How do you prepare your manuscript for an editor? Are there common writing errors you can avoid? Here are some tips to get your manuscript as clean as possible.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
The tools available for writers and editors range from essential to fun. Here are a few of my favorites.
Unless you are using a pen and paper to capture your story, you’ll need a good word processing program. Most writers use Microsoft Word, although other programs are available. MS Word offers excellent reviewing and editing tools, and it is compatible with most publishers’ systems. The Track Changes feature in MS Word offers complete transparency on changes made to your document.
The Chicago Manual of Style is the style guide I prefer. But I did not come into the fold easily. When I purchased my first copy, I spent a few minutes flipping through the pages and then promptly mailed it to another editor. Now I encourage everyone to use it as the main reference for style questions. There are other style guides available. AP Stylebook, The MLA Style Manual, American Sociological Association Style Guide [ASA], Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, and the Oxford Style Manual are just a few. Many of these are specialty styles for particular publications or industries.
Get a good dictionary, and use it. I prefer the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is not a nail-biter, but it is a straightforward guide to good writing and has been for years. One author told me he reads Strunk and White cover to cover before he begins each new book. It’s a great idea.
There are hundreds of online grammar resources. If I am straying from my usual references, I tend to stick to university sites and well-known literary sources.
When conducting research online, be strategic. A Google search often brings up a Wikipedia source in its first group of links. Since Wikipedia listings can be updated by anyone, relying solely on that source may not guarantee the content is correct. But Wikipedia can be a good leaping-off point for information you can verify elsewhere. The original references that contributors used are usually cited at the bottom of each page and offer additional sites to look for reliable and quotable sources.
THE LOOK OF YOUR BOOK
You may envision an active, artsy look to the pages in your book. You might know the exact size and font you want for your chapter titles. Maybe you picture your page size as very large or unusually small.
It’s great to let people know what you have in mind, and it might be fun to prepare a sample page or two. But (and this is important) keep your manuscript in a basic, standard font and format until you are ready to publish.
A basic format will make it easier for readers, editors, agents, and publishers to review your manuscript. In fact, many places insist on a particular format for submissions. If your manuscript is already simple, fewer changes will be needed to transform it into what others may require.
FORMATTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT
What is basic formatting? It’s the simple and consistent type font, type style, and text arrangement of your manuscript.
This is what I prefer: Times New Roman, 11-point or 12-point type (pick one), single spaced, and left aligned (don’t force justify the text; it’s easier to spot unnecessary spaces when the paragraphs are left aligned). Indent the first line of all paragraphs a half inch. Insert a page break after the last line of each chapter and after the last line of each part of your book.
Here are a few other points that will make your manuscript clean and easy to read and review:
Use only one space between sentences.
Keep the margins consistent.
Remove extra spaces between paragraphs.
Use tabs to indent rather than a series of spaces.
MAKING YOUR OWN STYLE SHEET
The Chicago Manual of Style and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary are guides to specific styles of form and grammar and spelling. But authors sometimes have nuances in their manuscripts that fall outside those parameters. If you would like your first-draft readers and your editors to understand these intentional variations, you can make a style sheet for your work.
Style sheets can be quite simple. Items that might be listed are unusual spellings of people’s names or places or other proper nouns. Also include any nonstandard guidelines you are following for capitalization or punctuation, and comment on any other aspects of your manuscript that are unique.
Giving a style sheet to everyone reading a draft of your manuscript helps each person approach the manuscript with the same criteria in mind.
SOME EDITING BASICS
Consistent style and good grammar give your reader a smooth, uninterrupted and clear experience, the experience that you intend. It’s what we all strive for. And yet, sometimes, somehow, something goes awry.
Here are a couple of simple situations to watch for.
Compound words are a biggie: is it one word, two words, or hyphenated? The form and spelling of words often change over time. One author I work with told me that the word today was hyphenated (to-day) when he first started writing. Compound words are a common issue in nearly every manuscript. Your go-to dictionary (hopefully Merriam-Webster) will guide you. When you see two words that are frequently used together, check the dictionary to see which form (closed, open or hyphenated) is correct today.
Periods and commas are placed inside ending quotation marks. Yes. Always. Even then.
The Chicago Manual of Style spells numbers under one hundred and large whole numbers. Be consistent with the style you are using.
Avoid ALL CAPS. It is shouting at the reader. Avoid too many “scare quotes.” Like any mechanism, their use can easily be overdone. Avoid boldface. Choose a stronger word or phrase for emphasis.
Stay true to the timeline of your story. Watch for breaks in continuity.
And, last but not least, understand the guidelines and rules of grammar and writing; know them and follow them, but don’t be afraid to break them. If it’s an egregious offense, your editor will likely point it out.
Have you been stuck for hours trying to make a particular passage work? Do you keep stumbling over a phrase on every review and wonder if it is correct? Is the perfect metaphor escaping you, but you’re certain it’s on the tip of your tongue?
An early Warner Brothers cartoon featured a character named Porky Pig. Porky Pig stuttered. He had issues with words in nearly every scene, but he always had a solution: simply change it up.
In Porky’s Badtime Story, Porky tells his roommate, “You heard what the boss said. If we’re late again, we’ll lose our j-j-j-j-j ... our j-j-j-j-j ... our j-j-j-j-j ... We’ll get canned.”
Be okay with using a different word. Enjoy flipping a sentence. Decide you want to say something else. The solution can be quite simple once the pressure is off.
DON’T EDIT YOURSELF
Let your writing flow.
Don’t worry about commas and colons as you create. Don’t edit yourself as you go. The fancy footwork can come later. Get the footprint down first.
When you finish, you can fuss with things all you want.
Writing is first. Editing is last. It’s as simple as that.
BUT DO EDIT YOURSELF
Yes, yes. I know. You really can’t edit yourself.
But you can find many errors and correct many issues with a complete reread of your finished manuscript. Take the time to do it.
As you read, jot down thoughts you may have on plot or character issues. Notice any sentences where you stumble and need to reread a line or even a word. Are there any slow scenes that you find yourself skimming through?
Visually look at your work by flipping through (or scrolling through) pages. Does it seem balanced? Are your chapters about the same length? Does your mix of narration and dialogue seem consistent?
When you’re done reading, look carefully at the issues you’ve noted, and resolve what you can. Every bit of cleanup you can do before your editor steps in will contribute to a smoother finished product.
MURDER YOUR DARLINGS
“Murder your darlings” is an old phrase that is attributed to many writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald included. The reason it is still around is that it aptly fits what is needed: the intentional removal of favorite sentences, scenes, or even characters from your story. This may be one of the hardest actions an author will take.
Sometimes a great scene will get in the way of the action. Sometimes a fantastic character only has one purpose, which could be absorbed easily into another character’s role. Sometimes an amazing line will introduce a tangent that might take the reader out of the story.
These scenarios are real, and they happen to writers every day. Be prepared to do what is best for your book and for your reader.
VET YOUR WORK
Fact checking is important. There is no faster way to create disbelief with your reader than to present misinformation.
If you are producing technical, historical, religious, or geographical material, or if your manuscript contains other factual information, have an expert vet or confirm your work (or section of your work) before your edit. Was it Lincoln or Jefferson who signed the bill? Is the biblical quotation from Peter or Paul? Are penguins found on the North Pole or the South?
This is your book, your research, your knowledge. Your editor’s job is simply to help you communicate that story to the world, to your reader. Find your own experts to vet or confirm the accuracy of the statements or truisms that appear in your manuscript.
Go out of your way to meet other writers. Attend good writing workshops. Join a writing group. There is a community of writers waiting for you.
Look for writer events and conferences in your area. National writer associations often list local chapters. Both large and small book festivals are held in most states and usually offer opportunities to see or even meet local and favorite authors on panels or at book signings.
If you don’t have the time or desire to meet other authors face-to-face, you can find a variety of author-centric options via TV, cable, and the Internet and in newspapers and other publications. Subscribe to blogs of writers you enjoy. “Friend” authors on Facebook or connect with them through Instagram, LinkedIn, or other social-networking sites.
These are your peers, and you can learn a great deal from what they say.
Several years ago, I sat next to an elderly couple on a cross-county flight. As they settled in, she cushioned her head against the window and picked up her book, aimed for escape; he settled into his seat and turned slightly toward me, aimed for conversation.
As soon as we lifted off, he began. He asked me dozens of questions about myself, weaving in tales of his childhood, his work, his wife, their children, and their sixty-two-year marriage. He was clearly quite successful and clearly quite happy and satisfied with his life. We enjoyed a lively conversation.
When the anticipated landing of our flight was announced, he leaned close and asked me to take out a pen and paper. I scrounged through my purse, located a pen, and pulled a reply card from the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me.
“Are you ready?” he asked. “What I’m going to tell you is very important.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Here it is,” he said. I waited for it. “Never give away for free what you are good at.”
Although I had imagined his advice would be a bit more altruistic, I dutifully wrote it down.
I thought a lot about that man in the days and weeks that followed, and his advice helped me to make the leap into editing full time. With over one hundred books under my editing belt, I have never looked back.
At some point, it occurred to me that the advice he had treasured so highly he had given to me for free. As smart as he was, I’m sure he figured I’d get there eventually. It made me laugh. Funny guy.
I’d like to keep that good karma going, to pay it forward. And so, if you’re uncertain of a phrase or sentence, need help with wording, or are stuck in some way, drop me a line. Please don’t send an entire manuscript or even a chapter, just a line or two or a paragraph or two along with your question. E-mail karma @ smithwordsmith . com.
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