I’m often hired after a writer types the words, “THE END.” As a content editor, that’s probably okay, but there might be some useful steps before that manuscript goes to a professional editor. The first thing I suggest is to put it away for a few weeks if at all possible. Get away from it. Write limericks or work on a scrap-book for a little while. Go fishing or visit Disney! Let the story get out of your head.
Then, start reading it again. Here are some suggestions (from many sources over the years) for getting your manuscript ready for that publisher or agent:
First Reading: The big stuff. Is your word count realistic for the genre and publisher you are targeting? (If you don’t have a goal in mind, then ignore this.) Can you cut out a bunch of stuff that’s not moving the character or plot forward? You’d be surprised but you can cut a significant chunk of the word count with this step alone. Backstory should be like a condiment – don’t dump it out in one place! Sprinkle it in where needed for extra flavor and color. Does your timeline work? Use a calendar if you need to, but checking this one is REALLY important. I see a lot of this: Story starts in May and four weeks later it’s snowing? (Maybe ignore this example if you are writing an alternate universe, sci-fi, fantasy or paranormal.) Check your point of view changes and make sure they work and you don’t have too many for the reader to follow. Are they in a good place? Be sure you are using the right ammo for the right gun, or the right weather for your time of year? Readers WILL catch those things and you’ll lose credibility, perhaps forever. Did your hero just fall down the hill and break his leg? Then he can’t be chasing the bad guys down on foot in the next scene – unless your book is a sci-fi or paranormal, that is.
Second Reading: Stronger is better. Read it this time through with the intention of making something on each page memorable. Use the senses – a smell, a sight, a sound, a taste. Or look for places to use unique metaphors and similes to help the reader visualize and feel what you intend for them to get. Just remember to keep them in character with the tone of the story.
Third Reading: Read for powerful sentence structure and make every one count!
Fourth Reading: The details matter. Look for overused words, check the dialog tags and beats and make sure they work. Did you use too many? Can you replace a tag with a beat, maybe? Have you used your commas consistently? Make sure your facts are correct. If you aren’t sure, now’s the time to check them with a reliable source. Is your manuscript in proper format? Headers, footers and page numbers in place? Are they correct?
Fifth Reading: I suggest this step is done with a hard copy. Have a pen and highlighter handy and then read your manuscript aloud. Every place that trips you up, highlight it. If you’ve got a program that will read you your manuscript, better yet. You can listen and just make notes. How is the pacing? Too fast? Too slow? Are you missing important facts or does it contain too much unnecessary information? If words don’t move plot or character forward or don’t teach us something important about the setting or mood, they probably aren’t essential and should be considered for the cutting room floor.
Sixth Reading: Isn’t done by you. Get a knowledgeable reader or writer friend to look it over from cover to cover. Or, hire a good copy editor to make that final run through. If you feel you’ve done all you can and the story still isn’t feeling quite right, consider hiring a good content editor as well. But look around – you may have novelist friends who are willing to step in there and help.
Don’t ever send out a manuscript that has not been edited at least through these steps. You will learn a lot by doing the process, but you’ll also increase your chances that an agent and/or editor is going to get to look at a manuscript that is ready for them to see. And don’t be discouraged! Author Steve Berry says he probably goes through his manuscripts at least 20 times – and his novels are international thrillers – an average of 400 pages!
Until Sunday, keep reading and writing! Nancy Q.