve moved from another section where it used to be
    • use coloured text / highlighting to match stuff up
    • put a border around a group of paragraphs that go together to help you visually (just select and click the border icon)
  • Print out again and give it a final check. (Take a break before you do.)

Akvile_Jancausaite,_a_seamstress,_tailors_a_jacket_to_fit_a_U.S._Paralympics_team_member_during_team_processing_Aug._28,_2012,_at_the_University_of_East_London_campus_before_the_Paralympic_Games_in_London_120828-A-Phase 5: Stitching it back together

Mindset: seamstress (you’re sewing the pieces of the pattern into a whole)
Purpose: final clear text

  • Remember the back-to-basics masterclass on structure: every section and sub-section needs an introduction and a conclusion; every paragraph needs a topic sentence; link sentences help you segue from one topic to the next. (As your order is now clear and good, these segues should be nice and easy.)
  • Work through the document, concentrating on checking for introductions, conclusions, topic sentences, and segues. This isn’t about rewriting the chunks, it’s about linking them back together. When I do this for a client, I usually add this stuff in a different colour so they can check it, and bulletpoint introductions / conclusions if they prefer to write those themselves.

HK_Central_Police_Station_exhibition_hall_visitor_Dec-2010Phase 6: Final check & read-through

Mindset: art gallery visitor (you might notice flaws but you’re mostly admiring and going with it)
Purpose: overview of the finished piece

  • Print out the whole document again and sit down somewhere nice. (I go back to the garden.) Keep a pen next to you.
  • Read through the whole text. Mark up anything that bothers you or jolts the flow, but don’t hold the pen in your hand ready to pounce. (If I’m doing this, I do a final paper-proofread at the same time.)
  • Make any final changes to the computer version.


If you want an angel to magically swoop down and sort it all out for you, or take over any of the phases for you, I can give you a critique of your draft, for sudden and Godlike clarity, and we’ll map out the rest from there. Cue the Hallelujah chorus. (That’s the Handel Hallelujah. If you’re in more of a Leonard Cohen mood, here’s his Hallelujah. Not so chipper and cheery, mind, but, you know, meaningful.)

Here’s the lyrics, if you’d like to sing along:

Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah

Image credits:

Space shuttle: By NASA (Great Images in NASA Description) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Aeroplane: By Glen Bowman from Newcastle, England [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Helicopter: By Peter Clarke (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Land surveyer: By Brien Aho [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Seamstress: By SFC Tyrone C. Marshall Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Art gallery vistor: By Eriadrourm (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Angel: Tim Westcott [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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