I know once you finish your novel and type “the end,” you are probably either sick of the story and just want it off your desk or you are eager to get it into the hands of your editor and, eventually, your readers.
But after finishing your first draft, that’s where the real work begins, after all, we all know that writing is really rewriting.
Before you send your manuscript to an editor, a literary agent, or a publishing house, it should be as close to perfect as you can possibly make it.
Even if you plan to self-publish and will send it to an editor, not a publishing house that might reject your manuscript, there are a lot of things you can do to make the editing process go more smoothly. If you deliver a manuscript that is in good shape, it frees up your editor’s attention to focus on making your story great instead of pointing out preventable errors that you could have caught yourself.
1. Set the manuscript aside for some time
Set the manuscript aside for at least a week, but two weeks or even a month would be better. The time away will allow you to come back to it with fresh eyes and see your work more objectively.
2. Read it for the macro aspects
Read the manuscript for big-picture problems, and take notes while you read. At this point, don’t worry about typos yet; focus on the big picture:
- Are there any plot holes?
- Is your attention flagging, indicating a scene that should be cut or tightened?
- Are the characters unlikable or flat?
- Is the story’s conflict too weak?
- Is your beginning a little boring?
- Is the middle of the story dragging?
- Is the end rushed or contrived?
- Are the character arcs believable?
- Do the characters act “out of character” in any scene?
- Are there any subplots that aren’t resolved?
3. Read it for smaller issues
Once you made the big structural changes, read it again, this time for smaller issues such as:
- continuity errors (e.g., the character’s cat disappears halfway through the book, and no one seems to notice),
- slips in point of view,
- dialogue that sounds too formal,
- unnecessary dialogue tags,
- descriptions that tell when they should show.
If you are a newbie writer, you can do several passes for different issues.
4. Run a spell check.
I can’t believe how many authors send off their manuscripts without even running a spell check. Don’t be one of them, please. Also don’t blindly rely on spell check—it won’t catch every mistake, and sometimes, it suggests corrections that are just plain wrong.
5. Send the manuscript to beta readers
Send the third draft to at least two beta readers and revise the manuscript with the help of their feedback.
6. Revise for language and flow
Then go through the manuscript line by line and look at language, pacing, and flow.
- Are your paragraph breaks in the right place?
- Have you avoided repetitive sentence structures?
- Are you overusing adjectives, adverbs, passive voice, or participles?
- Are you overusing certain words or repeating them too close together?
- Are any of your sentences too long, clunky, or confusing?
- Did you make sure to write in chronological order?
- Unless you’re a writer who writes too sparsely, tighten the text. Does every sentence move the story forward? Are there any words that could be cut?
7. Go over your self-editing checklist
Do a search for every item on your self-editing checklist. If you don’t have a self-editing checklist, start one right now. It can be either a notebook or a document on your computer. Add to it whenever an editor, critique partner, or beta reader points out a mistake, craft issue, or bad habit such as:
- Pet phrases and words you overuse.
- Words you commonly misspell.
- Grammar mistakes you made in the past, e.g., using like when you should use as if.
- Filter words.
- Overusing adverbs or participles.
- Body language you overuse.
- Red flags for telling.
- Autonomous body parts.
- Extra spaces (MS Word’s search-and-replace function is your best friend for this task!)
8. Run another spell check.
Since your revisions probably introduced new spelling mistakes, run another spell check.
9. Proofread thoroughly
Proofread the manuscript for typos, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Keep an eye on punctuation mistakes too, for example, make sure your dialogue is punctuated correctly.
Here are 20 tips on how to proofread your manuscript. One of the tips is to read the manuscript out loud or have a text-to-speech software read it back to you. Hearing the words out loud will often make mistakes more obvious, and it also helps you to make your dialogue sound more natural.
10. Format your manuscript
If you’re sending the manuscript to a literary agent or a publishing house, format it according to their submission guidelines, which you’ll usually find on their website.
A quick note on the order of steps 1-10
The order of these steps can vary, depending on your manuscript, your level of experience, and your personal preferences. For example, you could send your manuscript to beta readers once you have already revised it for language and gone over each item on your self-editing checklist.
The order of steps is entirely up to you, as long as you don’t skip any of them.