As a writer, a writing teacher, and now an editor for TPP, I can tell you that no matter how good your story is, it can always be better. (My theme for my first-year college composition class is, “There’s no such thing as good writing—only good REwriting,” and I believe this in my core.) Once your magnum opus has been freed from the confines of your skull, the hard work begins—polishing, cutting, adding, cutting some more, and polishing again until that baby shines.
Then, if you’re lucky enough to get published, you’ll receive an editor who will go in with a machete and hack away, all for the benefit of your darling sweet baby. It stings—indeed it does—but it’s so worth it when your book goes in as a frog and comes out as a prince. It’s like childbirth—you’ll forget the pain when you gaze in wonder at what you wrought.
So my first piece of advice is this: Don’t be precious about your work. I’m sure it’s splendid, I know YOU’RE splendid, but honey, I’m here to tell you right now that it can be splendider. (Yeah, I just made that word up. My editor would totally get rid of it.)
So how can you polish your own work in a way that catches a publisher or agent’s eye? Having caught said eye, how can you make life easier for both you and your editor?
Here are some practical tips I use to make my manuscripts better, and I urge you to keep them in mind as you transform yours.
First, use the following Microsoft Word tools:
*If you have not formatted your document accordingly, please CTRL-A to highlight the entire document. Start at the “Home” tab and format your manuscript to Times New Roman, 12 pt. font. This makes it much easier on your editor; we don’t need or want fancy formatting right now. That will come later, in your galley proof!
*Go to the “Paragraph” block and click the little symbol in the corner. In the dialogue box, find the “line spacing” dropdown and choose “double.”
*Make sure you insert your last name/title of the book, and the page number in the top right of the page (double click in the header). It should look something like this:
*When it is time to start a new chapter, go to the “Insert” tab and then choose “Page Break.” Indicate your next chapter on that new page. Don’t just hit “enter” to get to a new page, as this does not always stick.
*Go to “Review” on the tool bar and run the Spelling and Grammar Check. Check, too, any spelling that you are using as “slang”–in creative writing, slang is fine, but it still should adhere to basic spelling rules. If you’re not sure, type the word into Google real quick and see what Merriam-Webster has to say.
NOW FOR MY FAVORITE EDITING TOOL OF ALL TIME. Seriously, how did I write before I found this? I honestly don’t know! It’s called the “speak” function (called “read aloud” in Office365), and I cannot tell you how vital it is as an editing tool you can use for yourself. There’s something about hearing the robot voice of the machine reading your words back to you that helps you catch so many common writing errors: repetition of words and phrases (we all do it!), awkward sentence structure, grammar issues like too much (or too little) comma use, inconsistencies in plot . . .
Other than spell-check, this is the ONE tool I’d love for all my writing clients to use on a regular basis. (Side-note: I used it before I hit “post” on this blog. I mean, I use it for everything!)
The best technique for catching some of your own writing problems using “speak” is to highlight one paragraph at a time and read the words with your eyes as the computer reads aloud. This way, you can focus on the paragraph (instead of glazing over and running ahead), and you can catch and fix problems as you encounter them. I suggest you proof your work using this method in little chunks of time—perhaps ten pages per day.
You can add the “speak” function to your tool bar; this handy little video walks you through how to do this:
It’s good for EVERYONE, y’all!
So that’s Word and all its glory. Now let’s talk grammar and punctuation, shall we?
Yes, we shall.
Grammar/Punctuation Issues to Check For:
*Ellipsis: An ellipsis is used to mark an omission from quoted speech or text, signal an incomplete or unstated thought, or a pause or gap in speech or text. It consists of THREE dots, with a space before each one. It is NOT written like … or like. . . . It is . . . (space, dot, space, dot, space).
*Dashes vs. hyphens: Hyphens separate actual letters in a word that belong together; for example, straight-up, mid-week, switch-task. They are the short dash on the keyboard and require no spaces.
*Em dashes (long dash) can function like a comma, parenthesis, or colon. If you are an em-dash user, please check the following link, as it clearly expresses when to use an em dash: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/em-dash-en-dash-how-to-use
In terms of editing, the important thing I would like you to remember is that 1) you create an em dash by hitting the dash button TWICE (–) AND 2), you do not add space after the last letter of the word before the dash or before the second letter of the word after. In Word, if you will just write the word, hit the dash button twice, and start the next word, it will automatically and helpfully change your two dashes to one long one—this is the em dash!
*Numbers: Spell out numbers unless it is a time (10:00, 10 o’clock) and/or you are writing a.m. or p.m. (10 a.m./ten a.m.), date (October 4th, 2022), or if the number is longer than two words. (Two billion = correct; one thousand, four-hundred, and eighty two pennies = incorrect. In that case, is should be 1,482 pennies).
Now onto content work:
Passives: Avoid them when you can. Always try to find your active voice. In other words, something should do the action of the sentence, not have something done TO it. For example: Instead of saying “It was inferred that Jack was thirsty,” say “Jill noticed that Jack was thirsty.” (JILL is doing the action.) One neat little trick to catch passives is this: If you can add “by zombies” after the verb, it’s passive and you need to change it (because nobody wants zombies doing the work). Back to the above example: “It was inferred BY ZOMBIES that Jack was thirsty.” Mm-hmm. Fix it.
Italics: Inner dialogue, direct thoughts, dreams, visions, things the character reads should all be indicated in italics.
Repetition: Watch out for “pet phrases” or repeated words. One thing you never want to do is wake the reader up from what my favorite expert on writing, John Gardner, calls “the fictional dream”—in other words, you don’t want him/her remembering that this is a book written by a person. You want your reader to disappear into your words and once she’s there, you don’t want to wake her up with clumsy writing. It is a truth universally acknowledged that repetition can make even the best story seem tedious. The perfect tool to catch this problem, again, is the “speak” function in Word.
Dialogue: Be careful with your “dialogue tags.” Remember: The speaker of the dialogue must be the subject of the dialogue OR the action tag that follows it.
“Good morning,” Trish said, glancing up at Shannon from her chair by the fire. (dialogue tag)
“Well, good morning to you!” Shannon plopped down in the chair next to her. (action tag)
“Have you seen the sales at McCloud’s this week?” Trish passed the catalog she’d been reading to her friend. (action tag)
“Chuck Taylors are half off? I guess I know where we’re going tomorrow,” Shannon said, tapping an ad with her index finger. (dialogue tag)
What NOT to do with the above (we’ll keep the first line the same and correct):
“Good morning,” Trish said, glancing up at Shannon from her chair by the fire. (dialogue tag)
“Well, good morning to you!” Trish smiled as Shannon plopped down in the chair next to her. (Now it’s Shannon’s turn to speak, so she should be the subject of the action tag—not Trish.)
“Have you seen the sales at McCloud’s this week?” Shannon grabbed the catalog Trish was holding out to her as she asked the question. (Trish is asking the question here, but because Shannon is the action tag, it is confusing to the reader who is saying what. Even with “as she asked the question” added, the reader doesn’t know for sure WHO is asking the question—Shannon or Trish?)
ALSO: Give each person his/her own line for response in dialogue, indicated by a paragraph break!
Dialogue helpers: Use other words for “said” sparingly. Sometimes speech words can indicate a mood or action, but overuse them, and you run the risk of waking the reader from your fictional dream. “Said” is a generic term that does not interrupt the flow of the sentence like other speech words may. So avoid things like:
“What are you doing,” she queried.
“I’m taking the dog to the vet,” he growled.
“Why?” she wondered.
“Because he won’t stop barking,” he shouted.
“But he’s just excited to see you,” she cried.
“That’s why we’re going to the vet—he needs some calming pills,” he insisted.
Do you see how these speech tags piled on top of each other slowed things down (and started to sound pretty ridiculous)? Think of them as salt in a soup—a little is great for flavor, but too much and it spoils the taste! Use “said” the most—trust me, you’ll have plenty of other places to get fancy with your words.
I will probably add to this post as things occur to me, but this is a healthy list to start with. If you do these things, you’ll find your manuscript is more polished-looking, and you won’t have so many things to fix after your editor gets her hands on it.
Happy writing, y’all—and have a great Thanksgiving! I’m thankful to our great and good God for you, my faithful readers and splendid friends.