Whether you’re planning to send your novel to a literary agency or would like to submit it to a writing contest, you should go through your manuscript and make sure that it’s polished to perfection before you do so. Literary agencies and writing contests receive thousands of submissions. You don’t want to give a reader a reason to put your book down on page one. With this in mind I’ve created a list of things you should check for in your manuscript. Most of the time we are blind to the problems in our work (especially after we’ve been editing it for months) and having a list of possible problems to look for can make the final editing process easier.
1. Grammar and Punctuation: 30% of manuscripts I’ve read for writing contests have had major grammar and/or punctuation mistakes. The worst part is the writer will often have a captivating story and great characters, but the grammar mistakes are so bad the manuscript is unreadable. The idea of writing is to communicate. If punctuation and grammar mistakes make the prose confusing the writing cannot communicate the story.
A good way to find grammar and punctuation mistakes is to read your book out loud. When you stumble through a sentence it most likely needs a tune up. If you find yourself short of breath while reading a sentence, it probably is because you’ve misused punctuation.
2. Speaker Tags: One of the most common mistakes writers make involves the use of speaker tags. A good speaker tag doesn’t call attention to itself and doesn’t try to convey the tone of the dialogue. A good speaker tag doesn’t misuse the tag’s verb. Here’s a few examples:
“I’m going to be the best actor in a chicken suit Pollo Feliz has ever seen,” John laughed.
The problem here is that John cannot ‘laugh’ a line of dialogue. He can ‘say’ it, but he can’t physically laugh it. Believe me I’ve tried to laugh a line of dialogue in writing workshops and you just can’t do it.
“Where’s me shoe?” Lydia asked, vehemently.
Using an adverb in a speaker tag calls attention to the tag and there is often a better way to express the tone of the dialogue. Her are some other ways to write the same sentence without an adverb in the tag:
Lydia tapped her bare foot against the linoleum. “Where’s me shoe?”
“Where’s me shoe?” Lydia asked. Her voice dripped with venom.
In the first example we rely on the reader to pick-up on the tone of the dialogue by showing the reader the action of the character. In the second example we tell the reader the tone of the dialogue, but still without using an adverb in the speaker tag.
3. Passive Verbs: A passive verb is usually preceded by a conjugation of the verb “to be,” and indicates something is being done to the subject of the sentence rather than the subject performing the act. Here are some examples:
On several occasions Doug was caught wearing a dress by Zoey. (passive)
Zoey caught Doug wearing a dress on several occasion. (active)
The giant spiders are drawn to Brooklyn by the scent of pepperoni pizza. (passive)
The scent of pepperoni pizza drew the giant spiders to Brooklyn. (active)
Passive sentences aren’t the worst thing in the world, but why use ‘to be’ when you could use an ‘active’ verb to its full potential. To find passive verbs search your entire manuscript for is, are, was, were, am.
4. Clichés: We all use them either on purpose or accidentally and in some cases it’s perfectly fine to use them. However, in most cases there is a better way to express the same thing. If you are bent on having a character use a cliché maybe think about using a variations on a cliché that remind people of the original cliché while changing it. A writer I know replaced, “They were packed together like sardines,” with “They were packed together like vienna sausages.”
5. The Word ‘Decide’: I come across this all the time. A character decides to do something and then a paragraph later they do it. Usually there is no reason for the character to decide to do it before he or she goes and does the deed. I always do a word search for ‘decide’ when I’m editing and check to see if it is necessary.
6. Opening Sentence. 90% of the submissions I read have bad grammar or misused verbs in the opening sentence because they are trying to impress the reader with their long flowery first sentence. It’s almost funny to think a writer would work so hard to make that first sentence shine, only to end up with the opposite. Whether we like it or not our opening sentence is the most important in the entire manuscript. It has to be amazing, but it also has to use proper punctuation and grammar (in most cases) for us to be impressed by it.
7. Transitions: One of my pet-peeves is when a writer uses italics to signify a flashback instead of a transition. When going into a flashback a writer should (in most cases) use a Three In Three Out. What’s that? It’s a way to smoothly transition into a flashback and then back to the present. Here’s an example:
Joe thought back to his days in Africa. He had been living on a house boat at the time. The mosquitoes had left marks all over his body and he had often thought he looked like a leaper. Still, there had not been any shops in the area to buy repellant. “Where is that cream,” he yelled at his wife. She stalked into the front of the boat and shook her head…
We use the three in rule here to show that we are going into a flashback. Once we establish the flashback has happened in the past we switch to simple past tense again and the reader understands that we are telling a story from the past. After we have finished telling the flashback we transition back in the exact same manner. Depending on how long the flashback is we can adjust this to a two in two out or even a one in one out.
I could think of another seven things you should check while editing, but I think those are the most important. You want your prose to be confident and powerful. If you pay attention to the above guidelines, your manuscript will become much more polished and your writing will read as active and confident.
Do you have your own set of guidelines you follow when editing a manuscript? Leave your list below in the comments. Do you disagree with any of the above? Tell us why in the comments.
Nathan Feuerberg writes short stories, novels, and plays. He received a BA from The American University of Rome, an MSc in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh, and an MFA from The University of New Orleans. His fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals such as Rio Grande Review, SOL Literary Magazine, and 34th Parallel. His plays have been preformed in England, France, and Italy. Currently, he is working on a short story collection entitled Snap. He resides in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Angela Gilliam asked in the comments below, “This was useful for me, though I am writing a memoir. But could you explain Transitions in more detail? It seemed as though you had four “had” (passive/past participle)and two straight preterite or past. I tend to overuse the passive voice and want to make sure I understand this. Perhaps you could also cite a source for further reading on this rule. Thanks again for this entry.”
Since WordPress doesn’t allow coloring of text in the comments I’m putting my answer up here:
Here’s an example from one of my stories. The protagonist is sitting in a restaurant while the woman he’s thinking about is in the bathroom. In the example we go from the present to a flashback and then transition back out into the present again. I use a 4 IN 2 OUT to do it. The parts marked in red are the transition. The sentences marked in blue are the beginning and end of the flashback. We use a transition to the flashback to indicate we are going into a flashback and we use the same verb tense to give the prose the same immediacy as the rest of the story.
That lying slut, he thinks. She didn’t even warn me. Didn’t have the decency to hint that I might be out of a job. After all they’d been through, he’d expected that much. She probably knew weeks ago that they were pulling the plug but she didn’t even call. When we first met she would have. We were close then. At least he thought so.
Two years ago, he’d flown up to Washington, DC for a party. Between the flutes of bubbly and the passing trays of hors d’oeuvre he’d spied her long legs for the first time. His eyes had worked their way up her thighs, across her breasts, until he had reached her shoulder length blond hair. Then with a saunter, much like a handicapped peacock, he had made his way through the crowd and introduced himself.
“I’m DSI’s corporate liaison,” he told her, holding out his hand. “I believe you’re the only one working on the test I haven’t met.”
“I’m actually not on the test,” she answered.
“Just crashing the party?”
“No, I came with a friend.” She pointed to a young man mingling with some officers.
Guillermo nodded all the while picturing Sarah without her skirt, without her blouse. “You know it’s my first time in Georgetown, and I have no idea where to go after this little soiree.”
“The monuments are always nice at night, and it’s fairly safe in that area.” She strained her dimples, cutting a smile into her angular cheeks.
“Is it far from here?”
“No, not really.”
“Would you mind showing me? I’m used to smaller towns. I get so lost in the city.”
He imagined her bra and panties falling on the floor of his hotel room.
The cab dropped them in front of the Vietnam Memorial. Dim lights ignited the names of fallen soldiers. They strolled down a path that led them to the Potomac River. In the pale light, Guillermo noticed a cherry blossom stuck in her hair. He reached over to remove it. She allowed his hand to linger on her shoulder.
“Why isn’t someone as attractive as you working on my test?”
“To tell you the truth, I did apply.”
“They didn’t give you the job? What were they thinking?”
“Too many people with seniority. I was lucky they even looked at my resume.”
“That’s just crazy. I might have to talk with them. Tell them they can’t discriminate against beautiful women.” His hand slid down her shoulder to the small of her back. She shivered. At the time he had thought it was because of the cold wind blowing across the river. He even offered her his sport coat. Now, thinking back, he realizes she had shivered because she was disgusted. His touch had nauseated her.
He lets his eyes half-close so that the memory melds with the heat wavering above the plate of chiles rellenos in the center of the table. Don’t let them see weakness, he tells himself. They’ll laugh in your face. He puts on a grin and looks up when he hears the bathroom door swing open.
I’m sure there is reference material out there that talks about transitions, but I don’t know of a specific book. I learned all this stuff in graduate school, and we didn’t have a text book, just an amazing teacher showing us how to write better when it came up in our work. I don’t know if Steven King’s On Writing talks about transitions, but it’s one of the best books on craft I’ve seen out there outside of Elements of Style. Whether you are writing fiction, a memoir, or nonfiction transition are essential. They should be used no matter what point of view you are using (first or third person).
Hope this was helpful.