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Become Your Own Book Doctor

Updated on August 28, 2014

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Award-winning short stories
Award-winning short stories

The Book Doctor

"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector."

- Ernest Hemingway -

Most first time writers fail to understand that writing the first draft of a novel is but one short moment on the long road to becoming published. Most think that getting those precious words down is all that is needed. They are wrong, they must now become a Book Doctor …..

To complete a novel is an astonishing achievement in its own right, most people never get to do it, but more is required before submitting it to an agent. Invariably, most novels need a huge dollop of revision before they are up to publication standard.

Artists, dancers, and actors tweak their work until it is perfect. Why then, do new writers baulk at improving their work?



Doctoring that Book

The Book Doctor and Amateurs
Publishers, agents, and literary critics differentiate between amateur and professional writers quite easily.

  • The amateur is sensitive about their work and fiercely defends any part of it. - A professional considers criticism part and parcel of the game.
  • Amateurs take adverse comments as a private slight. - Professionals understand there is nothing personal about it, they realise that publishers have their own house-style and, they must conform to those requirements.
  1. As a book doctor you must check that the first chapter holds the reader’s attention - does it need a more intriguing start?
  2. As a book doctor you must check that you are happy with your characterisation. Do your characters come across as living, breathing people who act in rational and consistent ways, or are they cardboard cut-outs?
  3. As a book doctor you must check that your dialogue is spot on. Remember not to let characters make speeches or preach to readers. Also, don’t forget that dialogue must SEEM as if it’s natural and lifelike, which is NOT the same as recording ‘normal‘ speech. Everyday conversation is too jumpy and incoherent to make sense when written down.
  4. As a book doctor you must check you have a strong story line which runs unambiguously throughout the book.
  5. As a book doctor you must check you have you preserved a good pace throughout - a pace that varies yet never flags.
  6. As a book doctor you must check the conflict and tension in your novel is sufficiently strong. Is it plausible? Remember, conflict doesn’t mean your main characters are squabbling all the way through the story. Some of the best conflict comes from inner tension.
  7. As a book doctor you must check that the theme of your story runs unequivocally yet not laboriously throughout the book.
  8. As a book doctor you must check you have balanced bright with sinister, delight with grief. Remember that there is frequently a silver lining to clouds. Don’t lose sight of the fact that most readers are looking for entertainment.
  9. As a book doctor you must check your ending is rational and satisfying to your reader. Have you tied up all loose ends?
  10. Finally, as a book doctor you must check that your writing style flows smoothly. Style is everything.

Romance on Kindle


The Book Doctor And The Second Draft.

When you’ve finally decided which revisions you need to make, go ahead and write the second draft. Be brave about it. Don’t hang on to favourite passages simply because you think they’re well written. If they don’t move the story forward in some way, they should be deleted. There is no room for hangers-on. Every word should count.

So that’s it. Your book is surely ready for submission now… Wait - there is still more to do…

The Final Task For The Book Doctor.
The final task for a book doctor is to go through the manuscript line by line - starting with the last page and working back towards the beginning - this may sound strange, but it is to avoid the trap of falling in love with your own words…

This time you are searching for technical errors - correcting grammar, removing purple prose, eliminating the over-use of adjectives and adverbs, checking for long sentences, inspecting for repetitions of favourite words and phrases, etc.

The Book Doctor and Critique.
An external, analytical eye becomes invaluable at this stage - and an understanding that any criticism will not be aimed at you as a person, but at improving your novel. However, you should resist the temptation to let unqualified people read it. The opinions of friends and family are almost worthless - unless of course, they are professional publishers, or agents.

Invite the comments of your local writers’ circle by all means, but unless members are published writers their comments might be coloured by personal likes and dislikes - and maybe a certain amount of resentment. You might receive a more balanced viewpoint by using an online writers’ circle instead.

For a truly impartial judgment, you must pay for a professional critique. If you can’t afford a professional critique for the whole of the manuscript, consider a report on a synopsis and the first three chapters. This should provide an important guideline and help with further revisions.

The Book Doctor and the Final Draft

When you’re happy that you’ve removed all obvious errors and weaknesses, you’re ready to type out the final copy - the one you’re prepared to submit to your agent or publisher.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an editor’s job to iron out wrinkles. Agents and publishers want your manuscript to be as perfect as possible - if it isn’t, they’ll dump it and pick up the next one.

Be wise - be a Book Doctor.

Where the author lives


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    • ajbarnett profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Costa Blanca, Spain

      Thank you for visiting and commenting, annnart. Good luck with your stories.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      Great hub. Voted up, useful and interesting. I have so many unfinished story projects, so I'll try my best to apply your excellent advice; it's a prod to keep going, stop me being lazy! Thanks.

    • ajbarnett profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Costa Blanca, Spain

      Thanks for visiting, htodd. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • htodd profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks for the great post...

    • Winsome profile image


      7 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Quite inspiring AJ--I would like to get your take on my "Murder by..." series to see if it fits your criteria.

      As an aside, I would like to appraise you of a way to haggle one idea for another, born along by a bemused, careering cart, wangling its way through wheel borrowed critiques and censors on the road to utter deprecation.

      Did I sufficiently mangle the English language?

      Enjoyed your blog and I think I've seen that old man. =:)

    • nenytridiana profile image


      7 years ago from Probolinggo - Jawa Timur - Indonesia

      That is great! I want to write a real quality book, I think that's all I need. I am going to put it in my mind, then I may become a profesional. Oh.. still a lot of thing to learn. Thank you very much.

    • ajbarnett profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Costa Blanca, Spain

      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment, 'Stories Inc'.

      I'm glad you found the article useful. I hope you have the courage to use the delete key. Tight editing is what moves a book towards publication standard.

      I wish you all the best with your work... and keep writing

    • Stories Inc. profile image

      Stories Inc. 

      7 years ago

      My, useful tips you've got there. Being a first timer (I've written books in my youhth, but nothing suitale for publication) getting ready to go after an agent, this is a very good, though slightly disheartening checklist.

      For me, this part struck me as particularly hard: "Don’t hang on to favourite passages simply because you think they’re well written. If they don’t move the story forward in some way, they should be deleted." Pride is a powerful thing, but it can be obstructive. I hope I have the heart to stick to your tips and overcome it.

      Thank you for sharing.


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