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Quick Manuscript Clean-up

May 21, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 21, 2014

A single article can’t list everything necessary to help you edit a novel manuscript. One article can’t cover all the specifics on polishing a manuscript. But one article can help you with that final clean-up before you send your manuscript out on submission.

I’ve got a detailed checklist for editing as well as other articles on editing here at the blog, but I haven’t done one of these lists in a while, and I thought new blog readers might find the tips useful.

Many of these items you may have already addressed at other stages of your edits or proofreading, but if you haven’t or if you’ve made changes to your text, these are some great last-minute checks. They are in no order of rank or importance.

Be sure to save your changed file with a new name in case you need to go back to the previous version after making your changes.

~  Replace a flashback or back story in the early pages (in the first chapter, maybe the first few) with a scene in the story’s present.

~  If you changed names of characters or places as you created or edited your story, check now for overlooked instances of the former names and change them. Change references to those names if the references no longer fit the new name.

~  Check the first five to ten or so pages for character names. If you’ve thrown too many named characters at the reader in the early pages, rework those opening pages.

~  Consider character names and character titles. If characters are known by first name, last name, nickname, and title, you’ve still got some cleaning up to do. You don’t want characters calling Robert Fitzwater, the town’s retired doctor, Bob, Robert, Fitz, and Doc throughout the story. Help readers by sticking to the name you want characters to be known by.

Note: There are allowances for moments when characters would naturally call someone by his full name or something other than what he’s typically called. But this shouldn’t happen every other line. And one character should almost always refer to another by the same name or title, the one that makes sense for their relationship.

~  Make sure Chapter One opens with a hook and ends with a hook. Make sure all chapters end with hooks that keep readers turning the page.

~  Check the tone in Chapter One. Make sure it conveys the feel you intend for the story’s opening.

~  Make sure readers can identify the genre within a couple of pages.

~  Check scene and chapter openings to be sure each identifies the setting, especially place and time. Make sure that readers know how much time has elapsed since the last scene or since characters in the new scene were last featured.

~  Be sure that you’ve identified characters by name at the top of chapters rather than using pronouns. He and she don’t do enough to identify characters when readers have put a book aside and come back to it after hours or days.

~  Check the climax. Make sure there’s a buildup leading to it and a resolution after it. Make sure the climax is sufficiently dramatic and long enough for what has come before.

~  Make sure the major story problem is addressed and solved by the protagonist. Coincidence, deus ex machina solutions, and secondary characters do not deserve the pleasure of solving the story’s problem, the one the main characters should have been involved with throughout the story.

~  Make sure the climax takes place on the page in real time. The climax is no time for playing coy or hiding behind summary.

~  Check secondary plots and story threads. Unless you’re writing a series, all should be resolved by story’s end.

~  Weigh your story’s elements. Greater emphasis should go to scenes; summary and exposition should have their places, but they shouldn’t crowd out scenes.

~  Check your dialogue for overuse of character names. Use character names in direct address only to head off confusion for readers and for effect or impact. Most people do not repeatedly call others by name when they speak.

~  Make sure dialogue is filled with conflict and not with unimportant or everyday exchanges.

~  Remove unnecessary exclamation points. Let words rather than punctuation convey emotions.

~  Root out overuse of your favorite words.

~  Look for setting details; are there enough that readers can picture your fictional world? If not, work on setting.

~  Make sure character names are different and not too similar in terms of spelling, number of letters, and sound. (A style sheet is great for identifying problems with character names.)

~  Make sure you’ve appealed to the senses, especially in critical scenes. If characters only see but don’t touch, hear, smell, or taste, the story still needs work.

~  Compare your story with genre requirements and expectations. If the story lacks elements that make it fit the supposed genre, make changes.

~  Look for conflict. If characters all get along, conflict is missing and needs to be added. Make sure that conflict is of different types and of differing lengths.

~  Identify the main character’s goals and motivations. If they’re clear in your head but not in the text, add them in. Make sure an antagonist also has clear goals and motivations.

~  Make sure the antagonist is not a caricature. He or she should be a worthy opponent for your protagonist.

~  Check the emotional level of key scenes. Push the emotions if the scenes seem flat or lifeless.

~  Cut out the clichés that you keep insisting won’t weaken your scenes. Rewrite with character- and story-specific phrases.

~  Read the ending again. Make sure, given all that has come before, that  it will satisfy the  reader.

~  Check formatting. (Proper manuscript formatting)

~  Make sure headers contain your last name, a key word or two from the title, and page numbers.

~  Delete images, drawings, and artistic scene breaks. Delete your suggestion for the book’s cover. Include only the story’s text. (Exceptions for picture books.)

~  Change colored or fancy fonts to the manuscript standard.

~  Revisit sections where you preach, teach, or promote your personal philosophy. No matter how earth-shattering or profound such scenes are, cut them and rewrite.

~  Check spelling one final time before you submit. Always check spelling after making changes to your manuscript.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Editing Tips

18 Responses to “Quick Manuscript Clean-up”

  1. Prissy Elrod says:

    Excellent article to keep nestled next to computer as a good old’ fashioned cliff note. Thanks so much for sharing:-)

  2. This is one of the best checklists I have seen to edit one’s own manuscript. I will keep it in mind as I finish each draft. Thanks for the useful information.

  3. Medea says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’m just back from a weekend writer’s retreat and eager to seriously massage my novel using the feedback on my work–but of course I had many questions based upon those comments and you have addresses most of the in this piece and your others. I am very grateful.

    • Haydee says:

      Off topic (I hope Beth doesn’t mind). How was the retreat? Did it help you in any way? I’ve been thinking about going to one, but they’re very costly and I need to make sure I’m not going to waste my time and money.

    • Medea, I’m glad the timing of this article worked out for you. And I’m glad the retreat has you eager to work on your novel.

      And I’m with Haydee—I’d love to hear about the retreat. Was it useful and encouraging and worth the money and time?

  4. This is perfect. My novel has two protagonists speaking in 1st person. They alternate every 1-2 chapters to keep the narrative flowing.
    They each speak to a principal 3rd character. So I used 2 different names. For example, when Draupadi speaks, she calls the 3rd protagonist Krishn; while Arjun calls the same person as Keshav.
    I kept this consistent, so that sometimes I don’t even need to say who is speaking.
    Is that fine?

    • Sweety, this should be okay, as long as readers know the person being referred to by two names is only one person. And you definitely need to show at least once the reason the characters call this person by different names. You don’t want readers caught up wondering what’s going on or wondering the whole time why this character has two names.

      A mother who calls her son by his first name and friends who call him by his last name is an example of a simple reason to use multiple names for the same character.

      Again, as long as you are clear and consistent and have a reason for two names for the same character, your choice should be fine.

  5. Fantastic list – and one I will recc to my authors and use myself from first draft to final proofing.

    Thanks for this thoughtful sharing.

  6. Martha says:

    This list is excellent. Might I add one more? I always check for overused words and phrases. Usually a “find/replace” let’s me see how many times I’ve used a favorite phrase or pet word — especially those I don’t “hear” when I’m so close to the manuscript.

    • Martha, we definitely want to reduce the use of overused words. I called them favorite words in the article, but I know exactly what you mean. Root out any words you know that you use often. And get a beta reader to point out words you didn’t know you use a lot.

      Thanks for adding to the list.

  7. Stacy Ross says:

    Thank you for this post! Your list of advices is great! I appreciate the one from Martha , I hope more people will give their tips!

  8. web site says:

    Very useful thank you! I will def be using this as a guide!