Before I became a writer, I spent many years as an editor for places like HarperCollins, Disney Press, and Scholastic. I wasn’t a copy editor; I was a story editor, which means that I didn’t sit at a desk correcting punctuation. Instead, it was my job to spot promise, help writers strengthen their work, and then, ultimately, pay them and publish the book. Story/acquiring editors are always on the lookout for good manuscripts. They want to buy wonderful stories. But sloppy writing can take focus away from a great tale and convince them to pass over your work. Here are a few easy ways that you can make sure your work is neatly groomed and ready to pass muster with top editors.
7 Simple Tips:
- Check spelling and grammar. (I like Grammarly.) Every single editor I know will tell you that they care less about perfect punctuation and spelling than they do about an exciting story. That’s what copy editors are for, they say. And that is true—to a certain extent. But sloppy writing makes you look unprofessional. If your story is hard to read, your editor will put it down and pick up someone else’s manuscript instead. You would be amazed at the number of people who turn in a manuscript without bothering to use the spell check.
- Check your verbs and adverbs. Do you have a lot of sentences that end in “ly?” Like this, “Be quiet,” she said, angrily. “I won’t,” he replied testily. This is one thing that is very easily done. Try “Be quiet,” she snapped. Fewer adverbs, more verbs.
- Watch your dialog tags. I try not to use the word “said” more than once on a page, unless I am writing for very small children. Very small children don’t have a large vocabulary, and a word like “bellowed” is hard for them to read.
- Read for written tics, or phrases that you use often. (I once had an editor point out that I had used the word “gripe” about fourteen thousand times throughout a manuscript.) Some people find it helpful to read their manuscripts aloud, which makes it easier to hear when you are repeating words or phrases.
- Circle all of your “to be” verbs, such as is, was, and were, and replace them with more active verbs. “She was hurrying,” can easily become “she hurried”.
- Avoid clichés. When he was writing the Corrections, Jonathan Franzen said that he blindfolded himself as he wrote to make sure that he avoided describing things in the same old clichés: His eyes glittered like ice. Her hair gleamed like gold. She shook her head as if to clear it. It’s important to fight this. If you are reading along, and something you describe sounds very familiar, circle it.
- Strive for language that is appropriate for your time period. If it’s a contemporary novel and you’re feeling unsure, ask a teen to look over the dialog for you. You don’t want to refer to someone as a “pea-brain” if all of the kids are saying something else. But by the same token, resist language and references that are incredibly dated and will feel old a year from now, when your novel is published.
No one wants to go on a date with someone who didn’t bother to wear clean clothes or take a shower. A tidy manuscript shows you care!