Having recently signed with an agent who is now enthusiastically sending my novel, Of Yin and Yang, out to editors, I have a little time to share some of the details of cleaning the up the manuscript. Now that it’s out, I have to trust that what they read is the best of what I could show them. I think I came close, by following a lot of advice I found on various websites added to what I already knew from many years of professional medical writing. Here is a synopsis of what I’ve learned.
Yes, now that you’ve finally finished that book, you have to go back over it again looking for all the things that could be improved. This is the first clean up, and it’s important to showing agents and editors that you are professional. Specifically, you will be looking for:
- awkward phrases
- contradictions (a green car that’s now yellow)
- slow or uneven pacing and flow
- rough transitions
- dramatic tension
Give yourself at least 2-4 weeks to get through this process. Although it sounds like just postponing getting into the marketplace, once your book is out, every little change you made for the better will matter.
1. Read It Out Loud
Even better, read it to someone. My best friend Anne-Marie hears the book as I write it. We’ve done this for years and it helps me gauge as I’m writing whether I’m still on track. As I read, I say out loud, ‘oh, that has to be fixed’ or ‘I forgot something here.’ I put an asterisk to remind me to go back to fix it.
Reading to someone is the best way for you to tell if the writing is the best it can be. As you read, you will hear the rhythm and flow and you will notice when it is not flowing as smoothly. You will catch repetitive phrases, problems with continuity and transitions, missed words, and sections that may run slow or not fit at all.
I find it really helpful to do this as soon as a piece is written, while it is still fresh. Annie and I talk on the phone almost daily, and as I was finishing Of Yin and Yang this spring, I read to her two or three times a week when she got home from work. Her dedicated attention and undying enthusiasm often kept me going when the writing got tough—as it often does when you a write a book.
If you don’t have a friend willing to indulge you as Anne-Marie has done for me for so many years, or you don’t feel ready to read to a person, then read to your dog, your cat, your stuffed animal or even just to the mirror. The most important part of this step is to hear it read out loud. You will learn a lot, believe me!
2. General Reading for Continuity and Flow
Okay, now comes the real editing work. You have to set aside a few days to a week for this, with a minimum of distractions. You want to complete this read as quickly as possible so you don’t have time to forget story points between sessions.
Read the book through, one chapter at a time, with a highlighter only, marking words, phrases or circling areas where you may have forgotten a word, made a rough transition, or something just doesn’t make sense. When you get to the end of a chapter, go back and make the corrections before moving on to the next. Continue until you finish the book. At the end, you’ll have your first edit done.
3. Create a Focus Group and Ask Them to Read It
Asking people to read your miracle is hard, as they are not likely to think it is a miracle. It’s like expecting strangers to think your baby’s burp is as cute as you think it is. Now comes a visit to the real world, where it’s not. This step will put you exactly where you need to be psychologically to send the manuscript out to people with power, so don’t skip it.
A focus group can include one or more people you trust to tell you the truth…nicely. Your focus group should represent the demographics you think your book appeals to. The goal is not to prove that everybody loves your book. (I’ll save you time and heartache here: there is no chance of that happening.) The goal is to find out what kind of people your book will probably appeal to—and to confirm that they actually do like it.
If you can get 5-8 people to read it before you submit, then you a have a pretty good basis for understanding the potential public reaction to your book. You can go formal and ask the readers to fill out a questionnaire, or you can just keep it casual.
I asked all of the members of my regular reading group to read my book, after the first edit. This had a distinct advantage, as I already knew each reader’s likes and dislikes from a list of over 30 books we’ve read and discussed. Their demographic was very similar, so I was also testing that.
I printed out one copy and passed it to the group, one at a time. They were allowed to make comments in the margins, although only a few did, and they caught a number of things I had missed. I specifically tracked how long it took each person to read the book, as this told me whether it was engaging. Surprisingly, 7 out of 8 read it really fast, despite being a 400-page book. One person read it in 2 nights and another said she kept putting aside her work to read another chapter. They volunteered what they liked best about the book. What they didn’t mention told me areas of the book that might have needed a little more work later on. (Remember, this is NOT the time for rewrites)
I also asked if any parts seemed slower, and based on that, I was able to reduce about 15 pages from the manuscript that were weaker than the rest, just to keep the pace moving. The book was over 400 pages (108,000 words) to begin with, which I felt was dangerously long for a first published novel. With their help I was able to reduce it to under 400 pages and about 105,000 words, which sounds so much better on a cover letter!
4. Have Another Writer Read It
Not every writer has this luxury. I have been a professional freelance writer for nearly three decades, and my sister, Nancy Monson, is a magazine writer who has also written 2 books and worked as a medical writer an editor. I asked her to read the book and she did it with an editor’s eye, catching typos and pointing out weak phrases and transitions. If you don’t have a close friend or relative in the business, you might want to join a writer’s group for exactly this purpose.
And, if you are really not strong at grammar, there are many professional services that you can hire online to do a copyedit for you. My personal feeling knowledge of grammar and the ability to self-edit are the writer’s tools, and you have to make it your business to learn how sentences are structured so you can do your best work. Editing services are for people who are not really serious about the writing.
5. Get Rid of Excess Baggage – I Mean Language
Make a list of your most common foibles and favorite phrases and do a search of the manuscript for them. I love this. I can’t take credit for this idea—I got it from The Editor’s Blog—but I followed this advice and found I do have some bad habits that I could catch before I sent the manuscript to anybody who might be annoyed or distracted by them.
We all have things we tend to say and write without thinking too much about them. Think again. Do you always spell out action, whether it’s needed or not, telling exactly how she moved from the stove to sink? Do you use a lot of attributions (he said, she recalled, he intoned). There are millions of things we write that don’t necessarily need to be read.
In my case, I found the phrase, “she looked at him/her, he looked at her, they looked at each other” coming up waaaay too frequently. Basically, this phrase says nothing. Of course they looked at each other. That’s what people do. It’s only necessary if someone is not looking where the reader thinks they are. (I’m thinking this comes up most often in mysteries, where the clues are in what you see—and I don’t write mysteries).
I did listen to a mystery on tape by a very good author recently, where a character kept “fake” doing things. She fake-checked her watch. She fake-looked at a menu. She “fake-picked up oranges.” No she didn’t. She picked them up for real! I would have enjoyed this book even more with the simple removal of the word “fake” from the entire story.
6. Format the Document
Every professional you send your manuscript to will have a specific format they prefer, and most often, they will state it on their website. If they don’t, the default is the following:
Double space (always for novel manuscripts; single space a one-page query or synopsis)
Approximately 25 lines per page – don’t squeeze or leave big gaps at the tops or bottoms
FONT: either Times New Roman 12 point, or sometimes Courier New 12 point
(Courier is the original font most editors and agents read before online submissions and many still prefer it. For online submissions, Times New Roman is darker, tighter, and will paginate at about 80-85 pages for every 100 pages in Courier New).
ALIGNMENT: Left (do NOT justify)
MARGINS: 1 inch (left and right )
HEADERS AND FOOTERS: (1 – 1.25 inches to accommodate the header)
There is good information on this on other blogs, including: The Editor’s Blog and a detailed description with samples on Marlys Pearson’s Blog. Stick to the basics above, but not every rule is cardinal. For instance, I put my last name/book title in the upper right hand corner and the page numbers at the bottom.
7. Final Check
Do a final spell check of the entire document, print out a hard copy and eyeball the pages for proper formatting: check page numbers, gaps in spacing, alignment of chapter titles, and headers. Look also for sudden blank pages, which happen with long documents.
Now, here’s the most important part of the process: STOP TINKERING and SEND THE BOOK OUT. For help with this step, I refer you back to a previous post on looking for an agent.
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