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Editing and Assessing Your Own Manuscript

The following article was commissioned by Writing WA and Written by John Harman
© Writing WA Inc 2015

There’s nothing to beat it is there? I mean that feeling of exultation when you finally put those two little words ‘THE END’ on the last page of your manuscript and you announce – quite loudly – to the world, ‘Yes! I’ve finished my book.’

Congratulations! You deserve to feel elated. It’s a great accomplishment. You’ve gone the distance, completed what would have sometimes seemed an impossible task: days, weeks, months of sweating over the storyline and the characters and the quality of the writing. And now it’s all finished. The book is done.

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this but … no, it isn’t done. What you have accomplished, although it’s no mean feat, is to finish your first draft. That means you are still much closer to the beginning of the process of writing your novel or non-fiction book than you are to the end. Your first draft is no more than that – your first draft. You have many more drafts to work through – at least four or five more before you can even begin to consider that your book might be finished.

So what happens in this murky hinterland between completing your first draft and perhaps having your manuscript (MS) professionally assessed or, more likely, preparing to send it off to a literary agent or publishing editor?

Quite a lot as a matter of fact: there’s a lot to do and a lot to learn, including the most fundamental principle in the business of writing, the one all professional writers know to be entirely true – that all writing is re-writing. WA novelist Leigh Alver sums it up pretty well when he says: If I have learnt anything out of the last year or two, it is that writing the first draft and editing that draft into a manuscript that is able to meet professional standards, are two very different disciplines.

F. Scott Fitzgerald also knew this: he re-wrote Tender is the Night seventeen times, while novelist Joyce Carol Oates said, I probably spend 90% of my time revising what I’ve written.

So, the first thing to understand is that in completing your first draft you have merely, like Michelangelo, captured the stone; carved from the quarry face that block of raw material out of which you hope to create your masterpiece. Your first draft is little more than a vaguely formed lump of clay from which you may hope to mould that great work of art lurking in the shadowy recesses of your cerebral cortex.

Viewed in this light you can see how inappropriate is the idea that you, or anyone else, can accurately assess your first-draft manuscript. Assessing a first draft is akin to polishing a lump of coal: it’s a long way from being the diamond that can take a polish.

First drafts are full of plot holes, character inconsistencies, inappropriate dialogue, and misused exposition. For instance, I once was asked to assess a first draft MS where the action was interrupted more than forty times while the characters made tea. Yet the writer was convinced this had occurred only two or three times and was appalled when I referenced every page where the tea making held up the narrative thrust of the story.

So, no matter how precious you think your first draft is, it’s no more than a work in progress and only after you have put it and your subsequent drafts through a rigorous process of self-editing can you start to think about an assessment.

The OED and Macquarie Dictionaries both broadly define the verb to assess as … ‘to estimate the worth of something’. The verb appraise has pretty much the same meaning. So, when it comes to assessing your manuscript it’s all about comparing its worth against what’s out there in the world of published books, how well your MS stacks up against books in its particular genre. Publishers evaluate a MS on its potential to sell: what the manuscript is worth in terms of the bottom line. Any first-draft manuscript is so far short of the quality of a published book that any attempt to assess it is akin to evaluating a lump of potter’s clay against a Sèvres vase.

What all this means is that before you make any attempt to assess your manuscript you need to edit the first draft and then the second and the third and the fourth – in fact as many drafts as it takes until you are sure the job is done. Only after you have done that will you be close to having a manuscript you can assess with a cool and dispassionate eye.

So what does editing involve?

Editing your manuscript follows a three-tiered, top-down process. The three elements are:

  • Substantive Editing
  • Copy Editing
  • Line editing or proofreading

Substantive editing is what you will spend most of your time on for the first few drafts of your MS. It’s about the content and structure of your narrative and involves not only adding and deleting chapters but usually a huge amount of rewriting. These first few drafts are almost entirely about your story, whether fiction or non-fiction. Substantive editing on your first few drafts has very little to do with the quality of the writing.

To try to fix the writing at this stage is a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. A manuscript with flaws in its conception or structure, with holes in the plot, deficiencies in the characters, false notes in the dialogue, cannot be put right with polished prose. Focusing on the writing if your manuscript possesses structural problems is entirely wasted effort.

To edit draft after draft successfully you have to know what your story is about: what your intention is in telling it; what inner urges drive your characters to do what they do; what’s inside them striving to get out. Often this takes time to emerge – maybe two or three drafts – and in the process the story may change. But slowly, as you work on each succeeding draft, you begin to see the shape of your narrative, to see what you need to do to create an impact. You begin to see the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Always remember that writers count words, so do a word-count on your first draft and all those subsequent to it. In the first few drafts you may see the word count go up. That doesn’t matter; at this stage you are looking to structure the story, not tighten the writing.

Next, if it’s possible, organise the narrative into scenes and construct a running order. You may have anywhere from sixty to a hundred and fifty scenes. Review them with the story structure in mind. Will the story work better in another order; can you give it a powerful twist by rearranging the scenes; can you play with the timescale; does the story need scenes added; can you cut scenes out or merge them into each other? Keep checking your timeline to make sure that the story flows chronologically or, if not, that the reader can readily identify the flashbacks or flash forwards.

Ensure that the characters are consistently in line with their desires and aspirations throughout the narrative. Check that their descriptions are consistent and that the dialogue reflects the people and their current circumstances. Check that a character shot in the leg on page fifty isn’t running a marathon a week later on page fifty-nine. Don’t allow your characters to change for no reason.

Check the point-of-view (POV). This may be where you decide to change the POV of the story from first to third person or vice versa. If you change POV within the narrative, make sure the changes are obvious and not confusing. Double check your research for accuracy. People in the know will call you out on mistakes. After about the third or fourth draft you will be seeing the narrative in much clearer perspective and the story should be hanging together coherently.

Once you have the structure firmly grounded and in place, the plot complete and logical, and the characters crystallised and believable, then you can turn your attention to revising and editing the story until both it and the writing are smooth and seamless.

So now, having nailed your story, your substantive editing begins to morph into copy editing as you start looking to get rid of the dead weight: those passages where you’re trying to show off your writing; places where you have overdone the research; scenes where, either in the dialogue or the narrative, a character (or, more likely, you, through your character) starts to get preachy; places where you’ve written a whole heap of description or backstory (called info dump) instead of using subtle exposition and seeding it throughout the narrative.

This copy-editing phase of the process is also much more rules-based. It is concerned with grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, hyphenation … which means that you have to know the rules. This edit is about the use of language and the mechanics of style, although you will still be checking for consistency in the story as you go.  In the copy edit you will be looking at your sentence complexity and the appropriate use of the active or passive voice in your sentences. You will be continuously looking for concision, eliminating where possible all unnecessary words. You will be examining your syntax, asking
yourself the question: does this sentence do what I want it to do?

It’s in the copy edit that you develop your style and your voice while maintaining the consistency of tone in your narrative.  Once into the copy edit you may be able to take up to twenty per cent out of the word count as you see where you can cut entire scenes and paragraphs and sentences and even single words.

Whatever your story is about, it’s about life, which means you are constantly seeking to create life with your words and in your scenes. Use the power of the senses and aim for at least two in every scene: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Enhance scenes as much as you can.  In this phase of editing you will be reviewing your sentences word by word, conscious of the connotations of each word as you weigh its impact, its tone, and its value before making your choices. You will be continually looking for fresh and original ways of expressing yourself, avoiding the use of hackneyed metaphors.

In particular you will be seeking to:

  • Cut out as many adverbs as possible, replacing them with ‘muscular’ verbs – that is, using a strong verb instead of relying on a qualifying adverb. ‘He complained,’ is better than, `he said complainingly’.
  • Check the appropriateness and necessity of every adjective.
  • Let the dialogue stand on its own without unnecessary attributions or tags.
  • Avoid starting too many sentences with the present participle such as: `Running up to him….’ Often, it’s better to write `She ran up to him….’.
  • Use the active voice rather than the passive. Instead of `He was stunned by her action’ better `Her action stunned him’.
  • Exercise caution in starting sentences with words such as: As; Then; Just then; Because; There is; There are, as these often indicate slack writing. They also allow the writer’s voice to creep into the narrative when that may not be your intention.

Throughout the copy editing stage of the process you are looking to deploy:

  • a deep feeling for the intentions and voice beneath the surface of your book
  • a sensual love of the language
  • a sense of elegance
  • utter ruthlessness – always be prepared to “kill your darlings”.

The last step in the three-tier editing process is proofreading, also known as the line-edit. A proofreader reads every word in the MS to check for typos: for spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, hyphenation, text alignment, word spacing: in fact, everything. This is close and detailed work. It’s exacting, meticulous, picky and painstaking and I’ve never known a writer who could adequately proofread his or her own manuscript.

By the time a writer has worked through so many drafts, he or she can be staring at a typo for weeks and never see it. The best you can do for proofreading is to find a friend who has the ability to work with minute detail and persuade them to take on the task. Alternatively, there are professional proofreaders out there who will undertake the job for a fee. Many professional writers do their best with proofreading, knowing they will miss a few typos and the odd solecism. They know that a publisher is not going to turn down a great manuscript because of a few minor mistakes; publishers always have a manuscript proofread as the final stage before going to press.

Of course if you are going to self-publish, or put your book out as an e-book, then you will need to have the MS proofread. There are more than enough terrible examples of books that haven’t been line edited out there without us adding to them. What I have written here is no more than a quick romp through the process of editing your first and subsequent drafts. Hopefully it may give you some notion of the amount of work involved, a realisation that it’s likely to take you at least as long to edit the second and subsequent drafts of your book as it did for you to write the first one.

Finally, when you have done all this, there are a couple of finishing steps which may help you produce a really great manuscript.
Firstly, find someone to read your MS as a reader – not an assessor. Remember, the proof of our prose lies with the reader, not with us as the writer. However you manage it, try to develop a trusting relationship with a reader whose instincts you respect and who is willing to be candid with you. You can often do this through joining a writers’ group. Or you may be able to use a spouse, a partner, or a friend. Whoever you use, you need someone who wants you to succeed and expects you to be a good writer but who is also willing and able to hurt your feelings if necessary. You may not take every criticism to heart, but you need to respect the reasonable expectations and judgements of the readers you’re trying to reach.

Finally, train yourself to read your MS out loud as a disinterested party. That’s not as easy as it sounds. All of us automatically imbue the text with the intentions we brought to it in the writing. In other words, we know what lies behind the words rather than taking those words at face value as would our readers. So read the narrative aloud plainly, listening for repetition, for balance and for clarity while measuring the pace of the narrative. Back in the day, before the rise of manuscript assessors, this process was what all writers did for themselves. Even now, professional writers still do it.  Only after you have worked through the editing of many drafts of your MS should you consider approaching an agent or publisher or spending money on having your MS professionally assessed. By that stage your MS may have a chance of publication and will certainly be worth an assessment.

So, good luck with your editing. It’s worth the effort. No one pays a lot for a lump of potter’s clay but a Sèvres vase is a thing of beauty – and may be worth millions.

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