Christine’s Tried and True Process for Creating a Poetry or Prose Manuscript

Now that I have had a little time to get past the mad 2021 publishing rush and the holidays, I have started thinking about the exciting projects Indie Blu(e) Publishings has lined up for the new year. Every publishing journey starts with a manuscript and creating the first draft of a poetry/prose collection can feel very daunting. I know I felt completely overwhelmed and ill-prepared when my writing mentor suggested that I was ready to put out my first book. Thankfully, I received some fabulous advice from published poets Nicole Lyons and Rana Kelly about how to assemble a manuscript that I still rely on. Creating a manuscript that gets published is a process. This is a process that may take you a long weekend or it could take months- I suggest that you take as much time with this as you need.

Please keep in mind that every publisher will have their own manuscript formatting guidelines and that these should be followed closely.

1. Print out (or at least locate) everything you have written since you started your writing journey. And I mean everything.  I considered over 400 pieces of poetry, prose, and short fiction for my books. I had no idea that I had written so many pieces and I found more than one piece that I had NO memory of having ever written. Some of these were even pretty good!

2. Read each piece and ask yourself if it still speaks to you. Ask yourself if it is your best writing. Then assign each piece to a ‘yes’ pile (or list), a ‘no’ pile (or list), or a ‘maybe’ pile (or list).

3. Put the ‘no’ pile away for a rainy day and the ‘maybe’ pile somewhere more accessible for later.

4. Read the ‘yes’s again and write down the theme(s) each piece addresses (love, loss, identity, etc.). As you read, separate the pieces into piles by the primary theme. True confessions- when I was working on my own books and when I assemble anthologies, I end up with piles of paper on every conceivable surface. It might not be a process you want to start on the dining room table an hour before dinner!

5. Look carefully at the piles- what story is your writing telling?  Some themed piles will be much taller than others. Consider the shorter piles carefully. Can they be rolled into a larger theme?  Are there pieces in your ‘maybe’ pile that fit this theme?  Is this a theme for a future book?

6. Organize the pieces in each themed pile in a way that makes sense to you.  It could be chronological, it could be an evolution of feeling. Really, this is an intuitive process for me.  Ask yourself how similar the pieces are to each other. I found that I use some imagery more regularly than others. Sometimes even word for word. If I expressed something better in one piece than I did in another very similar piece, I removed the very similar piece and put it in the ‘no’ pile.

6.  Re-review your ‘maybe’ pile. Now that you know what themes have emerged from your writing, you may be able to make more concrete decisions about what doesn’t fit, what is already expressed better somewhere else, and what might help fill out a theme with fewer pieces. You are trying to meet two objectives here- you want to build your manuscript around the best/most compelling pieces you have ever written, but you also want to tell a cohesive story. I have some very good pieces set aside for future books because they just didn’t ‘fit’ the predominant themes when I organized my two poetry collections. Hopefully, they’ll work in the future.

7. Organize the themed piles in an order that makes sense to you and create a manuscript. Don’t worry too much about sections at this point- sometimes it makes sense to divide a book into sections, sometimes it doesn’t.  

8. Format the manuscript so it is as clean and easy to read as you can make it for a prospective publisher and/or agent. I prefer to receive manuscripts in 12 point Arial or Times Roman font with 1.5 or 2 line spacing. I prefer page breaks between pieces, not hard returns. Normal Word margins are fine. I recommend that all pieces be aligned to the left. Note: special formatting is torture during book layout; if you choose to use special formatting on any of your writing, make sure it really adds to the impact of a piece.  Otherwise, you are sending the person responsible for laying out your final manuscript to formatting hell.

9. Most publishers will have their own policy about front and back matter. Read and follow their requirements carefully! Front matter material usually includes the title page, dedication, and Table of Contents. Back matter material commonly includes an About the Author page. The acknowledgments may go in the back or the front matter. Page numbers are important. I highly recommend putting the manuscript’s proposed title and your name in the header section.

10. Give some thought to your document title when you save the file. Writers and editors send manuscript versions back and forth with great regularity. I recommend incorporating the manuscript title, your last name, and the date of the draft in the file name. Version dates (and sometimes even version time!) can become very important right before final publication.

11. Details matter! Go through your draft manuscript one last time before you submit it to a prospective publisher or agent. Does each piece have a title? Were you consistent with your use of capitalization, punctuation, and verb tenses? Were you consistent with your use of italics, single quotation marks, double quotation marks, em dashes, etc? Was the piece previously published elsewhere? Be sure to acknowledge that. Correct any noticeable typos and spelling errors. A clean, consistent manuscript allows the reader to focus on the writing, not the formatting!

12. When I used to work in academia, I received a critical piece of writing advice from a grant reviewer that I always keep in mind: It is important to write- and format- for your most tired reviewer! Make sure everything the publisher/agent requested is there and in the place they asked for it to be. Messy or confusing manuscripts make a bad first impression. Inability or unwillingness to follow directions makes a bad first impression. Take the time to put the focus on the quality of your writing and your respect for the time and experience of the reviewer.

Wishing you all a safe, peaceful, and creative New Year.


Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

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