Columns > Published on September 26th, 2019

Finish Your Manuscript With Project Management

“I’m going to write a novel” is a project that needs breaking down. Breaking it down separates the dreamers from the do-ers.

I’m going to single out some of the project management processes that I think will help you finish a manuscript. Just know a couple things:

1. This is not a substitute for actual project management training. People study this stuff for years. Think of this like me giving you a few cooking tips. Don’t run off and open a restaurant, but this’ll make your food at home a little better.

2. This is through the lens of me. Filtered through a writer, applied to the specific project of creating a manuscript, and adapted to be useful out of context with the vast system of project management. Don’t get all pissy with me if you feel like my version of these steps is simplistic or off. It’s meant to be useful to writers, not project managers.

Is A Codified System The Enemy Of Creativity?

Some people look at a business-oriented approach like project management as anti-creative. 

Let's talk reality. The idea that you can just write “when the muse strikes” is kinda juvenile. I mean, sure, it works for some people. Chuck Palahniuk is famous for saying he doesn’t sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper unless he feels like writing, or, as he puts it, you don’t sit on the toilet when you don’t have to shit. But the thing is, he’s a unique guy. It seems like the urge to write hits him A LOT. Whether or not this means he takes a lot of shits is uncertain, but you need to ask yourself, if you wrote only when you felt inspired, how often would you write?

Also, think about efficiency. Ask any writer with a full-time job and a side hustle, any writer who has kids. If you codify and structure your creative process a bit, you spend less time remembering where you left off, worrying about peripheral concerns, and you can use what little time you have to get shit done.

Develop Your Charter -or- Mountain

In this case, I want a clear statement about what your project is. “Finish a Manuscript.”

This is your mountain, as Neil Gaiman put it. Gaiman said he thinks about his work as The Mountain. You see this Mountain in the distance, and whenever you have a decision to make, you think about The Mountain and ask yourself, “Does this option take me one step closer to the mountain, a step further away, or is this a lateral move?” If the answer is anything but a step closer, then it's a waste of time.

Write your charter/statement on a notecard, a sheet of paper, or a whiteboard. Live with it a few days. See if it fits. Then, declare it your Mountain.

Define Scope

Becoming famous, being commercially successful, farting FAR less, these are all legit projects, but they’re outside the scope of writing a manuscript.

If the charter outlines what your project is, the scope helps you figure out what your project isn’t.

Draw a circle around your charter statement. This represents your scope. As you move forward and have weird ideas, decide whether they fit inside or outside the circle.

For example, if your charter statement is “Complete a manuscript,” then “Become a famous novelist” doesn’t belong within the circle. Write it outside the circle. It can live there in fantasy world, outside this project.

“Write a book that lives up to expectations of my last book,” is another one that falls outside the scope of “Write a manuscript.” Write this outside the circle, remind yourself what you’re really doing.

Becoming famous, being commercially successful, farting FAR less, these are all legit projects, but they’re outside the scope of writing a manuscript. Eyes on the prize.

Assets and Environment

If your manuscript is your baby, this is where you consider the world you’re bringing this baby into. This is where you ask the tough question: Can this baby thrive in the current environment?

How many hours a day could you potentially devote to the project? What do you have that will help you in terms of hardware, software, STUFF in general? What is your experience/skill level? What is the general level of support within the culture of your organization (your household, your workplace, whatever). Are there laws that might help or hurt the project (can you qualify for a tax break on a home office?)? In the case of writing a book, how many hours are there in a day that are unusable because you’re sleeping, working, whatever?

This is a critical stage. Why? Because you need to look at what you’ve got and honestly decide whether you have what you need. Desire to write a book is great, but it’s not enough. Writing a book is a big deal. Don't start your hike towards the mountain without enough water to last you awhile.

Estimating Activity Durations

“How long should my rough draft take?” isn’t an easy question to answer, but that doesn’t mean you have to make up a bullshit number. Allow me to introduce the 3-Point Estimate or Average MOP, as I like to call it.

Start with your Most Likely. When, based on your historical output, do you think you’ll be done? 12 months? Call this M.

Then, give me an Optimistic. If everything went right, if the stars aligned and you cranked out 1,000 words a day, when would you finish? 9 months? Let’s call that O.

Pessimistic. If things go wrong, if  it took longer than you thought, what would that look like? 24 months? We’ll call this P.

Math time. Take your MOP (Most Likely, Optimistic, and Pessimistic), add them up, and average the total. This looks like (M + O + P) / 3. And no, this isn’t one of those idiotic online quizzes where you argue with people who don’t remember their order of operations. 

Real world example, my Most Likely (M) is 12 months for a completed manuscript. My Optimistic (O) is 9 months. My Pessimistic (P) is 24 months. Add all three together and you get 45 months for my MOP. Divided by 3 is 15 months. 15 months is my Average Mop.

Hang onto this Average MOP, and hang onto its individual components. That way, you can monitor your progress and make better estimates next time. It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than taking a total shot in the dark.

Not Meeting Deadlines? A Couple Techniques

Maybe your self-imposed deadline isn’t being met, or maybe you have a deadline that is imposed by someone else. Either way, you can speed things up.


Throw resources at the problem. If you throw more time at the project, you might make up for being behind. Maybe you’re a slow typist. Can you pay someone to transcribe for you? Throw money at the problem. What resources do you have, and which can you burn to make more time?


This is where you take things that are normally done one after the other and do them at the same time. Fast-tracking always increases a project’s risk. For example, editing chapter 1 while writing chapter 2 is risky because you might waste time making changes to chapter 1 that end up needing to be changed back. But, hey, if you need to get something done, it's an option.

Risk Management

Is it likely, in the course of a year, that you’ll get derailed by a vacation? Yes. Illness? Yes.

Outline what could go wrong. Not EVERYTHING, not stuff like, “A pilot could be flying and smoking a cigarette, and then the cigarette goes in his eye and he crashes through the ceiling of my apartment and my computer blows up and then my manuscript is lost.” Think realistically. Is it likely, in the course of a year, that you’ll get derailed by a vacation? Yes. Illness? Yes. 

Then, think about how you’re going to manage those risks. Think, before you’re in the heat of the moment, what you’re going to do when you lose momentum because you spent three days hugging a toilet. What’s the plan? What’s the plan when and if your computer breaks? Can you manage that risk now by putting away some cash for a replacement? Can you buy a bluetooth keyboard and type into your phone?

Give yourself 3-5 very likely risks, then come up with 3-5 good solutions.

Close Project

When your project is “Write a manuscript,” you will finish. And when you do, close out that project. Consider getting it published a different project or a different phase, but don’t let one bleed into the other.

Take this time to evaluate. How’d it go? What did I learn? What should I do differently next time? Can I cry slightly less? Do I need to shut my cat out of the room because cats love laptops almost to the point that I’ve started wondering whether humans evolved to create laptops so that cats could sit on them?

And take a little time to celebrate. You did it. You completed the project. Shut the lid on that laptop, open the lid on a beer. Closing the project gives you a definitive party point. Don't let it blow by. 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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