How to Conquer Post-Manuscript Depression

Not all writing is carefree, unabridged creativity. Some of it is hard. Some of it is REALLY hard. When I was writing Tiny Instruments, I certainly had days where I didn’t want to write - but even so, barring the occasional emergency, I managed to write 800-1200 words every day. I had a lot of pressure on me back then to prove myself as a writer, so I never took any breaks… at least until my first draft was completed.

When I edited my novel, it was a different story. I spent whole days staring at my bookshelf, organizing my desktop icons and making damn sure I saw every single Facebook post in my newsfeed. People rarely mention that working with a first draft is an indescribably painful experience. After spending months planning, writing and dreaming about my project every day and night, it was only when I read my first draft that I realized it was less than perfect.

Yes, getting to the first draft is easily the lion’s share of the work involved in writing a novel, but unfortunately, too many people never move past that - a lot more than you might think. I've known a many writers who managed to write three or four books, and never mustered up the strength to polish any of them. I've even edited books for people that were so wiped out by the idea of change that, after paying thousands of dollars, left their heavily marked-up manuscripts in a drawer for years before they felt comfortable enough to review the changes.

Post-manuscript depression is a real thing, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a myriad of things you can do to make that time a little easier. Below, is a short list of things that you should consider doing as you work on turning your first draft into a final draft.

Take a Two-Week Vacation

I took ZERO time off before I began editing. The day after I typed the final words of my book, I was going through a freshly printed manuscript with a fine-tooth comb. I was in a hurry to get my novel into the hands of my readers - but looking back, I probably would have finished a lot quicker if I had taken a two-week vacation. Unless you’re in danger of losing a multi-million dollar contract, why not take a little time off and reward yourself for your hard work? Going over what you’ve written is going to be stressful already; it’s best to allow yourself a deep breath before you take the plunge.

Do Things in the Easiest Order

The easiest order varies depending on the project, but I recommend, in general, that you make four passes through your manuscript. For the first, you change the minor things - the grammar or the clunky lines of dialogue - while taking careful notes of the major things that are too painful to deal with on the first pass. On the second pass, you go back and deal with the painful things at a slower rate, taking a fair amount of breaks in-between notes. For the third, you’ll want to work with a draft that has been carefully edited by your first readers, ideally non-professionals: your friends and family. The fourth draft should be completed by your editor, and should be by far the easiest of the four; any decent editor will give you two copies of your edited document: a copy with the changes shown as suggestions, and a finalized copy. Your job here is to read through the “suggestion copy”, and look for instances where you DO NOT agree with the editor. Once you’ve found them, you change them in the finalized copy, and send it off for print. Done.

Note: This is an odd section for me because it’s something I don’t actually do. Glutton for punishment that I am, I always go chronologically, and I often edit my own manuscripts without going through a third party. I give this piece of advice based on what I know I should be doing, not on what I actually do.

Create a Document of Important Changes

Okay, nobody is going to shed any tears when they turn a “your” into a “you’re” - but there are always changes that writers are downright terrified to make. What if you’ve realized that there’s no room for your character to have two brothers, and you decide to combine the characters into one “super brother” that takes on the actions and dialogue of both… Well, put bluntly, that’s going to suck. Inevitably, you’ll have to cut lines and scenes that don’t make any sense anymore. A big mistake that people make when dealing with these kinds of changes is to keep only two documents - the first draft, and the edited draft. They believe that they will have more than enough strength to go over everything side-by-side and decide which version is better… but hardly anyone can actually bring themselves to do that. I recommend creating a third document in which you paste both versions of significantly altered scenes - especially if you’re not sure about the changes made. In doing this, you’ll not only save yourself a lot of heartache - you’ll make it easier to make necessary changes without feeling bound to any version in particular.


The ability to let go is one of the most important traits a writer can possess. Often credited to William Faulkner or Anton Chekov, the advice “Kill Your Darlings”, goes a long way toward summing up the kind of fortitude it takes to make the changes necessary. It’s hard, but to be a great writer, you have to put your work above your feelings. Do what you need to do, but make it easier for yourself. Use a gun, not a rock.


Why You Need An Editor

As an editor, I’ve heard a lot of reasons why people don’t need editing. Some even sound totally plausible. Typically, my automatic response is, “Send in a thousand words for editing, and we’ll see.” I’ve signed a lot of clients that way. There are, however, underlying issues at work that make authors hesitant to send in their project - chiefly, either a belief that their work doesn’t need editing, or a fear that their manuscript will be stolen. I'll say this unequivocally: any reasons that exist to bypass editing are faulty. An author needs an editor. Below is a common list of common justifications for not hiring an editor, and my responses to them.


I Self-Edit

One of my early blog posts was about How To Self-Edit. Contrary to popular belief, editors LOVE it when you self-edit. It allows the editor to move past obvious errors and move onto the more important aspects of editing a manuscript, but it is not a reason to deny yourself professional help.

Self-Editing Is Painful

It’s one thing to go over your manuscript looking for glaring errors, but doing a serious edit on your own manuscript is an incredibly painful experience. I know. I did it on my first novel. Somehow, I managed to write every day for six months - but when it came time to edit it, I fell into a bout of depression. It was the most painful experience I ever had writing. Save yourself the agony.

It's Hard To See Your Work For What It Is

Have you ever carefully scoured a school paper looking for errors, only to discover later that you omitted or misspelled obvious words? If you’re like most people, you probably have. When we read our own writing, we often read them the way we meant to write them, NOT the way we wrote them.

I'm Afraid Of Sharing My Work With Someone Else

If you have no aspirations in the realm of book sales, this is a perfectly valid excuse - but if you want to become a bestselling author, this excuse is just silly. The people who buy your book will read it, so why not have it as error-free as possible before they do?

I Could Have My Work Stolen

I know of an author who had a screenplay stolen. She wound up submitting it to dozens of producers, agents and directors, and one of them took the script, re-wrote it, and turned it into a movie. Later, the author wound up recognizing her script at her local movie theatre. She sued the studio, provided proof that they had access to her copyrighted script, and showed that there were too many similarities to allow for simple coincidence. She won, and wound up forcing the studio to pay her royalties, got a highly coveted writing credit and, in the vast publicity from the court case, wound up gathering enough of a following to get several more of her screenplays turned into movies… I’m not saying this is how it ends up for everyone - but there are two morals to this story. Firstly, having a screenplay stolen isn’t always the death blow writers often believe it is. Secondly, the fear of having your work stolen is a perfectly rational fear - but it is far more likely, if your manuscript is poorly edited, that nothing will ever happen to it in the first place.

I Feel Like I'm Giving Up Control

Maybe you are. That really depends on the editor. Whenever possible, try to find an editor who doesn’t ask for any kind of credit whatsoever. Also be sure to find someone who doesn’t make changes directly to your manuscript (this can feel very intrusive, and it makes it hard to see the original way it was written). Having an editor that places their changes in red allows you to easily choose which suggestions you want to follow, and which ones you don’t.

Most importantly, look for an editor who keeps their line of communication open. Too many of the editing services I see online are a one shot deal: you send in your work, and you get it back edited. In my opinion, the field of editing is far too personal for that kind of cold capitalistic approach. A good editor will always be happy to talk with you about the reasoning behind any change they make. Whoever you choose, and whatever their methods, always remember that you have the final say. Ultimately, you are not obligated to change a single word of your manuscript.


Writing Challenge

Send the first 1000 words of your novel in for editing. If I don’t find anything wrong, I will personally transfer you $100. I am one hundred percent serious.

Common Dialogue Mistakes

There are a lot of common dialogue mistakes that are easy to make if you’re not specifically trying to avoid them. The following are the vast majority of them.


Too Much Repetition

“Where did you put that suitcase?”

“What suitcase?”

“The one you had with you earlier.”

“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that suitcase again.”


Repetition can sometimes be a problem in description, but it’s all the more noticeable in dialogue.


Overly Formal Speech

“Where were you last night, John?”

“My phone died. Anyway, I’d love to tell you, but I don’t think you would believe it!”

“I’m sure I would. Please tell me. I want to know.”

“Okay then. I went to see Susan last night.”

“Why? You know nothing good will ever come of seeing her.”


If you take note of the above dialogue, you can probably guess the context fairly well. These are young people, friends, both men, possibly college students… but all of this information is in WHAT is being said, and not HOW it is being said. The dialogue feels false. When people write novels without picturing how their characters would actually speak, we are often left with extremely formal dialogue that serves only to progress the plot. Let’s see how two college students might actually talk.


“Jesus, where’d you go last night? I tried calling you like ten times!”

“Sorry. My phone died.”

“You look like shit.”

“I feel like shit… I saw Susan.”

“Oh… Well I guess that explains that.”


Characters That Repeat Catchphrases

When it comes to dialogue, you should have a pretty broad definition of what a “catchphrase” actually is. It doesn’t always have to be a common expression. Anything that shows a character’s way of thinking can be a catch phrase, and sometimes, they can be extremely small.

If on page 12, John says, “It’s not a big deal,” nobody else can say that for the rest of the book! If he says, “It’s like I told you before,” when explaining something, nobody else should be allowed to say that either. If it’s too much work making sure that catchphrases don’t overlap, you could always try not having them! Seriously. Nobody will miss them anyway!

While it’s true that almost everybody at some point in their lives uses these expressions, that’s not an excuse for your characters to use them. Remember, characters are not people. This brings us to our next point.


Mimicking Real Conversations

In writing classes, you are taught to go out and listen to people talk – to record their conversations on busses and in coffee houses, to transcribe and to study them… While it’s useful to know how people sound in real conversations, it’s important that you don’t mimic them too closely. Here is something that could very well be an actual conversation.


“Hey. How are you feeling?”

“Better. I still have a bit of a cough but my lungs feel clearer now – and I actually slept a bit last night, so that’s good.”

“Yeah, that’s great… Did you see that game last night?”

“No, I didn’t catch it. Was it good?”

“It was pretty solid. I mean X can’t throw worth anything, but the rest of the team carried him.”

“What was the score?”

“24 to 21, XYZ TEAM.”

Et cetera… et cetera…

This conversation could go on for twenty pages before anybody actually said anything worth hearing. You simply don’t have that kind of time. Certain mannerisms can be mimicked, but the flow of the conversation, and the importance of each individual line of dialogue has to be intensified in order for a story to work – and don’t listen to anybody who tells you differently!


Allowing Characters To Tell Us Their Emotions

The most common way that authors try to get out emotion in dialogue is by having a character comment on another character’s emotion: “Why do you look so sad?”/”Don’t raise your voice at me. I had nothing to do with it!” This kind of pandering to the reader (the audience) isn’t needed. If your dialogue contains enough emotion, it will come out. If a character says, “If you take one step out of that door we’re finished!”, it can be assumed that the character is angry. You don’t even need “she yelled” at the end of it to make it work (and in fact, it might be better without it.)

There are exceptions. Sometimes characters have a heart-to-heart, and they might be able to say their emotions to each other in a powerful way that moves your readers. Even here, I would recommend never using this for singular emotions. “I just feel angry at everyone,” should be avoided because, if you’ve done your job, we should already see this when John goes to the supermarket or Marie goes to work. It should read more like, “All my life I’ve gone around trying to feel as little as possible, but when I’m with you I don’t care about caution anymore. We’re meant to be together. I know you feel it too.”


Writing “Said” Or “Replied” Too Much

When a conversation begins, it is helpful to know who said it. Also, if the conversation contains more than two people, sometimes, for the sake of clarity, you might find yourself writing “he said”, “she said” or “John said” quite a few times. That’s okay. It’s better to be clear than to remove an extra one or two of these pointers (also known as dialogue tags or dialogue attributions). What is not considered okay by the publishing world, is having full conversations filled with unnecessary pointers.


Speak softly,” he said. “They might hear you.”

“Who?” John asked.

“Who do you think? The Briarlings!” He paused to scratch at his throat before continuing: “They lurk wherever things worth hearing are being whispered.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to speak louder then?” John asked, confused but still whispering.

“If you speak too loudly, even worse things may hear,” he said.


The above dialogue is delightfully confusing and humorous… It is also fairly clunky. If you’re honest with yourself, there is only one place that really needs a pointer at all. If, however, you think the strange man scratching at his throat is worth including, then do it as an add-on to the traditional “he said”.

 “Speak softly,” he said. “They might hear you.”


“Who do you think? The Briarlings! They lurk wherever things worth hearing are being whispered.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to speak louder then?”

The strange man stared at John as if he were a fool.

“If you speak too loudly, even worse things may hear.”


Flippant Dialect Use

If one of your characters speaks with a Cockney accent, keep in mind that you don’t have to write down every single word variation. That can be extremely distracting! This might seem like surprising advice given that certain writers (such as Steinbeck) have made their careers by writing out incredibly accurate dialects in easy to read ways; simply put, however, most modern readers don’t have the patience for dialects. It’s more important that your character uses common Cockney phrases such as “Pop the boot” when asking someone to open the trunk of a car. This is because, having that character say, “Excuse me. Could you open the trunk?” is dishonest. So, as a rule, if he says “’Ello!” write “Hello!”, but if he says “’Ease bleedin’ buggas”, write “These Bleeding Buggers.”

If you are adamant about writing in a dialect, be careful to read a book that contains a character who speaks with your chosen accent. I would also recommend that you either use the dialect in a short story, or with a minor character in a long story. 300+ pages in a code that needs to be deciphered will put off a publisher quicker than you can say, “This is going to cost quite a lot of money to edit.”


Expositional Conversations

“Since the dawn of time, earth’s creatures have lived in relative harmony. That is until mankind came along, expanding like a virus through the land, using its tools in ways no creature had ever before seen.”

“But you said yourself that we’re no different than animals.”

“I did say that, but I was referring to our physiology and our position in the chain of evolution, not to our interconnectedness with nature. You see little Billy, we alone of all creatures consider ourselves outside of the rest of nature… and that, ultimately, will be our downfall.”


In the above dialogue, little Billy isn’t a character. He has no life, no personality, and he fundamentally lacks the thing that makes all characters great: relatability. Never use your characters as a device to get out the information that you want. If you can’t use their unique personalities to say something, it doesn’t belong in your story.



Never Say Goodbye

This is something I learned from writing screenplays. Characters in movies NEVER begin conversations with “Hello.”/”Hey, how’s it going?”/”Good. How about with you?” In Hollywood, when a character answers the phone, they immediately begin speaking – and it’s always important! Conversations begin and end with, “We have the money.”/”Good. Be at the warehouse in ten minutes.” It should be (essentially) the same way in a novel.


Mix It Up

One of the most famous lines of improvisational dialogue in the world comes from none other than Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. When Han Solo is being lowered down to be frozen in carbonite, and Princess Leia says “I love you,” for the first time, Harrison Ford was supposed to respond with “I love you.” Ford didn’t like that. He knew his character was cocky, and would be glad that Leia finally admitted that she loved him, so instead he said “I know.” Millions of viewers around the world consider that line to be one of the most iconic in all of Star Wars.

What can you do to go against expectation in your dialogue?


Writing Prompt

Write an 800-1500 word conversation between two characters in a setting of your choosing. Make the characters polar opposites from one another: a nun and a hooker, an old woman and a young boy, a civil rights activist and a member of the KKK, a supermodel and a balding 400lbs man et cetera… Pay attention to how each character might speak. Do a little research if necessary. Make sure that each character is important in the conversation, and that the conversation is anything but predictable!