Polishing Your Work
When you’ve finished your first draft, you should put it away in a drawer for some length of time—a day, a week, a month—how long is up to you, but the longer you can go without looking at it, the fresher your perspective will be when it’s time to revise. If you can wait long enough that you nearly forget the details of your plot line, you’ll almost be able to read it objectively, as your readers would.
When it’s time to begin revising, you can either print the whole thing out and go through it with a pen (red is traditional, but can be psychologically harsh—I’d suggest green), or go through a copy of the original file on your computer. After the first draft is finished, you should always work from a copy in case you want to compare or revert to something from the original.
The following revision suggestions are paraphrased from an article titled “Set the narrative hook” by William G. Tapply in the October 2009 issue of The Writer magazine. As you go through your first draft, keep these points in mind. You may want to read through the entire story focusing on one point, then read it again focusing on the next point, and so on.
- Let your characters’ actions and words create the scene, not your descriptions and summaries. That way the reader will feel as if she is witnessing the scene herself, instead of hearing about it second-hand. This is commonly referred to as “Show, don’t tell.”
- Check your sentences for active verbs and solid, specific nouns. Avoid passive verbs and passive voice—avoid forms of “to be” used with another verb (the door was opened, he was going to go).
- Minimize your use of adverbs and adjectives. Often these indicate that you didn’t use a strong enough verb or noun. Consider the difference in these two phrases: “the speeding shuttle forcefully pushed its way through the dense cloud cover” or “the airship blasted into the upper atmosphere.” Which one has a stronger sense of speed and movement?
- Edit out cliches, melodrama, overly verbose passages, and excessive descriptions. Your goals should be conciseness, specificity, and clarity. If enough time has passed since you wrote the first draft, you may find places and passages that confuse you. Your readers will be doubly confused.
- Don’t show off your expansive vocabulary or your ability to write grammatically correct convoluted sentences. As a writer, you should be invisible. The spotlight should be on your characters and the events of their story.
Once you’ve gone through at least one revision, record yourself reading the entire manuscript out loud and listen to it, taking notes about any spot that sounds rough, slow, or awkward, or that doesn’t advance the plot. Alternatively, you can read it out loud to a close friend, or ask them to read it out loud to you. Phrases that read well on paper don’t always sound natural out loud. This is an especially helpful exercise for any dialogue in your story.
Below are some references that may help you in self-editing your manuscript.
- Online consistency checker
- Grammar Girl searchable grammar rules and tips
- Twelve Common Errors: A Self-Editing Checklist for Students from UW-Madison
- “Editing Fiction” article by Fiction Factor
The benefits of an editor
If you are planning to submit your manuscript to an agent or publishing company, you should consider hiring an independent editor to provide a thorough copy edit. A good copy editor is your partner in polishing your manuscript in preparation for publication. She can help make the difference between an agent or editor dropping your work in the slush pile, or continuing to read beyond the first five pages.
Your copy editor reads your work thoroughly, line by line, checking for more than just spelling and grammar mistakes. She ensures that your characters remain consistent throughout the story, that the setting and plot details are plausible, and that your voice and style are consistent to the end.
Researching publications and submission guidelines
This is an often overlooked task that usually takes a backseat to writing, but do not slack off and cut corners now that you’ve got a polished manuscript. Take the time to locate only those markets or agents that would fit your story like a glove. They are your best chance of reaching publication.
In addition, be sure to follow their submission guidelines to the letter. Nothing irritates an agent or editor more than to receive a manuscript by email when their website clearly states they only accept snail-mail submissions. There are many sources to research agents and publications, including Duotrope, QueryTracker.net, AgentQuery, and WritersMarket.com. If you have a particular agent or publisher in mind, be sure to read through their website carefully.
Write the climax and ending of your story.
Research publications that may be a good fit for the genre, theme, and length of the story you wrote.
Write a second draft of your story, using a critical eye to tighten up your prose, remove unnecessary words, and correct errors.