That thrilling moment when you think, “My manuscript is ready for the world.” I have been laboring for three years on my current work-in-progress, and I’m finally at the point where I’m preparing my novel for my agent. But before I—or anyone—sends out the manuscript, there are a few things that need to be done first. Here’s what I do:
Give it to a beta reader
Throughout the writing of my manuscript, my critique group has read large chunks at a time, but when I was done with the twenty-seventh revision (okay, fourth, but it feels like twenty-seven), I gave my manuscript to a trusted reader who hasn’t seen any of it before. If my reader says, “I adore it. I think you’re ready,” then I move ahead. If not, I go back to another round of revisions. Happily, my beta reader gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up on my current work-in-progress.
Print it out
Yes, it’s a lot of paper, but printing my manuscript allows me to look at it with fresh eyes. I have my local copy shop print it and bind it with a coil, so it’s easier to read while lying on the couch (after all, what’s the point of being a writer if you can’t work while lying on the couch?). To save on printing costs, I shrink my margins and line spacing and have it printed double-sided.
Sentence by sentence editing on the printout
Big picture revisions have been made. This isn’t the time to be introducing new scenes or characters (and if I find I do need to do that, then I need to take a step back and do another revision); this is the time to look at the sentences. I use a pretty colored pen (my current work-in-progress takes place in Florida, so I used a citrus- orange pen) and edit that printed-out version. What do I look for in the sentences?
- Does every sentence serve a purpose? If a scene works without the sentence, then it’s fluff and can be removed.
- Are there words that seem to be overused? It can be hard to tell while reading, but occasionally I’ll think, “Hmm, that word is giving me a sense of déjà vu.” I make a list of those words.
- Am I explaining something that’s clear through the action or dialogue? I don’t need to preface a conversation with “I embroidered as we discussed the situation.” My character can simply embroider and the dialogue can happen.
- Are the adverbs I can eliminate? I’m not in the “no adverb ever” camp, but I am in the “use them as sparingly as possible” camp.
- Do I have unnecessary words? “She squinted her eyes.” Is it even possible to squint anything else? “His hand stroked my cheek.” Could he have stroked her cheek with his foot? Those get changed to “She squinted” and “He stroked my cheek.”
- Do I have dialogue tags other than “said” or “ask”? Exclamation points? Those are nixed now. At this point, I can usually delete a number of “she said” or “he said,” because it’s clear who is speaking. The fewer dialogue tags the better.
Input the changes
All those edits are inputted on my computer version. As I make those changes, I often find other places where I can tighten my writing.
Search on my writing tics
I now take that list of suspected overused words, and I search on each of them. If they’re only used a couple of times in the entire manuscript, I let them stand. If not, delete, delete, delete. This is where a thesaurus becomes my best friend.
I keep a frequently updated Word file called “Words I Overuse.” I search on all the words listed in that document. My personal tics include lurching stomachs, “at that moment,” and glancing. Why do so many people glance in my novel? By the end, they no longer do so.
Read it aloud
Read it again? And out loud? Yep. I find a quiet spot in my house, warn my family to ignore me, and read the entire manuscript out loud. Some people like to have their word processing program read their novels to them (Scrivener for Mac and Word both have this capability), but I prefer to read it myself. This takes a good while (I keep a glass of water handy because my mouth dries), but I’m always amazed at what I hear that I didn’t notice when I read silently. Word repetitions. Typos that my eye skated over. Unintentional rhyming. Reading out loud is the best way to discover any remaining errors.
Format the manuscript
The final step: making my manuscript pretty. I work in Scrivener, so I export my file to Word. Add in my headers (manuscript title, my last name, the page number), make sure the font is 12-point Times Roman, and add a title page. Is it double-spaced? Do all the chapters start on new pages? If you work in Word, you should double-check that all comments and track changes have been removed.
And then, and only then, is it ready to send to my agent. She will then read it, lavish me with praise, and send it immediately on submission. I wish! No, what will happen is she’ll read it, edit it, and send it back to me for yet more revising. But at least I’ll be confident that I’ve given her the best possible version of my novel, and we’ll get to that submission phase all the sooner for it.
Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel, Modern Girls (NAL/Penguin), was a Goodreads Choice semifinalist for Historical Fiction and a USA Today bestseller. She has published fiction and creative nonfiction in Fiction Southeast, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, The Southeast Review, Cognoscenti, and Bellevue Literary Review, among other places. She has a BFA in film and television from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington, Seattle. This makes her uniquely suited to write film reviews, which would be great if she hadn’t stopped going to the movies when her kids were born. Jennifer has eliminated almost all the adverbs from her current work-in-progress and is getting ready to hit “send.”