Top Six Tips to Make Your Manuscript Shine
By Kimberly Cannon, freelance copy editor
So, you’ve finished your manuscript. You’ve had a friend, or your entire critique group, do a beta read. Heck, even your hypercritical siblings say it’s brilliant. But there’s still something you need to do before you send your baby off to be poked, prodded and considered over a publisher’s editorial meeting:
Edit, edit and edit some more.
Whether looking for a contract with a publishing house or self-publishing, your book needs to be polished like your grandmother’s silver tea service before it makes its way to an editor’s desk. There’s nothing an overworked editor hates more than opening a file for an interesting submission only to find it riddled with typos and grammatical errors. Some might even be tempted to hit the delete button just because they feel the writer must not be serious if he or she hasn’t bothered to re-read and edit their own work. And if you’re self-publishing and paying a developmental editor to work with you on your precious baby before you submit it, you really don’t want to give them all that money to fix issues that you can do yourself—you want them to spend all their time making your story shine.
There are a lot of things you can look for to help you along your path to becoming the next J.K. Rowling. I’ve narrowed it down to my personal top six.
1. Typos — Do NOT rely on spellcheck or grammar check. They are not foolproof. In fact, they both make a lot of mistakes. Double check the word you really want is too and not two or to. And don’t get me started on that darned Word thesaurus. I often find an author has used a word that, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, does not mean what they think it means. If you are unsure about a particular word or phrase, look it up in Webster’s. Don’t rely on Word’s internal thesaurus. And speaking of that little gem, when you change a word you think you’ve used too often—feel, for instance—make sure the word you’re replacing it with really has your intended meaning. If Luke wants to feel Laura’s silky skin against his cheek, don’t have him finger it.
2. Commas and exclamation points — If you put, a comma, every time, you stop, to think, you create a sentence, that makes the reader, extremely, tired. Don’t do that. Only add commas if they create clarity for a sentence or phrase. The serial comma? You know, the one that comes after a list of things: puppies, kittens, and goldfish. That one is up to you. Some houses use them, some don’t. They hire copy editors, like me, to take care of those details (did I mention I love my job?). If you find yourself hesitating because you aren’t sure which version your chosen publisher uses, and it’s disrupting your flow to go back and figure it out, don’t worry about it. Yes, I said don’t worry about it. It’ll be taken care of according to the house style of your publisher once your manuscript goes to the copyediting phase.
And exclamation points… What can I say except, only use them when you really, really need them. If your dialogue tag is “David shouted,” you don’t need an exclamation point. General rule of thumb is no more than 3 times in the entire manuscript. Most of the time they just aren’t needed and indicate immature writing.
3. Apostrophes — Apostrophes are not, and I repeat once more, NOT used for pluralization. Never, ever, ever, ever. Well, when I say never… If you’re saying your child received straight A’s on her report card, I’ll let you have a pass. But apostrophes are for the most part only used to show possession. Jimmy’s baseball hat, Suzi’s doll. NEVER use it for pluralization. It is NOT Larry loves layer cake’s, or Mamie hated Cherry’s Jubilee. If you are showing possession for a plural, it is the Smiths’ house, or the Joneses’ minivan. If you aren’t sure how to pluralize something, look it up. There are so many online resources nowadays for clarifying and preventing errors like these. By all means, use them liberally.
4. Consistency and timeline — If Julie wears a dress on p. 24, and two pages later in the same scene she’s wearing jeans, that’s an oops you need to catch before you seal your short story in an envelope for Woman’s World or attach your manuscript to an email for Carina. Also, double check and calculate dates, days, hours, times, months, etc. to ensure you don’t have errors in timing. If your storyline should take 4 months, make sure you’re allowing for all 4 months by using date stamps where appropriate so the reader can keep up with passage of time. I suggest using a timeline in your outline or your book bible in order to double check that timing is correct.
5. Misused Words — Laid/lay, there/their/they’re, advise/advice, effect/affect, etc. As I noted earlier, there are many online resources to prevent using the wrong word. If you aren’t sure whether he lay down in the grass or laid down in the grass, look it up (it’s lay, by the way. Lay is what you do with your body, laid is what you do with an object).
6. Formatting — Lastly, please, for all that’s holy, check your margins and font before you submit. Make sure you’re following the guidelines of the publisher you’re submitting to. Sure, if your story is the next Harry Potter, and they love it, they’ll ignore such a seemingly trifling issue. But why not show them you mean business by showing them you pay attention to detail? Most are no longer strict as long as the end result is easily readable, but a few are still very specific about what they want to see with regard to font type and size as well as margin width. Don’t send Calibri 11 to a house that specifies Times New Roman 12. Most houses want to see one inch margins all around, but there’s still the odd one out there that likes 1.25 inches at the sides. Some even go so far as to specify paragraph indents. So, moral is, check the submission guidelines carefully and follow them to the letter. Show them you’re serious.
Those are just a few details to go over before you send your paper child out to play with the big boys. There are, of course, many more items to review/revise/remove. I could go on and on about things such as dialogue tag vs. action tag, but then this would turn into a book rather than a blog post. If you have a personal pet peeve or some sin you find yourself frequently committing, please feel free to share in the comments below. I’d love to read them, and by sharing perhaps you can help out someone else.
Kimberly is a freelance copy editor for several publishing houses as well as bestselling authors. You can contact her regarding her editorial services at firstname.lastname@example.org.