The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

What do you polish when you polish a manuscript

The best part of polishing a manuscript prior to sending it off to the publisher is finding scenes or descriptions that work so well that it’s almost like somebody else wrote them.

The worst part is finding a lot of typos that should have been caught before.

When it comes to crossing things out, I’m especially sensitive to words and phrases that were fresh when I used them in chapter one, but suddenly lose their appeal if they show up multiple times throughout the book. I’m not talking about the pet phrases some characters often use; more so, the phrases I have over used. Whenever I think I’ve done this, I use Word’s search feature to tell me how many times the word or phrase appears. Sometimes I’m shocked and go back through the manuscript getting rid of most of those occurrences.

Another thing that I often stumble on is the consistent use of dialect. For example, let’s say a character tends to clip the “g” off the ends of words, as in givin’ and helpin’. Since I don’t typically type those words this way, I have to look at that character’s dialogue very carefully to get rid of instances where I put the “g” there instead of an apostrophe.

Some of my tightest fiction comes when I enter a contest or submit to a magazine that has a word count limit. I tend to write past the limit and then pare down the work. Try this and see if it helps you. You might be surprised at the number of superfluous words that routinely creep into your sentences. When a good writing teacher sees wordiness, s/he might scribble “prolix” or “wordy” in the margins of your paper. Being forced to cut out words shows you how many of your words you really didn’t need.

I also look for:

  • Your manuscript needs to look better than your car!

    Your manuscript needs to look better than your car!

    Typos to fix and verifying unusual words that Word claims are misspelled even when they’re correct.

  • Dialogue that seemed clear when I first wrote it that isn’t clear later.
  • Inadvertent changes in a character’s eye color or hair color or some other descriptive adjective or statement. (My editor once asked me if a character’s new eye color was symbolic or a mistake. How did I miss that?)
  • The spelling of proper names. For example, “Appalachia” has a double “p,” while “Apalachicola” has only one “p” even though they’re pronounced the same. And, authors Thomas Wolfe and Virginia Woolf spell their last names differently. (As we learned in journalism school, it’s a sin to misspell a person’s name.)
  • If you have a lot of characters, you might want to create a timeline for when all of them were born, got married, and died. Otherwise, it’s very easy to get their ages wrong sooner or later in the manuscript or (worse yet) have somebody giving birth to a child before she was born herself. (Jame Smiley must have created an impressive chart for her characters while writing her three-book “Last Hundred Years Trilogy” that followed several families over the course of a century.)
  • Since I mention flowers and trees in my work, I always go through the manuscript again and verify that the flowers I say are blooming really do bloom in the novel’s location at a specific time of year. The same goes for mentioning when young birds leave the nest, leaves change color, or typical weather conditions occur. Unless you’re a wildlife specialist, checking the accuracy of such things is important. The same can be said for jobs/fields/hobbies your characters have that you weren’t familiar with prior to writing the book. Is everything accurate? (For example, a lot of people assume that if you throw a handful of cartridges into a fire, bullets will come flying out of there like they were fired from a gun. They don’t. It’s easy to check things like this and a bad mark if a reader or reviewer catches a silly mistake.)

Most of us have our blind spots. We know there are words we typically misspell. We know there are phrases we overuse. We put apostrophes into places where they don’t belong and leave them out where they’re needed. Of course, it’s always good to have a copy of a style manual nearby! And, as many others have said, all of us need a good editor to look over our work because no matter how much polishing we do, we are always seeing the story first and the words (and the misspelled words) second.

For a writer, happiness is a clean (or mostly clean) manuscript.

–Malcolm

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