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12 Edits That Every Manuscript Needs

Have you finished your first draft? Here’s what you need to do to make it ready for publication.

Once you have finished your manuscript, the job of creation is done. This is a cause to celebrate, as most people never finish even a first draft of a novel. Once the moment has been savored, the real work begins. If you have aspirations of seeing your manuscript in print, it must undergo a series of edits that will polish and clarify your work. The following edits should be done, preferably in the order listed.

1.  Spelling and grammar. I refer to this as the ‘easy edit,’ even though it can sometimes be the most time consuming. This is the easiest edit because it is the most straightforward. Words are either spelled correctly or they are not. Fixes in this department only require spell check, a dictionary or a grammar guide. Regarding the spell checking software in your word processor:

A: Use the spell check! Even if you are legendary in your spelling and grammar abilities, anyone can make a mistake.

B: Don’t trust spelling and grammar checkers to catch every mistake you make. Although these programs are becoming more efficient all the time, they will usually overlook words that are spelled properly but used incorrectly, e.g. there/their or its/it’s.

2. Formatting. Some formatting should be taken care of before you even begin writing, but at minimum it should be adjusted before you submit the manuscript. Be sure to have a minimum one inch border with double spaced lines and a 12 point industry (Arial or Times New Roman) font. The top right-hand corner should have a page number and your last name. This can be set in the ‘headers and footers’ option in Microsoft Word. Your manuscript should have a cover page that lists the title, your name and any contact information. At minimum provide a mailing address, phone number and email address. Be sure to have paragraphs indented with the tab button. Leave only one space between sentences. Make sure that page breaks occur in appropriate places, not leaving one sentence ‘orphaned’ on a page. New chapters should begin about 1/3 of the way down the page (about 8 returns). Always check the submission guidelines of the publisher or agent that you plan to send your manuscript to, making sure that you have satisfied their requirements.

3. Clarity. Once your manuscript has been tidied up and scanned for spelling and grammar, read through and check your sentences for clarity. Sentences should be coherent and direct. If a sentence reads awkwardly, rephrase it. See that dialogue is attributed to the correct speaker. Avoid weak or indirect phrasing. Example: instead of “The log was dragged across the floor by Floyd,” try “Floyd dragged the log across the floor.”

4. Redundancy. Scan the document for words or phrases that are used too frequently. No descriptive word should be used more than twice in a paragraph, at most. Don’t use two phrases to describe the same action or state of being. Example: instead of “She whispered in a quiet voice,” use “She whispered,” or, “She said in a quiet voice.”

5. Conflict. As we learned in Lesson One, conflict is the fuel that drives good storytelling. Is the main conflict in your manuscript introduced early and sustained? Are there enough points of conflict to keep the story dynamic and interesting? Is the conflict believable and maintained until the end?

6. The story question. Recall the story question that you set out to answer. Did this question color and define the book as a whole? Was the question resolved in a satisfactory manner? Can you sum up the book using this story question?

7. Show vs. Tell. The vast majority of the information in your novel must be revealed in a natural fashion rather than recited. This is especially crucial in the first few chapters. Hunt down any facts that are told and figure out a way to reveal these facts with action or dialogue. Don’t let your story bog down in history and details and setup!

8. Characters. Make sure that the personality traits of your characters are created early and reinforced often with tags. Correct any action or speech that a character makes that runs counter to his or her established personality. If your character has an accent, hint at this accent consistently throughout the story. Ask yourself if the main characters grow or change over the course of the story, and if this is a desired change. Good characters learn from their mistakes and develop as people, just as real humans do.

9. Dialogue. Pay attention to your dialogue. Do the words sound like something that your character would actually say? Does the dialogue sound natural or does it seem forced at times? Do we learn about the characters based on what they say and to whom?

10. Narrative hooks. Is there something on Page One that serves to draw in the reader? Many manuscripts are judged based on the first few paragraphs, so this is the time to hook your reader and entice them to continue onward. Are narrative hooks placed throughout the story, especially in the middle when books tend to get boring and sag? Does the manuscript give the reader that ‘can’t put it down’ feeling?

11. Continuity. Every person, object and event that is pointed out should have an effect on the story. Make sure that people, events and things that you took the time to describe are actually made to be of importance later in the story. Otherwise your reader will think that you are either a sloppy writer or that you meant to make these things important and then forgot about them.

12. Scene and sequel. All narrations can be divided into scenes (action) and sequels (reaction). Too many scenes will make the book move quickly with no time for introspection or emotion; too many sequels will make the plot drag and possibly seem melodramatic. Have a nice balance of scenes and sequels according to the genre in which you are writing. Also mix up your action and reaction sequences to increase dramatic effect and heighten tension. For more information, read Lesson 13, Scene and Sequel.

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4 Responses to “12 Edits That Every Manuscript Needs”
  • V Frost
    March 15th, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    This is awesome. Great advice! My english professor used to have us read stuff from end to beginning to concentrate on grammar and avoid getting caught up in the dialouge.

  • Drake Harlem
    March 17th, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    I’m glad I have several grammar and spelling Nazi’s as friends and family. I’m horrible when it comes to spotting mistakes. On the other hand they can have trouble with things that are deliberately wrong for the sake of style or speech patterns of a character.

  • teddybear09
    March 17th, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    This is some of the best advice on editing that I’ve found so far. Thank you so much for taking the time to post such wonderful advice.

  • Ruby Hawk
    March 23rd, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Maybe I will take your advise one day and write a book.

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