Review your story’s time line. Could all the events have taken place during the time span? Although you don’t have to account for every minute (or even every day) of your characters’ time, help your readers get a sense of time’s passage with transition phrases like two weeks later or later that evening.
Craft a strong opening and a strong ending for every chapter. If each chapter starts with a beautifully-written sentence that sets up an intriguing situation, the reader will want to continue reading. The last sentence should compel him to turn the page (cliffhangers are good).
Did you follow through on ideas you presented in various chapters? Are there elements, like a meaningful symbol or talisman, that you want to carry throughout the whole book? Write them down, and check to see if you did carry them through. Are there characters you introduced who need to reappear, or who really don’t matter to the story? Add some scenes to develop them, or delete them altogether. Do all your threads tied up at the end?
Have you included enough detail? Be sure you have not assumed too much knowledge on your reader’s part. You’re immersed in the story; help them to also be. But give your reader credit for intelligence.
Take out the unnecessary routines that passed your characters’ time unless there’s a reason to detail them. Nobody wants to read about your protagonist flossing his teeth (unless you’re writing a dental thriller). However, sometimes routine material can add color to the time setting. My work-in-progress is set in 1967, when no one had an automatic ice maker in their fridge. I take the reader through a step-by-step account of filling an old-fashioned metal ice cube tray.
FINAL (MAYBE NOT LITERALLY) ROUND
Get rid of weenie words. Search your manuscript for is, was, were, and that, because they are often paired with weak, passive words. Replace them with strong, active words.
Eliminate clichés. Clichés are fine for first drafts, because they help you get your thoughts down. But unless you have a character whose quirk is always speaking in them, find a fresh way to make your point (maybe instead of her hair blowing in the wind, it whipped her shoulders), or twist the cliché. My protagonist recorded in her journal that it was raining “cats, dogs, zebras, and giraffes.”
Beautify your writing with poetic devices. Vivid writing heightens your readers’ enjoyment of your book. Alliteration, anaphora, onomatopoeia, metaphor—search poetic devices online for the full palette. Read these examples of picturesque sentences.
It goes without saying that spelling, grammar, and punctuation must be correct. I’m dismayed when I find errors in a book I’ve paid good money for. Even if you’re not, don’t alienate your readers (and potential agents and publishers) by turning in a sloppy manuscript.
When your manuscript is the best you can make it, send it out to a few (five?) beta readers. These should be trusted writer friends who are farther along in their careers than you. (You do have a group of trusted writer friends at various levels of proficiency, don’t you? If not, you need to cultivate some.) Ask your beta readers to look for: consistency; boring parts; coincidences or too-convenient solutions; and clarity. Have them write down any questions that occur to them as they read, and whatever suggestions they have for what you can do better. Give them time to work. Some might give you a forty-eight hour turn around, but most will require a couple of weeks, or longer if they’re busy.
Read through all the feedback once without making any decisions about changes, except for the most obvious corrections that you absolutely know must be made. Many of the suggestions you’ll receive may seem absolutely wrong, counter to what you’re trying to achieve with your book. You don’t have to change a thing. However, if four out of your five trial readers have a problem with the scene on page 175, you can be sure something’s wrong with it. Let the feedback sit for a couple of weeks, and then reread all the suggestions again. Consider them carefully, and implement the ones that will make your story stronger. Remember when I said above you were on your final round of revision? I lied. You may need to go back and redo some of those rounds. Put in the work to make your manuscript the best it can be.
Now, maybe you don’t need to do as many rounds of revisions as I’ve described in this article. Maybe your drafts aren’t as ugly as mine. I know lots of people who are so eager to get published that they send out their manuscripts after a couple of quick swipes. I’ve also seen self-published work that could have used additional edits. If you’re experienced, you can judge for yourself how deeply you need to redo. If you’re unpublished, err on the side of caution. But don’t let a desire for perfection keep you from ever submitting; that’s just counter-productive. Aim for excellence, not perfection.
Then send your baby out into the world.
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