By Lee Masterson
So you’ve finally done it. You’ve finished your prized manuscript – the one you’ve spent months creating – and the temptation to pop it into a postal package and ship it off to a welcoming editor is tugging at you mercilessly.
I urge you to resist that temptation. For now, anyway.
After spending so much of your time and effort in producing what you have so far, it would seem a shame to rush things at this crucial stage in your manuscript’s life. Once the first draft is done, almost every writer realizes that an edit or partial rewrite is going to be a necessary task.
There are almost as many different ways to edit and rewrite as there are writers. Some prefer to edit as they go. There are those who prefer to chop and change storylines midway through the creation process. Others seem to race through the first draft and spend time polishing it up once they’re done. I’m one of the latter.
It makes no difference which technique you prefer, as long as it works for you. The point is to end up with a professional manuscript which an editor will hopefully buy.
So let’s take a look at 12 polishing techniques that could mean the difference between a sale and a rejection.
1 – Print it Out
Seeing your words paraded before you on a screen is one thing. Reading your words in a different form means you will see it in a different perspective. If you write in long-hand, type it out. If you use a computer, print out a paper copy.
I realize this method gets a little heavy on the pocket, but seeing your work in a new light will highlight a lot of little mistakes and inconsistencies that would not be so obvious otherwise. Your work will benefit from the exposure in a different format.
2 – Read it Aloud
Okay, so this might look a little silly to anyone peeking through your window, but the chances are, no one is looking anyway. The point of this exercise is to bring out the natural flow (or lack thereof) in your writing.
For this step, a notepad and a plentiful supply of pens are handy. As you read, don’t be tempted to stop and correct any redundancies, or awkward phrasings. Jot down anything you notice in your notepad, but keep reading. You will get to the fix-it stage later.
Nothing will benefit your writing more than hearing it read aloud. You’ll discover nuances of rhythm and interpretation that the printed word will not show. You may also discover odd-sounding cadences that interrupt the flow. Whatever you discover, hearing what you’ve written will give you a sense of distance.
3 – Spelling and grammar
When you read something you created yourself, the tendency to anticipate words is common. Often you mind will see the word you intended to write, rather than the actual error. Your computer spell-checker will not pick up these discrepancies.
Words like “then” and “than” are easy to miss, and even easier to overlook. They are such little words, after all.
Ask yourself how you would feel if you had picked up another author’s work and found trivial typing errors sprinkled throughout the story. I’m sure you wouldn’t be too pleased, nor would the story seem so enjoyable for this distraction. This is how a potential reader is going to view your work. Take the time to read it through carefully.
4 – Plot inconsistencies
During this initial read through, you should discover that there are points in your story that did not unravel the way you thought they would. You may also learn that you began several threads that vanished into thin air.
It happens. You know all the material in your story backwards. From your perspective, all the information is already there. But the reader’s perspective is what counts here. Just because the conclusions seem logical to you does not mean your writing clarified your intentions.
You might have been caught up in the push of the story or the lure of the characters and the plot braid you began got lost in the moment. This is the time to pick up all the loose threads and tie them into a neat, satisfying conclusion.
5 – Characters
Is your point of view consistent? Do you have characters who wander into play, and then fizzle out, contributing nothing to the story? Are your character traits consistent?
If you’ve introduced a character in Chapter One who is five feet five and brunette, describing her as five feet eight with blonde hair in Chapter Six is not going to sit well with readers, much less an editor.
Similarly, bringing a character into play simply to deliver a line, or specific piece of information, is awkward. Find a way to utilize an existing character for this, or better still, flesh out your ‘extra’ so that he contributes more to the storyline than just a messenger service.
Sometimes, though, minor characters are important. The nameless man serving behind the counter, the woman at the ticket booth, the girlfriend of the next door neighbor’s son. Showing the extras is fine, but ask yourself how much relevance they have to your story before you jump into their life history, or worse, their point of view.
6 – Propel the Story
Know what your story’s conflicts are. Conflict helps to build tension, which will drive your story forward. Without the right descriptions, or by cluttering up the stage, some of that impetus can be lost.
Sometimes, though, the thrill of writing action sequences or steamy scenes can make you lose sight of where your story was heading. Adding an extra scene or two for the sake of excitement will not work if it does not advance your story-line in a positive way.
It is hard to slash a great section of writing, or a favorite piece of dialogue, but be brutal. If it does not advance your story or strengthen your plot focus, then close your eyes and press delete
Consider how a reader will feel looking at your work for the first time. Is the action propelling enough to make him turn page after page? Is the protagonist’s struggle believable enough to earn a sense of empathy from your readers?
Again, do not give in to the temptation to stop reading and fix the problem. Keep a note in your notepad of any changes.
7 – Trim the Excess
When describing anything in your fictional world, be specific. Telling a reader “the grass was a shade of green” or “she felt kind of ill” is wishy-washy and weak. If the grass is green, then tell us it’s green. If your characters is ill, then tell us she is, and be sure to add the specifics of what ails her.
Similarly, go through and remove any weak nouns, verbs and modifiers. Eliminate any abstractions and replace them with concrete images that will help your readers to visualize what is happening.
Scan your manuscript for adjective-nouns combinations that can be replaced with a stronger, more specific noun. Remove any expletives that do not add to the story or characterization. Cut any clichés. If you must use a metaphor or simile, strike a unique comparison of your own.
8 – Active versus passive
Passive voice weakens any piece of writing, while active voice will add power and immediacy to your story. Instead of writing “the boat was tossed about by the rough seas”, replace this with “rough seas tossed the boat”.
Keep a look out for any sections of passive voice and remove them, or replace them with a stronger alternative.
9 – Simplify
Is your plot complicated by twisting time-lines, too many flashbacks, or confusing plot braids that are improperly woven together? Consider eliminating some of these sections to give a straight chronology.
Keep descriptions simple with powerful nouns. Strip your dialogue to its bare essence. The extra details won’t be lost, and the conversations will have a tighter feel.
Positive forms of description are clearer and more direct than negative. As you go through your writing, make a note of the words no and not. Then figure out a way to tell us what is instead of what isn’t.
Simplicity brings clarity.
10 – Repetition
Variety is a key factor in holding a reader’s interest. Go through and find synonyms for any frequently repeated words or phrases.
Reading through this article, the amount of times I’ve used the word ‘replace’ is scary. I should find a way to rearrange my structuring so the word ‘replace’ doesn’t show up so often, or I will risk sounding repetitive.
11 – Get another opinion
When you have finally completed all the changes and edits from your notepad, it is time to seek another opinion. An unbiased viewpoint might pick up a few discrepancies that even you missed on the last edit. Besides which, it is always a good thing to have someone else check through your work before an editor sees it.
It makes no difference who reads your work. You aren’t looking for an A Grade editor, just an honest reader’s opinion. All you need from them is an idea of how your work affected them. After all, more than 95% of your readers will eventually fall into this category.
And if that reader does happen to pick up on a few little things, the objectivity will have been worth the time and trouble.
An alternative here is to submit your manuscript to a workshop. Sometimes the critiques can seem harsh, and sometimes you will receive some encouragement or praise for your work, but mostly you will gain an understanding of how different people are interpreting your words.
12 – Re-edit
Once you have completed your read-through, it is time to make the changes real. Take the time to chop the redundancies and pull out pieces that don’t contribute. This can take some time, but your story will be stronger for it.
Just when you think you’ve finished, and it’s time to send your masterpiece out into the big, bad world, read it again
This is an important step. When adding extra words, or editing out the parts that didn’t work, it is inevitable you will make a few mistakes. Simple typing errors, forgetting to delete the rest of an incomplete sentence, doubling up on added lines. These things happen.
Don’t skim this part. Read through your manuscript again carefully. When you are sure it’s all in place and as polished as it’s ever going to get…
Send it out the door!
About the Author:
Lee Masterson is a freelance writer from South Australia. She is also the editor of Fiction Factor (http://www.fictionfactor.com) – an online magazine for writers, offering tips and advice on getting published, articles to improve your writing skills, heaps of writer’s resources and much more. Check out Lee’s newest book, “Write, Create & Promote a Best-Seller” here and jump-start your writing career.