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3 Tips for Mapping Your Manuscript

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

Whether you’re the kind of writer who charts your course ahead of time, carries a compass, and checks the map at every turn, or the kind of writer who just sets off down the trail to see where it leads, you need to have an endpoint in mind. The journey there may look different, but the goal is the same: reach your destination.

1. Know where you’re going

What place do you want the reader to reach by the end of your book? A good way to start is by making an outline. Laying out your story up-front takes work, but it will keep you from getting lost. I use a simple spreadsheet with the following headers:

Chapter # | Working Title | Scenes/Plot | Themes | Notes

An outline can be as vague or detailed as you want. You don't need to know everything when you begin, you just need to start down the right path. If you hit your stride in chapter six and experience an epiphany that changes the course of your story or how you structure it, your outline can flex with it. An outline doesn’t hinder your inspiration; it gives you a framework to support your creativity. Putting thought into organizing your book will not only clarify your message, it may stir up some new ideas.

Thinking of pitching your book to a traditional publisher? An outline is also a necessary part of a book proposal, especially if you’re pitching an idea rather than a finished manuscript.

2. Know why you’re going there

What is the purpose of your writing? While plot is a sequence of events, story is the interpretation and effects of those events. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, the underlying themes tie it all together. A book about adoption is going to address themes like abandonment and personal identity. A murder mystery might investigate topics like betrayal and fear. A romance could explore rejection or sacrifice.

A story touches on universal emotions. What is your message?

3. Know who you’re going with

What people join you in the journey? This includes your reader and your characters.

First, know your audience. If you’re writing a YA (young adult) novel, you might choose to write in first person, present tense. If you’re working on a devotional for women, you won’t be using academic, theological terminology. Identifying a specific group of people (veterans ages 50-70; kids ages 4-7; single Christian women) will also help you focus your message and write it with your reader in mind.

For fiction and memoir, know your characters. A good way to maintain continuity is to chart your characters. (Okay, I may be a fan of spreadsheets.) Track characteristics like physical details and their relationships to others. Are they a primary or supporting character? How many characters do you have? How many miles in before you meet them?

Need a guide? TrailBlaze offers content editing services to point you in the right direction. You can learn more here. Happy trails!

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