Nancy Ellen Dodd on How to Write a Manuscript in 7 Stages

In this interview, Nancy Ellen Dodd offers advice how to write a manuscript, explains why writers need to develop an internal compass, and talks about her own process of becoming a writer.

Nancy Ellen Dodd is the author of The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages (Writer’s Digest Books, June 2011), which offers a step-by-step process for developing and revising a fiction manuscript.


"Writers need to listen to and develop their own gut instinct that tells them when something is right or wrong -- to trust themselves."

- Nancy Ellen Dodd on How to Write a Manuscript


A Conversation with Nancy Ellen Dodd

CWN: In The Writer's Compass, you explain how to write a manuscript in seven stages. Could you tell us what the seven stages of this process are and why each one is important?

Nancy Ellen Dodd:

  • Stage 1 - Develop Ideas: although ideas are created throughout the process, sometimes writers have an initial idea but not a story; this stage is a way of building enough ideas to create a story foundation.
  • Stage 2 – Building a Strong Structure: If you know what you are writing about, the direction your story will take, at least initially, and know where the holes are in your story or where it is weak, that will save you much time in the writing process. Everything else hangs on the structure of your story, so it is imperative to know that you have all the essential elements in your story. Once you have the key elements, they can be moved around to make the story more dynamic or tell it any way you like.
  • Stage 3 – Creating Vibrant Characters: The next step is knowing who your characters are and making them come alive to your readers. Sometimes characters take the story in a direction you hadn’t intended; if you’ve polished the language or spent time building the tension or structuring scenes beforehand, you may find it was wasted effort because that isn’t where the characters wanted to go.
  • Stage 4 – Structuring Scenes, Sequences, and Transitions: This can be a bit work-intensive, but it is a way of truly mining your story for hidden gems. Sometimes you discover that what you thought was a scene, doesn’t really have enough oomph to be a scene or isn’t that interesting, or what you thought was just a sequence really would make a great scene and has potential to be interesting and filled with tension. This comes at the end of the development stages of your story, when most of your ideas and the characters are in place.
  • Stage 5 – Increasing Tension and Adjusting Pacing: This stage begins the work to put the finishing touches on your story. Here you go through and see how you can add bits or change the order to add tension or speed up or slow down the pacing.
  • Stage 6 – Enriching language and Dialogue: Of course, polishing your story and strengthening wording is far more efficient when at the end of the process.
  • Stage 7 – Editing the Hard Copy, Submitting: This is pretty obvious in that you do the final editing and proofing for grammar, punctuation, spelling, typos, or catching all the changes; and then you do the work of actually submitting.

CWN: You've talked about the importance for writers of developing an "internal compass." Could you discuss what this means?

Nancy Ellen Dodd: When you are writing, there is this little gut reaction that too often gets sublimated or ignored because we become too dependent on the feedback and critique of others. Writers need to listen to and develop their own gut instinct that tells them when something is right or wrong—to trust themselves. The best way to develop that trust is to learn solid writing skills and to truly understand what you are writing about and why you are writing it. Then when you get feedback that takes you in a different direction than you are writing, or that is based on someone else’s biases, you know it. It also keeps you from cutting “bad” writing that could be the heart of your story, you just haven’t worked it out yet.


"What I came to realize was that my audience didn’t have to be the whole world and that a small audience, knowing that you had impacted people’s lives in a positive way, was just as meaningful to me. That took the pressure off from struggling to be this great, successful writer."

- Nancy Ellen Dodd on How to Write a Manuscript


CWN: Have there been specific times in your own writing life when this internal compass has been especially important to you?

Nancy Ellen Dodd: I used to listen to all the critiques and try to use them. I’d have whiplash from following everyone else’s advice, then I’d give up on a story because it lost the heart of what mattered to me in writing the story. One time I took a short story that I’d changed many times and I put every change from every version in different colors or fonts so that I could see what I’d changed and figure out where I lost the story. When I looked at this hodge-podge with sentences and phrases repeated in different fonts, I could see what I’d added and what I’d lost to other people’s opinions. I edited the story, sometimes going back to my original work and found the heart of it again. Shortly afterward it was published.

It doesn’t really matter if your idea for my story is better than my story, what matters is whether I’m writing the story I want to tell. You are the only one who knows the heart of the story you are trying to tell.

CWN: In addition to providing a roadmap for developing stories, your book offers advice about living "a writer's life." Could you share something about your own writer's life? At what point did you first think of yourself as a writer? Has your idea of yourself as a writer changed over time?

Nancy Ellen Dodd: My friends will laugh at this question. I have given up so many times and proclaimed that I was never going to write again that it became a joke. I have always had lots of kids and a full-time job and devotional and religious obligations and attended universities and struggled to find writing time or inspiration or the discipline to keep going. Discipline is a big issue for most writers, finding that space and time and being consistent is really key.

I published lots of articles, but for me that wasn’t the writing I really wanted to do. Each rejection of my creative writing destroyed me and I’d have to build myself up all over again. On the one hand people would tell me how much my stories meant to them, on the other hand agents and editors would reject me or not bother to respond. Then I would think, okay, why didn’t this work, what did I do wrong, and I’d read more books and take more classes.

What I came to realize was that my audience didn’t have to be the whole world and that a small audience, knowing that you had impacted people’s lives in a positive way, was just as meaningful to me. That took the pressure off from struggling to be this great, successful writer. I also learned that writing was crucial to my life, but some things sometimes were more important. My faith, my kids, and sometimes my job have to come before my writing, so I have to readjust my time and refigure getting my writing in. I have found official writing deadlines are great motivators that trump almost everything else.

I think the moment I truly saw myself as a writer, in spite of everything I’d already published or the productions of my work, was when I created a blog. I suddenly realized I had the freedom to write and publish what I wanted to say, the way I wanted to say it—now I really was a writer.


"It doesn’t really matter if your idea for my story is better than my story, what matters is whether I’m writing the story I want to tell."

- Nancy Ellen Dodd on How to Write a Manuscript



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