Hold it right there.
Is that you? That person you just caught a glimpse of in the mirror — the one you didn’t recognize for a moment. That person who, just a while ago, was fat and frumpy, hairy and scary. But you’re not hairy anymore. Or scary, for that matter.
Why, you’re beginning to look like an entirely different person.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to Extreme Manuscript Makeover: Get Polished.
In Extreme Manuscript Makeover’s Introduction, you learned you were in for an interesting journey through the world of blind dating (with literary agents and editors, that is). Bare It All took you through your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and helped you brainstorm ways to improve your book. Tone It Up guided you through reshaping your first draft into something that started to look pretty darn good.
So here you are today, ready to take your manuscript to the next level. Ready to make it shine like the gem it is.
Extreme Manuscript Makeover: Get Polished
Proofreading may sound like the easiest part of writing a book, when compared to sweating it through the first draft and subsequent major edits. However, it’s not to be taken lightly. Think of polishing your manuscript as giving agents and editors one less reason to reject you.
Still, it doesn’t need to be complicated. There are only two questions you should be asking yourself during this phase of your manuscript makeover: “What Am I Looking For?” and “What Are The Best Ways To Look For It?”
What Am I Looking For?
While you’re proofreading, keep your eyes peeled for errors or weaknesses in the following categories:
- Spelling: A manuscript filled with spelling errors will hardly make a good impression on a publishing professional. Though the occasional mistake might slip through, there’s really no excuse for poor spelling in your final product. Pay careful attention to homophones, which are particularly likely to go unnoticed. Identify common words you often spell incorrectly, and watch for those as you proofread.
- Grammar: In fiction, there are certain instances in which you can play with grammatical rules. It’s quite common to see authors use incomplete sentences, split infinitives, or begin sentences with ‘and,’ ‘or,’ but’ or ‘because.’ However, when this is a deliberate stylistic choice, your reader will know. If your incorrect grammar is the result of negligence, your reader will also know.
- Punctuation: Periods, commas, question marks, exclamations — they seem pretty straight forward. Ah, but don’t forget the more complicated colon, semi-colon and apostrophe. What about quotations and brackets? They can be confusing as well. While you might be generally proficient with language, you’ll be more likely to spot errors if you brush up on rules immediately before a proofread.
Cliches and Idioms: While you should strive to limit cliches and idioms in your work, they will inevitably creep in here and there. Just be sure of one thing: if you use a cliche or idiom, use it correctly. We can probably all think of instances when we discovered we’d been using a saying incorrectly. “Free reign,” “For all intensive purposes,” and “Wrecking havoc,” are all wrong. Nobody’s perfect, but if you’re not sure, look it up or cut it out.
- Format: Making your manuscript beautiful means making it visually appealing, as well as manageable. Don’t be too concerned about this part until you’ve finished proofreading. You need page numbers, chapters or other divisions, and scene breaks. White space is important because no one wants to read tightly-jammed text. Add a header or footer on each page in case your manuscript is ever dropped or mixed up with someone else’s book on a busy agent’s desk. Consider margins, line spacing and font.
Now that you know what you’re looking for …
What Are The Best Ways To Look For It?
Arm yourself with some of the following effective strategies to make proofreading easier and more streamlined:
- Distance yourself: I know you want to get that book out to the world as soon as possible, but you really must take some time away from it to give your eyes a chance to readjust. You’ve been looking at your manuscript so much lately, it sometimes seems perfect just the way it is. Not so. I promise, if you leave it aside for a couple of weeks, you will most definitely find errors and weaknesses you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
- Print it: Be forewarned about attempting to proofread on your computer screen. Your eyes will not thank you. They will send messages to your brain saying you deserve a headache. Print it double-sided, or one-sided on the back of other used sheets, to save paper.
- Leave wide Margins: This is a must if you’re working on a printed manuscript. You’ll need the extra space to make notes. Before you send off a copy to an agent or publishing house, you can readjust them to suit proper manuscript format.
- Use coloured pens or a legend: Colour-coding your proofreading is an easy way to be organized. You can use one colour for spelling, one for grammar, etc. If that seems too difficult, devise a legend of symbols to mark your manuscript. You might underline spelling errors, circle punctuation, or cross out unnecessary words. Using either of these strategies will save the trouble of making notes on everything.
- Take it scene by scene: Don’t attempt to proofread your whole book at once. You’ll go insane. Instead, promise yourself you’ll only work on one scene at a time (or two if they’re short). In between proofreading scenes, get up and do something else. Even if it means making yourself a cup of coffee or doing the dishes, find a way to break it up.
- Read it aloud: If there are sections you feel still don’t ‘sing,’ try reading those scenes out loud to yourself, or even recording and playing back your voice. You may be better able to hear the problem than see it.
- Use spell-check and dictionary together: Spell-check is a fine tool to use before you print your manuscript, but don’t rely on it to catch every error. Sometimes words are spelled correctly, but you’ve typed the wrong one, like ‘how’ instead of ‘who.’ If you’re unsure about a word’s spelling, try a dictionary — either online or in book format. Also, make sure you look up definitions of any words you’re not completely sure you’ve used in the correct sense.
- Forget grammar-check: I’ve never been a fan of word processor grammar-checks. I just don’t find them reliable enough. What’s better is a comprehensive guide on grammar — one you can read before you start the proofreading process, and to which you can easily refer whenever needed.
- Get A Format Guide: Along with a grammar guide, you’ll want to find an excellent book or online resource on manuscript format. Not all sources will agree on every detail, so make sure you choose wisely. If you have certain agents or publishing houses in mind for submission at this point, check their submission guidelines to see if they have any preferred manuscript formatting requirements.
It’s been a long and arduous process, but you’re almost there. Once you’ve finished proofreading, polishing and formatting, give yourself a much-needed break.
- What are the best strategies you’ve used for proofreading?
- Can you suggest any excellent manuscript formatting resources?
- What are the most common errors you find when you’re proofreading?
Your blind date is waiting, but there’s just one more crucial step before you can consider yourself truly prepared: You need an honest friend’s two-cents.
You wouldn’t really go to meet the date of your dreams without getting a second opinion on your appearance, would you?
Join me next time for Extreme Manuscript Makeover: Phone A Friend, where you’ll discover the best and most reliable sources of critical feedback for your work.