‘The way manuscripts are thrown into the rejection pile on the basis of early mistakes is a crime. Don’t be a victim.’ – Patricia Holt
I’ve just finished teaching a course called ‘How to Write a Novel.’ The idea of this was to go from first principles to actually revising and polishing a manuscript until it was suitable to submit to agents and publishers or to self publish. I’ve also just finished copy-editing a huge project for myself. I quite enjoy copy-editing, which is a skill I picked up as an academic, but some of my students found it maddening (at the same time gaining a new respect for the skills of professional copy-editors and proofreaders). It’s meticulous and key-bending work, but you have to do it if you want to produce a professional piece of writing, and it’s every bit as important as original characters and a strong story. You’d be surprised how many aspiring authors haven’t figured this out. As noted in ‘Top Ten Writing Mistakes Editors See Every Day’ the majority of the unpublished manuscripts that land on my desk aren’t ready to go public. The ideas are good, the passion is there, but inadequate revision, copy-editing and proofreading means that no literary agent or publisher is going to touch them. And if going it alone, alongside obviously homemade covers lack of editorial polish is the chief complaint made against self-published books. Talented writers are ten a penny. What separates the professionals from the dilettantes is how hard they’re prepared to work.
I don’t want to confuse the ‘polishing’ with the redrafting of a manuscript. ‘Redrafting’ is the root and branch revision of your first and early drafts. That’s another post. What I’m concerned with here is the technical precision of your final edit – the one you’re going to pitch to an agent, send to your editor or publisher, or put out yourself as an e-book/print-to-order product. These are supposed to be word perfect. Many are not, but there’s no reason why you can’t edit your own writing if you’re willing to put in the time. And it amazes me when authors aren’t, especially when they’ve sent a manuscript to me or one of my colleagues to appraise for The Literary Consultancy or to Green Door to book block for publication.
As with creative writing fundamentals, inadequate copy-editing and proofreading makes you look like an amateur, so an agent’s assistant or commissioning editor will dismiss your work at a glance, however compelling the plot. By the same token, if you’ve gone to a general editor or a manuscript appraisal service you really shouldn’t be paying to have basic textual errors highlighted or fixed, while any ethical book blocker will just send your manuscript back with a polite suggestion that you have it proofed before you self-publish. It’s rather like turning up to a job interview in jeans and a T-shirt. Don’t be that person.
Copy-editing, by the way, is the process of improving the style, organisation, accuracy and formatting of a text, essentially combining proofreading (the correction of typographical and grammatical errors) with general editing (minor re-writing). Proofreading is the last stage of typographic editing before a manuscript goes public, either into paper or digital print, or as a formal submission to a literary agent or publisher. By this point, all the heavy editorial lifting should have been done, leaving only a galley proof to be checked before it becomes a book.
You can pay someone else to do all this, but the serious writer should be able to edit for themselves. There aren’t any short cuts – you really do have to work through your text line by line. Here are some of the common problems you should be hunting down and fixing:
COPY-EDITING TOP TEN
- Repeated or ‘crutch’ words. Every writer unconsciously leans on a ‘crutch’ word: Jack Kerouac’s was ‘sad,’ Michael Crichton endlessly used ‘crazily’ to denote violent motion, and I am addicted to ‘infernal.’ In a manuscript I recently edited professionally the word ‘eerie’ appeared over twenty times. Try also not to repeat the same word in a sentence or a short paragraph – after a while, readers notice.
- Clichés. When you’re writing the first draft this is often unavoidable if you want to maintain momentum, and it just means that you couldn’t find the perfect image at that moment. These should all, however, be removed or replaced in subsequent drafts. And if an expression is familiar to you, then it’s a cliché.
- The passive voice and any prose that reads like an essay. In a ‘passive’ sentence the subject of the verb undergoes the action rather than doing it. Keep those verbs active to maintain pace and drama.
- Redundancy and repetition. Cut everything that isn’t the story. Remove any references to eating, sleeping, washing or driving unless directly relevant to the plot.
- Empty adverbs and adjectives. Verb and noun modifiers are not your friends.
- Awkward dialogue and exposition. (See ‘Top Ten Writing Mistakes’ # 3.)
- Descriptive lists and purple prose. (See ‘Top Ten Writing Mistakes’ # 4.)
- Overlong and overworked sentences. Read aloud to catch the rhythm of the words. If it’s hard to say, it’s hard to read.
- Factual inaccuracy. Leaving aside the serious preparatory research, Wikipedia is very good these days – use it to check simple facts.
- Failure to show and not tell. Use drama and figurative language to paint a picture with words; don’t spell it out like a copper reading from his notebook. ‘If I have to tell you,’ wrote Stephen King, ‘then I lose.’
PROOFREADING TOP TEN
- Spelling mistakes, typographical errors and ‘cut and paste’ disasters.
- Incorrect grammar. For example: the overuse or lack of punctuation, or incorrectly reported speech. If in doubt LOOK IT UP.
- Verb tense confusion. Characters can wander in dialogue – people do – but your narrative needs to be in the past or present tense and stay there. Switching tenses, like changing point of view, is more messy than stylised, naturalistic or experimental.
- Inconsistencies between British and American English – mixtures of ‘realise’ and ‘realize,’ ‘colour’ and ‘color’ etc. (Microsoft Word is notorious for defaulting into American English when you’re not looking.) If words can be spelt differently, make a choice and standardise.
- Inconsistent formatting. This is often another ‘Word’ default issue. If you cut and paste text from other drafts, different fonts and sizes can slip in, and margins and line spacing can change. Word is particularly sneaky with inverted commas. Some versions of Times New Roman have serif commas and others sans serif. If these get mixed up in a text the effect is very ugly. (The same goes for en and em dashes while hyphens are not the same as the latter!)
- Irregular capitalisation, capitalisation of common nouns, or failure to capitalise proper nouns.
- Inconsistent or over-hyphenation.
- Over-enthusiastic use of exclamation marks for emphasis!
- Irregular paragraphing. Indent or space, don’t do both unless you’re spacing as a scene break. In reporting speech: new speaker = new paragraph.
- Incorrect display of song and album titles, books, magazines, movies and TV shows. Book, film, album, TV show, newspaper and magazine titles should appear in italics, with key words capitalised. A song title (like a short poem), episode name, or article should appear in inverted commas only. Never italicise and put in inverted commas. (And if you’re writing nonfiction, don’t get me started on correct referencing.)
This really just scratches the surface, of course, but you get the general idea. You may be so close to your manuscript that you’re not seeing these issues because you’re remembering your text rather than reading. Let it age a little, and then take another look.
Finally, as with redrafting, you need to know when you’re done. Ira Wood offered a rule to live by here:
Typing your own manuscript for submission is a lot like dressing to see that old lover who left you five years ago. Ready to walk out the door you stop one last time at the mirror, just to be sure they’re going to regret what they walked out on. Well, maybe the belt is wrong, you think, throwing it on the bed, pulling out another. No, these old shoes won’t do, too dowdy. After an hour, you’re stripped to your socks and in tears, absolutely sure now that you are the perfect mess they said you were. And so your manuscript will be if you don’t fight every urge to better every sentence. – Ira Wood, The Kitchen Man
It is difficult to stop tinkering. There always seems to be a slightly better way of expressing yourself. Deadlines help here. In the industry, projects end when the scythe of deadline falls. There are always going to be different ways to tell a story. This is the path you chose. With more time you might take a different one, but isn’t it more important to get where you’re going? If you’re an independent author and you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck like a vampire, then impose your own realistic deadline. Otherwise, once you find yourself regularly going back to earlier versions to re-instate lines or words that you’ve altered or cut, then you’ve finished and it’s time to start thinking about publishing this piece and starting another. Make it as good as you can, because once you do go to print you are going to have to live with it, but equally be aware that successful novelists do not devote entire careers to one book. To write your next novel, you need to let go of the previous one. There’s a balance here that you have to find: don’t rush, but don’t second guess either.
In conclusion, I know a lot of these suggestions must sound needlessly technical, if not downright anal, but this is how it’s done. Go to work on your manuscript like a surgeon. This meticulous attention to detail will transform your book into a slick and stylish professional product, fit for purpose and ready to submit to literary agents, publishers, and readers, all of whom will expect nothing less than perfection. And isn’t it satisfying when you can deliver that?