Summer School-How To Write Your Peace Corps Book, Lesson # 8

“You never cut anything out of a book you regret later.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald


Three Types of Manuscripts

We have reached the point when we should look at the three types of manuscripts.

1. The Working Manuscript is rough, like a piece of sculpture that is not quite finished. It closely resembles the final work, but needs work. It has jagged edges and lacks polish.

2. The Self-Edited Manuscript is the result of the work done when the writer moves from the role of writer to the role of editor. You are not only the first reader of your book you are the first editor.

3. The Final Manuscript is smooth and polished and the best that you can do. A final manuscript has all the finished parts, table of contents to bibliography to notes. It is ready to go (in your mind).

In this lesson we are only concerned with:

1. The working manuscript

2. The self-edited manuscript.

The Working Manuscript

A typical working manuscript doesn’t look finished. It consists of piles of pages. Each pile is a chapter, plus perhaps a file folder overflowing with notes and journals and letters home.

Think of the working manuscript as a growing child. It contains the book that you will eventually finish, just as a child contains the adult that he or she will eventually become. Think of yourself as a firm parent to the child of your creative mind, so that you will be proud of the manuscript when you finally send it out into the world.

The Self-Edited Manuscript

The novelist Bernard Malamud (The Natural) said this about the stages of a manuscript: “First drafts are for learning what your [book] is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it . . . Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.”bernard-malamud

Revision is the “growing up” process that a book must go through to achieve its maximum potential. It involves hard work and it may be frustrating at times. Yet a writer who does not revise almost certainly dooms his or her work to an early death. Revision can be the difference between a salable book and one that lies forgotten.

Most writers think that their first-draft manuscripts need only a few minor changes before being sent out. Change a word or two, fix the typos, and editors will beg to publish the book. Not true.

You must be unsentimental enough to face the fact that your working manuscript is not perfect. Then you must be tough enough to revise it without mercy. You must be willing to take out material that you spent months on, if that’s what you decide is needed. You must also have the patience to improve individual paragraphs and sentences. Weakness at this level will translate into weaknesses in the overall book.

Self-editing, however, will be a waste of your time if you are not demanding of yourself. When you see something that isn’t quite right, you must fix it. If you can fix it, start fixing it. If you can’t fix it, kill it.


The first steps in revising are:

  • Begin by reading your entire manuscript (out loud if at all possible); pause only to make notes.
  • Read the manuscript as if you are a reader, not a writer. What I mean by this is that you the author need to step back and look at the material, the story, etc., as objectively as you can, as if it was written by someone you did not know. One way to do this is to leave your material for a while so that when you come back to it, you are coming to it with the objectivity gained by time.
  • Watch for organizational problems of flow, impact, continuity, logical time sequence, suspense building, etc.
  • Think of how you feel when you read a section that is a fine piece of writing. It might be a well-balanced sentence, a great definition, a metaphor. Note those moments.
  • When you finish a chapter, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this chapter? What needs to be cut? What is missing?
  • Remember what Peter Hessler asked himself: what was it he was seeking in his chapter. You don’t have to have all of his elements. But you do have to have YOUR elements.

– Then begin the revising.

The two major tools of revising are:

A. Rewriting (again and again)

B. Reorganizing

Get Me Rewrite!

Bad writers do not rewrite. Good writers rewrite. Superb writers keep rewriting again and again. It is as simple as that.

All of us write too much. The best gift we can give readers is less of what we write. This means, as Faulkner said, “cutting all your darlings.” Keep in mind that you need to be clear about your purpose, then take out the clutter. Your favorite phrases are not the only things that might need to be cut.

  • Kill all clichés and jargon and phrases that weight down sentences (cool as a cucumber, pretty as a picture, etc.). If clichés riddle your prose, your manuscript makes you look like an unprofessional writer.
  • Cast out fad words. (words like networking, coming from, belief systems, etc.)
  • Get rid of gobbledygook. You have to be careful here as the Peace Corps is full of such bureaucratic jargon and/or gobbledygook.
  • Every word should work for you in a sentence. Get rid of phrases that do nothing but weight the sentence down. For example: never say “in spite of the fact that”; never say “exact opposite” say “opposite”; never say “owing to the fact that ” say “because.”
  • Watch out for unconsciously funny phrases: For example: “I had a gut feeling about his lunch plans” or “They’re cutting my throat behind my back.”
  • Get rid of meaningless phrases. (Problems are all too familiar, utilized prior to initiating, do well to bear in mind, etc.)
  • Replace abstract words with concrete words. (knife and fork, not eating utensils; a black 1967 Cadillac, not a vehicle, etc.)

Cutting is a beginning. You will continue to cross out words, but for other reasons. Besides writing clearly, you must write effectively, convincing the reader that you know what you are writing about. You do this by command of your material and by establishing your own style.


With rewriting you focus closely on words and sentences. But with reorganization you step back and look at your work as a whole. You may have discovered organizational problems as you read through your manuscript.

  • Rearrange – perhaps cut some more, perhaps add – do whatever is necessary to remedy the organizational issues you found.

Remember what Sarah Erdman did with her book in terms or “reorganizing” it? You might decide once you finish your book to flip it. Start at the end and move back to the beginning. Or you might break open the book and grab a scene or section from the middle of the book and move it right up front. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is having a “beginning, middle, and end.”

  • Go back to your original outline, even your original notes (journal, letters home) and check to see whether you skipped a major or minor point. Should you tear apart the manuscript and add a missing piece? Or should you leave the manuscript alone?

My guess is that what is missing is not needed. In your writing you have gone beyond your original notes and ideas. A book takes a long time to write. Sometimes the person you are at the beginning is slightly different from the person you are at the end. The outside world may have intruded on your life. We all know about “learning curve.” You will soon learn that you have “gone beyond” the material you first selected. You will also find that you are a better writer after finishing your book.

You should be able to correct all the mistakes in your manuscript by applying the 1) rewriting and 2) reorganizing techniques you already have learned. Remember that as you write you will get better and the more you write, the better you get. It is as simple as that.


Take a short scene (less than 750 words) that you have written, keep a copy of the original scene and then created an edited version of this short scene.

Is your rewrite better? Yes or No! Tell us all what you think. Write a short summary of your impressions of the “success” of the rewritten scene.

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