By Editor John David Kudrick
So far in this series, we’ve taken a look at the dangers of head-hopping and too much telling. In this final installment, I want to cover the third most common issue I see with manuscripts. So, as before, let’s start by reviewing a short passage:
Dana pulled out her pinck lipstick and smeered on a new coat. She eyed herslf in the miror and and smiled, then dabblered on some more red lipstick. Joe would like the way she now looked now for shore.
Leaving the lady’s room, Danielle found Joe sitting on a stoool at the bar.. He gave her a nodded and a smile, then kissed her;
“Pink kipstick,” he wispered. “My favrit.”
“I know,” Dana sad.
José puled out a char at the table where he Sat by the jukbox.
Pretty obvious on this one, I think, yes? The passage is rife with errors, and as a novelist myself, I know very well that everyone makes mistakes, big and little (which is why I have an editor to review my own writing). However, a manuscript with errors is a sign to agents, publishers, and readers that you don’t take your work seriously enough.
Misspellings, punctuation problems, grammar goofs, inconsistencies, continuity issues … I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that to err is human, but to get edited is divine (hopefully). So what can you do to make sure your manuscript is as clean as can be before you self-publish it to a book-reading world that has better things to do than read stories with errors that leave your readers scratching their heads? Or before you send it off to some industry professional who already has six gazillion submissions to review on his or her slush pile, and who doesn’t have time for proposals or manuscripts with typos and such? Here are a few ideas for you to consider:
1. Once you’ve let your finished story sit for about four to six weeks without looking at it, and then you’ve read through it and made big-picture revisions, it’s time to read it all again on your computer screen, this time with an eye for the smaller stuff:
— First off, watch for grammar issues and typos.
— Keep track of character and place names, along with little details such as the clothing someone is wearing or what kind of weapon a character is carrying.
— Pay close attention to dialogue: Make sure the dialogue mechanics work well, and eliminate unnecessary dialogue attributions and all those “performance-enhanced” dialogue attribution verbs (anything other than basics: said, asked, shouted, etc.).
— Get rid of every adverb you can. Do a document search for ly and see what you can find and exterminate, but also watch for adverbial phrases that don’t have an ly word (for example: “I’m so happy!” Jim said with a smile).
— Search for fro <space>, and change it to for, unless it really should be fro.
— Search for form, and change it to from if needed.
— Search for very and see how many of those you can delete.
— Search for There was and There were, and see if you can rewrite the sentence to make it stronger.
— Watch for words or variations of a word (or phrase) repeated close together, whether it’s in the same sentence or even within a page or two of each other if it’s an uncommon word. This can interrupt the flow for readers.
— Once you’re all done with this suggested list (which is by no means exhaustive), then run the grammar/spell check and take care of anything your word-processing program flags for you.
2. So you’re done reading it on screen and catching everything you could. Now what? Print off the entire story and read it OUT LOUD with a colored pen in hand. Trust me, you will be amazed at how many little things you notice while reading it aloud to yourself. Plus, you may even catch some bigger issues, especially with the dialogue, since you’re getting the chance to hear how it will sound in your reader’s mind.
3. After you’ve made your changes based on your findings from Step 2, you should let your test readers see what you’ve done. These readers, though, should just be looking for the big stuff in terms of the story’s strengths and weaknesses, but they may point out some little stuff, too. So get their feedback and make your changes, then see if you can get a small-scale review from a writer friend, or a relative who teaches English, or a coworker who is a closet grammar policeman. No, they won’t catch everything, but it certainly won’t hurt to get more feedback.
4. Finally (and I say this as a fellow novelist), find a professional editor to review it for you. You simply can’t substitute test readers or friends and family for years of experience of reviewing and editing fiction. If you have enough budget to retain an editor to do a big-picture review first and then later on do the more detailed work of line editing, so much the better. If your budget can’t handle that, or if you are 100% settled on the big picture of the story, then hire an editor to take care of the line editing, which should include at least two stages of editing, because no one can catch everything in one pass. And, when you’re vetting editors, make sure the editor provides a sample edit and a detailed proposal for his or her services. Last but not least, make sure you feel comfortable with the editor you choose, because working on a book together can end up being a lot like spending time in a foxhole together, and you want the right person watching your back.
The devil truly is in the details of your story, but you can exorcise your manuscript demons by doing a little self-editing and then retaining a professional editor to produce a crisp, clean novel that you’ll be proud to self-publish or submit to agents and publishers.