So here we are in a new year and I know for a fact that bunches of you are working on manuscripts and once you’re done with your draft, you’re going to hopefully get it submission-ready. That is, you’re going to prep it in hopes that a publisher will think it’s awesome and sexy.
First things first. Not all houses accept a full manuscript for a read. They might just want the first few chapters. Or maybe the first few chapters and the last few. That’s fine. The point is, if you have a full manuscript that’s ready to go, you can easily extract the chapters or first 50 pages or whatever it is the potential publisher may want to see. And you want those to be clean and ready for viewing. So here are 10 things you can do to help you get it that way.
Oh, these tips are contingent on you actually finishing a manuscript and getting it ready BEFORE you approach publishers or agents.
Okay, Captain Obvious! No, seriously. It’s best to have the manuscript done before you approach publishers (or agents, if that’s the route you’re going). Because nothing says “I’m not ready for the big-time” than hitting a potential publisher up, telling them about your manuscript, and then they want to see it and you have to say: “um. It’s halfway done, but I’m hoping to complete it the end of this year.”
The publisher then thinks: “Great bouncing barnacles! Why in tarnation/blue blazes is this author even approaching us?”
And then they’ll go on with their other projects and maybe 6-9 months later you hit them up again because yay, you did manage to finish your manuscript but by that time, they barely remember who you are (if at all).
So have your manuscript done BEFORE you approach publishers/agents.
Your manuscript is done! So now begins the clean-up to make it totally presentable and, hopefully, to train your inner editor — for your own stuff.
And yes, it’s time-consuming and more work. But if you’re serious about this writing stuff, this is part of the package. And yes, the devil is in the details.
1. Let it sit for a few days.
At least. A week or two if you can. Because what happens with every project you write is that you end up getting much too close to it and your brain is so familiar with it that it’ll automatically fill things in that are actually missing and it won’t pick up on plotlines that don’t quite work and it won’t recognize errors. So go do something else for a while to allow your brain to settle. I tend to set a project aside for about 10 days before I get it ready for submission.
2. Search on overused words and phrases and passive voice
We all do it: overuse certain words and phrases and fall into sloppy writing practices like passive voice. I’ve gotten pretty good and picking up when I’ve overused something or gone all passive, but the search function helps you really see that.
Author Lori Lake suggests creating what she calls a “Dummy Copy” — a practice she picked up from editor/writer Nann Dunne. Just create another copy of your manuscript and call it “Dummy Copy” or “Search Copy” or whatever makes it obvious that it’s the copy you’re using to see what words/phrases you’re overusing.
Lori Lake provides these instructions over at the Just About Write archive:
- Using the dummy copy, select any word or phrase and put it in your Search tool.
- In the Replace section, capitalize the word or phrase and/or select highlight.
- Hit Enter. A dialogue box will pop up and tell you how many instances are in your manuscript, and the dummy copy will replace all the originals with whatever you put in Replace.
With the word/phrase capitalized or highlighted (or both) you can now Page Up/Down and see how often it appears. Is your manuscript shot through with “seems” or “that”? Did you include multiple uses of “look” or “then” or “walked”? Fix them.
Lori Lake has a nice list (see link above) of what she searches on to determine whether she’s cluttered her writing with passive voice:
had had, have had
it is, it was
there is, there was
there are, there were
this is, this was
Also look for could/would constructions. Rather than, say, “she could see the horizon,” just say “she saw the horizon.”
You’ll be surprised at what the search turns up. Fix all that before you proofread.
3. Search on other words that we all overuse.
Following Lori Lake again, here are words you should search on in your Search Copy:
realize/occurred to/found herself
had to admit
begin, began, start
down, up (as in sit down, stand up)
just, only, merely
look, looked, looking
would, could, should
reached, reached out, reached over
caused her/him/them to…
YIKES! Bet you find a lot of that in your manuscript. Don’t worry. We all do.
And you can also use wordcounter.net. Paste a passage into it and it will show you which words are showing up and how often they do.
4. Check your dialogue
You can do this with your handy search function and search on the open quotation mark and yee-ha, work your way through! This will also help you see when you’ve accidentally dropped quotation marks.
And y’all, contractions are your friends. And you don’t need to use “that” all the time. I just read a manuscript a few weeks back and the author didn’t use many contractions, so the dialogue ended up with a stilted, awkward feel: “Yes, I am sure that he will be able to work at that time.”
Contractions can help: “Yes, I’m sure he’ll be able to work at that time.”
So please. Employ contractions.
And watch out for these dialogue tags, per Lori Lake.
Also: you guys, you cannot laugh or smile words. That is, this is not correct:
“That’s great,” she laughed.
“I wish,” he smiled.
You SAY things with a laugh or a smile:
“That’s great,” she said with a laugh.
“I wish,” he said with a smile.”
5. Disembodied body parts doing things.
Watch out for these. Like, “Her eyes darted around the room.” Think about that. What that literally means is that her eyes are not in her head and they’re flinging around the room. You can remedy that with something like, “She gazed around the room.” Or she peered or took it all in (thanks, Lori Lake!). Those work better than eyes flinging around the room.
I see this issue in sex/romantic scenes quite a bit. Usually, it’s something like, “her hands ran down Sarah’s thighs” or something similar. So basically, her hands detached from her body and are doing things on their own. Try “she ran her hands down Sarah’s thighs.” I’ve even seen, “the hand tracked up her back.” YIKES! And I invariably think of Thing from the Addams Family.
6. Check consistency.
People and place names, abbreviations, acronyms. Keep them consistent throughout. And think, too, about objects you incorporate. Don’t have your MC driving around in her blue Honda in the first eight chapters and then suddenly in chapter ten she’s driving a red Honda, e.g.
7. Now proofread
But with a twist. Do it out of order.
That is, read the first few chapters then read the last few then alternate chapters in the middle. This is strictly to help you pick up on spelling and grammar errors, and it’s making sure that your brain isn’t falling into its old habits with this manuscript, which you’ve read countless times, starting at the beginning. Shaking up your reading order forces your brain to see things in a different light.
8. Change the font.
Every time your manuscript changes appearance, you will pick things up because your brain — which got used to seeing it one way — will now see it in a different way, which means you’re kind of tricking it to pick up things. So change your font and read through and even change the line spacing. I guarantee you’ll see things you didn’t before.
Maybe it seems dumb, but run a final spell check. I still do. You’ll be surprised what this picks up, too. Missing words, weird grammar, run-on sentences that might not work, spelling errors, typos. This is not the end-all be-all and definitely not a substitute for a proofreader to have a go at it, but it’s part of your toolbox. So do it.
10. Read submission guidelines carefully.
Every publisher has submission guidelines — the format in which they’d like you to submit a writing sample or manuscript. And these formats vary by publisher. So when you have your publisher(s) picked out for submission, get the guidelines and PRINT THEM OUT so you can use the print-out as a checklist. Or put them in a spreadsheet and check them off there.
Think of the guidelines as kind of a test. A publisher wants to keep things streamlined, which is why they have formats for submissions that work for them. Don’t be THAT author who ignores guidelines. That tells a publisher you can’t follow instructions, which means you might be difficult to work with.
Your submission, friends, is your résumé and the guidelines are sort of a cover letter. It’s your chance to make a good first impression. So get your manuscript cleaned up and ready to go and follow the guidelines!
Happy manuscript cleaning!
And if you have tips you use to get your submissions ready, post in the comments! Thanks!