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  • Jess Lawrence

Preparing your manuscript for an editor or agent

Preparing your manuscript for an editor or agent

If you don’t like self-editing, then I have some bad news: there’s no getting out of it. You have to do at least a little bit, even if you plan to send your manuscript to an editor. Fortunately, I’ve made a list of the most important tasks you need to complete.

This is also helpful for preparing your manuscript for an agent, too. I’m not going to go into detail on that point because each agent has their own preference, but this is effectively a list of self-editing tasks to polish your manuscript – whether you’re sending it to an editor, agent or publisher.

So, let’s get into it.

Before you begin, take a break

I love Paris in the the springtime. Word illusion.

You heard me. Put the manuscript down, step away and don’t look at it for at least a week, but ideally closer to a month. You will need the distance, trust me. You know that illusion with the repeated ‘the’ that everyone misses on first reading? (Example to the right). That’s what your manuscript will look like immediately after finishing it. The mistakes will be invisible and your eyes will glide right over them.

Give yourself some time to detach from it so you can come back to the next draft with fresh eyes and focus.

1. Make your characters earn their place

Let’s start big. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we’re going to look at the whole picture. Namely, we’re going to see if all of your characters are pulling their weight. Now, I know you love them all, even that side-side-character who only appears for one chapter to guide the MC on their journey. But this is the time to really evaluate the role everyone plays in your story.

Start by jotting down the name of every character of importance. You can assign your own definition of ‘important’. Maybe it’s all of the ones you name, or perhaps only the ones with dialogue. Now you have your list, one by one, imagine cutting them from the story.

If the plot doesn’t fall apart without them, it means they are extraneous. If you could easily give their lines to another character, they aren’t well-defined enough. These are issues that are hard to spot when you are writing, but much clearer when you start to edit.

2. Create a timeline of events

When I’m editing a client’s novel, I like to keep track of the timeline. If you tell me that it’s Monday in one chapter, and then your characters go on a three-day journey only to arrive on Tuesday, I’m going to flag it. This is the kind of thing you ought to be spotting on your self-edit.

Read through your entire manuscript and make sure that your timeline is correct and realistic. You need to be especially accurate if your novel is based in the real world, because readers with knowledge of the town/country you’ve set it in will know how long it takes to travel from Point A to Point B. Get this wrong, and they will see right through you and start to wonder what else you haven’t bothered to research. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.

3. Check for consistency

A copy-editor generally follows a style guide. If the author doesn’t provide one, then the editor will usually keep track of any changes they make and build their own. These style guides include things like spelling preferences (good for keeping track of fantasy names), capitalisation choices, punctuation usage, and US or UK English.

One of the most common parts of my job is correcting for consistency so, to help your editor and to ensure consistency in your manuscript, pick your preferences and stick with them.

Do you prefer -ise or -ize endings? Do you like single or double quotation marks? How should your invented cities be capitalised? You probably won’t spot all of the consistency errors that an editor will (after all, we are trained to look for them), but wrangling as many as you can will help both parties.

A point to add here. Most of these consistency checks are down to preference. Yes, a publisher or agent will have their own house style, but they will not reject your manuscript simply because yours isn’t styled their way. That said, there are some deeper considerations on certain points.

For example, I recently read a novel by an American author that was set in Victorian England. They had used US spelling, likely because it is what they are familiar with, but this jarred with the historical setting. We had Victorians wandering around in ‘pants’ – which to a British reader means underwear. Now, us Brits can read the word ‘pants’ and understand that it means ‘trousers’ but in the context of Victorian England it takes an extra moment and anything that brings your reader out of the story is an issue.

4. Slash your redundant words and phrases

Another common thing that I find in pretty much every author’s manuscript are redundant words or phrases. What do I mean by this? These are the extra words we tag on to descriptions or actions that either aren’t necessary because the meaning is inherent, or they dampen the description. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Unnecessary additions

‘She shrugged her shoulders’ – ‘her shoulders’ is redundant because you can’t really shrug another part of your body.

‘He nodded his head’ – As opposed to nodding his knee?

Dampening descriptions

‘She was very beautiful’ – ‘Very’ is a crutch word that weakens the whole description. Instead, you can say she is ‘radiant’, ‘gorgeous’, or ‘stunning’.

5. Check your dialogue

There are a couple of things to check when it comes to your dialogue. I’m not going to go into too much detail on this because I already have a whole series on dialogue tags, formatting, and character voice. Here is a super quick crash course:

Vary speech and action tags

‘I’m hungry,’ Mike said.

Jenny opened the fridge and checked the contents. ‘We have some leftovers.’

The first line uses a speech tag to tell us when Mike is talking. The second uses an action tag to show us when Jenny is talking. I recommend you vary your use of action and speech tags.

Said is not dead

It is very much alive and would love for you to use it. Said is effectively invisible in writing, so don’t be afraid of using it. Of course, you don’t need to use it for every single line of dialogue – only where it is necessary to clarify who is speaking.

Alternatives to said aren’t the worst but should be avoided

You won’t make me cry if you use tags like ‘whispered’ or ‘shouted’. They have their place and it can add a nice variety to your dialogue tags. Don’t go overboard, and I’d advise you lean more heavily on ‘said’, but some variation can be good.

Don’t use impossible tags

You will make me cry if you use speech tags that are just impossible, like:

‘You’re funny,’ she smiled.

It is not possible to smile out a sentence. It is also not possible to ‘sigh’, ‘breathe’ or ‘gasp’ out a sentence. You can say something with a smile/sigh/gasp, but these are not ways of speaking.

Ready to send

When you’ve worked through all of the above, then you’re ready to send your manuscript off for editing (or out on submission). You might wonder why you should spend time doing any of these tasks if you’re going to pay an editor to go through your manuscript anyway, but self-editing really does teach you a lot about your own writing.

Once you identify your bad habits (I, for instance, overuse ‘just’, ‘so’ and ‘well’), it’s easier to spot them in your future work, which will save you barrels of time. Plus, from a frugal point of view, the fewer mistakes your editor has to fix, the less time it takes to edit and, typically, the cheaper it should work out.

Self-editing may feel like a pain, but it’s a crucial step for every writer. Embrace it and you will reap the rewards.

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