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That Final Manuscript Cleanup

March 22, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 4, 2012

You’ve finished the writing, the rewriting, the editing and the polishing.

You’ve been through your manuscript front to back and back to front and weeded out and added in.

You’ve straightened out your characters and tightened the plot and you’ve proofed for every conceivable error you’ve ever read about.

Both protagonist and antagonist get what they deserve or what they’ve earned or what your readers will love.

You’ve got conflict and chapter-ending hooks and emotion-evoking phrases.

You’ve got an opening that delights, a middle without sag, and an ending that satisfies.

You’ve got ups and downs and breathing space and breathless action. You’ve included emotional responses for characters that are guaranteed to touch the reader as well.

The number of modifiers—both adverbs and adjectives—doesn’t overwhelm.

Dialogue is strong. Setting is clear and works for the story. Characters are unique. Style is consistent.

You’ve been through your checklist and you’re happy about what you’ve created. Your critique partner says it’s ready, your writer’s group says it’s ready, your heart says it’s ready.

So . . .

What’s next? Is there anything you can do as a final check of your masterpiece before you release it to the world?

Sure. For your final pass, check once more for—

Your favorite words. We all have them and they sneak in despite our desire to keep them out. Can you cut one or two more instances of each?

Your favorite unusual sentence construction. The unusual gets noticed. Don’t overplay those touches that stand out.

The overuse of character names, especially in dialogue. People just don’t call each other by name when they talk to them.

The opening line and opening page. Do they accomplish all that they can? Does the opening set up the story arc, get the plot rolling, introduce your protagonist, introduce tone and/or setting ?

The ending. Does it address the story opening and the character’s problem? Does it finish the several hundred pages that come before it? Is the last line a memorable one?

Words that don’t fit. No okay before its time.

One-time character names. If you’ve changed a character’s name, make sure you’ve not left any instances of the former name.

Space holders. If you use space holders for elements you’re not sure of—asterisks, blank lines, hash tags—be sure to remove them. And be sure you’ve filled in the blanks.

Words used too often. They might not even be favorite words, but their use and overuse can weaken your scenes.

look, looked, looking (one of the most common verbs used for sight)

there (stood there, sat there)

over (walked over, ran over)

felt, heard, saw, watched, thought (you don’t always need to report that a character is doing these things)

Words/phrases that add nothing and might in fact dilute a scene.

at this time

at [in] this moment

in my opinion

any three-word phrase at the end of a sentence (search for prepositional phrases you use often)

try and [verb] (use try to rather than try and)

for example





there is, there are, there were (especially to start sentences and open paragraphs)

oh, well, and oh well (especially in dialogue)

That one scene that niggles at you, the one that still doesn’t seem quite perfect.  Yes, make the time for one more try to fix it. If it bothers you, it’s going to bother the reader.

Chapter breaks. Make sure chapters begin on new pages. Make sure chapter numbers are sequential.

Manuscript format. Before submitting, format your manuscript in the proper format. Don’t forget page numbers and the correct info for the headers. Check for consistency with scene breaks—have you used asterisks or hash marks or simple line spacing?

Spelling. Your word processing program might not catch everything, but it catches a lot. If you make any changes, be sure to run spell check one final time. Let this be the final major step of your cleanup. And repeat as many times as necessary if you continue to make changes.


This is not an editing checklist, but a helpful last step before you submit your manuscript to agent or editor. If you’ve not truly edited your manuscript, start with these steps before moving to those listed in this article.

These suggestions are not meant as a tool for procrastination: please don’t hesitate to submit when your story is ready. Do what’s necessary for making both story and manuscript error-free and then let the story go. Start your next project or complete another story you’ve begun. Put an end to this one.

And remember that it’s likely a few errors will slip through even the best proofing. Yet also remember that a few simple errors will not be what keeps your story from being accepted. Submit your manuscripts when it’s time without making yourself crazy looking for phantom errors.

Finish your story.

Send that good story out so others can read it.

Share your good fiction.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Editing Tips

16 Responses to “That Final Manuscript Cleanup”

  1. nelle says:

    Informative… good post.

  2. Nelle, I’m glad you found it informative

  3. Good advice as I’m nearing that time in my latest efforts.
    One other thing worth considering is to read the first page and last page out loud. This forces you to say the words as written and not as you think you wrote them. It helps you get the flow and rythm of your work and it causes the wrong word or the wrong sentence construction to jump out at you. This would also work very well on that iffy scene you want to improve.
    You could also use it as a general editing tool but obviously it would take some time.

  4. Christopher, reading aloud is definitely a great way to find oddities—especially missing or extra words—in a manuscript. You could always imagine you’re recording the audio version of the story. Thanks for the tip.

  5. Nisha says:

    I’m nearing the end of my editing process so this information is just what I needed. Thanks!

  6. sanderling says:

    Very useful post. Thanks.

  7. Nisha, good luck with your writing and editing. Nearing the end is exciting. I’m glad you found info you need.

    Sanderling, I hope the suggestions work for you.

  8. Holly West says:

    I’m just at the tail end of my final pass so this is a timely post. In fact, might have to do one more in response to some of these points (but no procrastination here).

  9. Yeah for that final pass! I wish you great success, Holly.

  10. Kelly Marino says:

    Great advice, particularly the reminder to keep an eye on words we tend to use too often. I used to have a list of approximately 40 words that I knew I overused, and it took me a long time to conduct a ‘search and destroy maneuver’ in Word’s “find” feature–which I still love. However, I just stumbled on a COOL new way to see all the words in a chapter–in one screenshot. I discovered this on Dr. John Yeoman’s Writer’s Village Academy Blog, and I use it regularly. It’s called WORDLE, and I’ve pasted Dr. Yeoman’s description below. If you’re visually oriented, as I am, you could become addicted to this!

    “Wordle is a whacky program that takes a slab of any text – say, your short story or the first chapter of your novel – and turns it into a pretty ‘cloud’.
    Useless? Not entirely. You can spot the words you’ve over-used. Plus, you’ll have an interesting cover for a non-fiction book. Or a graphic to put on Facebook, Google+, Pinterest or your blog. Select the right passage – or write one – and you can choose the words you want displayed.

    Above is what Wordle did with the first page of my last novel. Obviously, I have a lot of dead men and mistresses there, which is encouraging. What does it mean? Who cares? It’s pretty!”

    Use Wordle without charge here: http://www.wordle.net

  11. Kelly, I’d seen those word graphics before; thanks for the link. The visual does make an impact.

  12. Jhuff says:

    Your comment about favorite words/redundant text reminded me of a trick I used to use in school. We had many intense writing assignments with a page or word limit that was approximately 50% smaller than what would normally be required to fully discuss the topic at hand; this made efficient writing essential.

    I found a handy trick to eliminating useless text was to use the search function in your word processor, look for filler words such as: then, was, were. Focus especially on these fillers that are used in the past tense, most of the time you can delete all of them while simultaneously improving your writing by transforming it from passive voice to active voice.

    For example:
    They were standing on the dock and saw their ship crest the horizon.
    They stood on the dock as their ship crested the horizon.

    By removing the past tense, the sentence looses a few unnecessary words and becomes more direct in meaning. Unless you are extremely adept at writing in the active voice, you may be shocked at how much useless text your first draft contains.

  13. Katie says:

    This post really helps. I am an aspiring writer, only 16, but I’ve started writing a book. Do you have any suggestions that would help me with the editing process? I tend to overuse “ly” words a lot and the words “look” and “suddenly”. Also, I’m not sure when to edit. After a chapter? After I finish? Or should it be a bit of both?

  14. Riverview Gardens Dance Hall has been a work in progress for several years, including to have taken the story of my grandfather’s dance hall to college with three full years of creative writing. I have on my desk sections of the story with the college professor critique. Years, yes, the writing process and my thought processes, intense research, all inclusive has been a lot of work. I have not wanted a shallow story, but one of depth and culture based. My work table is full, the floor beside me is full, to left of my computer, on the desk is full of all the years of researching and writing and I am now, finally, assembling everything into the story I’ve dreamed to tell. I find your information on “The Editors Blog” uniquely finalizes everything I’ve dreamed in writing the story. Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of experience to help one such as me to bring to a close my writing dream.