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Hints for Cleaning Up Your Manuscript

by Sandra Barret
Copyright 2006

Editing can seem like the writing task that never dies. You spill out your story in a rush of enthusiasm. It's fresh, vibrant, and you're mostly loving every minute of it. Then it's done.

Well, sort of. Unless you're writing as a form of stress relief, chances are that someone else will be reading your story. So you want to make it the best that you can. Maybe you use beta readers to help you find the flaws, but the bulk of the work rests with you. Building your editing skills takes time, and just like in writing, the more you do, the better and easier it gets.

So, how do you approach that new story you just completed? The first piece of advice that I've seen repeated by authors and writing books is to leave it alone. Walk away. Depending on your schedule, this might be for a few days or a few months. You want to pull yourself out of the story so that when you do approach it again, you're seeing it as a reader, not a writer.

Okay, so you've let your story sit. You've ignored it for as long as you can. Now you're ready to tackle your first editing cycle. (And I say first, because you'll have more than one if your goal is to get this story published.) Where to start? Well, there are two kinds of edits that you'll need to do on this story—substantive edits, and line edits.

Substantive Edits

Substantive edits deal with the story on the macro level. Are your characters well-developed? How does the main character grow or change in your story? Is your plot strong enough to keep the reader interested from the first page to the last? I like to deal with substantive edits first. My story is a bit fuzzy in my mind at this point, so I can take a fresh look at it.

You want to read your story through from beginning to end. The only difference between you and your target reader is that you'll have a pen and paper handy to take notes while you read. Here are some of the things you want to notice as you read your story:

  • Characters—Do the main characters and subplot characters have real depth? Have you created any stereotypes (for instance, the evil villain who has no traits that the reader can sympathize with)? Do your characters react to the plot in believable ways, or do they get a personality transplant operation in the middle or end of your story? Do the main characters and subplot characters have their own story arc? Can any of your side characters be merged into one complex character?

    Author Lynn Viehl recently suggested three questions to ask your character:
    Who are you? What do you want? What's the worst thing I can do to you? (Or in the case of romance—Who's the last person on Earth that you'd fall in love with?)

  • Plot—Does your story move along at a good pace? Watch out for any areas that you are tempted to skim over. If it's not interesting to you, it won't be to your readers. On the flip side, watch out for too much action. Even in action/adventure stories, your readers need time to pause now and then. So vary your pace and scenes. A trick to remember—shorter scenes can add a sense of excitement and quicken the pace.

  • Scenes—Examine each scene to see how it moves the story along. Are you revealing something about the characters or plot that is important? Does it progress the story or is it a stand-still scene? Review each scene for info-dumps (too much information given in one lump). Two paragraphs of back story, description-setting, and even interior monologue for your main character can be enough to cause a reader to put your story down. If you find scenes like this, pull out some of this information and work it into the action of the story.

    Alice can walk into a room and notice the mauve carpet, the long tattered drapes, the bookcases, coffee table, sofa and puffball of a cat. Or Alice can flip through the boring magazines on the coffee table and grab something more interesting from the bookcase. She can pull open the tattered blinds to let some light in, sending the puffball cat scrambling to hide under the sofa. In the first sentence, everything is static, including Alice. In the second sentence, she's moving through the scene. It's all action.

  • POV Head hopping—Typically, you'll want to use one viewpoint character in a given scene. This can be difficult, especially during crucial scenes when you want to show how two different characters react to the same events. A trick I learned from a recent novel is to have short scenes that switch between the main characters. But save this kind of rapid scene switching for where you really need it. Like any other writing tip, if you overuse it, it can detract from your story.

  • Repetition/Repetition—As you read through your story, watch for scenes that repeat something you've already shared with the reader. Readers remember a lot more than writers might give them credit for. Another thing to watch out for is repeating physical descriptions. You don't need to mention your main character's deep brown eyes again and again.

  • Where did that come from?—If you find that something dramatic (in the plot or for a character) comes out of thin air, then you'll need to add a scene to establish the whys or the hows.
Now that you've filled a notebook with issues (and don't be discouraged, a lot of these issues are easier to fix than you might think), you'll want to start making these substantive changes.

Line Edits

When the substantive edits are completed, it's time for line edits. Some people do this on a printout of their stories, others can handle it directly in the story itself. Printout edits can be longer, but sometimes a problem doesn't reveal itself until you see it in print. I suggest you try line edits both ways to see which way works better for you.

Some things you'll want to look for in this edit cycle include:
  • Show vs Tell—Look not just for exposition in paragraphs, but exposition in dialog and in dialog attributions (tags). Like "Get the hell out of my house," she said loudly. (Loudly is extraneous as most people wouldn't whisper this phrase.) Anything ending in -ly is questionable.

  • Dialog—Always read your dialog out loud. Any corrections you make verbally, you should make in the story. And watch for impossible dialog attributions. "You're funny," she laughed. (You can't talk and laugh at the same time.)

  • Beats—These are those little additions between dialog that break up the conversation. You can use them to enhance the scene, or you can have too many and they detract from the scene. Watch for repeated beats. A common thing I've seen (and done) is the hand touching in romance stories before your characters are an established couple. If one character touches the other once or twice, that's a little thrill. Touching 5-10 times, it becomes a nervous tic. By 20 times, it's grounds for a restraining order. Find other ways of showing this attraction.

  • Characterization—You can enhance your characterization through dialog and viewpoint. This doesn't have to be dialect gimmicks. But a bitter, anti-social character will see the world differently and say different things than a happy-go-lucky woman in love.
These are just some of the things to look for when you face the task of editing your rough draft. As you gain more experience, you'll find that some of these fit themselves into the first draft, and that's great. But expect to have more than one edit cycle, and prepare yourself for what will be a learning adventure that will lead to a tighter, better story in the end. You'll be proud of the end result, and your readers (and potential publisher) will be grateful that you took the time to make the story the best you can produce.
Sandra Barret is a lesbian fiction writer. Her first romance novel, Lavender Secrets, will be published by Regal Crest Enterprises in February, 2007. Her online stories are available at Sandra can be reached at

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