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12 Things Writers Should do Before Sending Anyone a Manuscript
After publishing nine novels and grading tens of thousands of high school essays as an English teacher for twenty years, I hung out my shingle on the Internet as a freelance editor. I researched copy-editing rates on the Internet, cut those ridiculous rates by two-thirds, and waited for my first potential clients. I did not have to wait long, and with a few exceptions, I wish I had never become a freelance editor. Of all the would-be writers who sent me their work, only two went on to publish their work. Some thanked me. Most did not. Some still owe me money.
I no longer offer editing services, but if I did, I would put a list on the “J. J.’s Editing Service” splash page to allow writers the opportunity to edit their own work before expecting anyone to turn water into wine or tin into gold.
12 things every writer should do
- Present your work to me properly. Do not bring me your life’s work written in pencil on both sides of fourteen legal pads. Type it, double-spaced, with one-inch margins minimum all around. Do not bring me a collection of essays in five spiral notebooks and ask, “Can you turn this into a novel for me?” You turn it into a novel. I will do my best to make it sing. Do not send me the fifteenth chapter because you feel this is your “best” chapter. I need to fix the ones that are not the “best.” Do not send anything 300,000+ words long, single-spaced in 8-point type, with paragraphs of dialogue that go on for twelve pages and then ask me “only to read it.” I will not read it. I value my eyes. If you give me what I require, I will give your work the required attention.
- Make sure your manuscript is publishable on this planet I will not edit a romance that you say is a “true life love story” about a fireman who sets fire to a house that kills all its occupants but one—a gorgeous woman with the proverbial heart of gold who is never bitter even though she has burns on 80% of her body—and said fireman meets this woman at the mass funeral, dates her, helps her get “the operation,” falls in love with her despite her lingering scars, marries her, moves to the country and has two kids with her, and on the final pages admits, “I’m the one who killed your family. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me, darling?” … and she forgives him because of the power of love, saying, “The only fires you’re going to set from now on are in our fireplace.” (This was an actual submission. Had it been satire, I might have done something with it. It was not satire. The writer truly believed there was a market for such an incendiary novel). If your novel has promise, I promise to do my best. .
- Stick to one point of view and one tense. I do not want to read anything with a first-person narrator who becomes third-person omniscient who bounces into second person and finally arrives back at first person. Unless your first-person narrator has the gift of ESP, I do not want to read the thoughts of other characters—only his or hers, please. I do not want to read anything with horrific tense shifts. If you are not sure whether you are in the past, present, or future, your reader will not be sure either.
- Use the words “laughed” or “giggled” instead of “chortled,” “guffawed,” “snorted,” “burst out laughing,” “convulsed,” “cracked up,” “crowed,” “snickered,” “tittered,” or “whooped.” Step away from the thesaurus, please. Simple is better.
- Use the words “said” and “asked” instead of “expressed,” “verbalized,” “uttered,” “gave tongue to,” “affirmed,” “declared,” “expressed,” “gabbed,” “jawed,” “orated,” “remarked,” “voiced,” or “yakked.” After a while the reader only looks at what is between the quotation marks, so why waste ink?
- Use the words “shouted” or “yelled” instead of “barked,” “bawled,” “bellowed,” “clamored,” “screeched,” “squalled,” “squawked,” “vociferated,” “yammered,” “yapped,” or “yawped.” Sometimes all you need is an exclamation mark!
- Use adverbs sparingly when writing dialogue. “I love you,” she said gleefully, sheepishly, shyly, slyly, wonderingly, breathlessly, huffily, happily, smilingly, oddly, strangely, eerily, dishonestly … The scene itself and the words between the quotation marks should give your reader an idea of how your character says the words. If you have created a shy character, you do not have to use the word “shyly” with every response. If he is always angry, please stop writing, “he said angrily.”
- Each new speaker in a dialogue begins a new paragraph. Really.It is in The Elements of Style, published in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web. Read Charlotte’s Web if you do not believe me.
- Avoid repetitive, monotonous, tedious, tiresome repetition. Your readers are not as slow as you believe them to be. If Janelle loves Jimmy, please do not use “I love him!” or “He’s so hot!” several dozen times per page. If Jimmy was a brain surgeon until he caught typhoid fever in El Salvador, do not use “I was (fill-in-the-blank) until I got sick” several dozen times in several dozen chapters. Respect your reader’s ability to remember what you have written.
- Show, do not tell. “He was stupid” could read, “He does not know the recipe for ice.” “He drove an old car” could read, “If it were not for rust and duct tape, his car would implode on impact with a pebble.” “Mary was angry with her fiancée” could read, “Mary punted the Hummel figurine he gave her into the yard, flushed the engagement ring, and shredded his picture in the garbage disposal.” “Bob was tired” could read, “Bob’s drool hit the pillow before his head did.” Let your readers use their senses to see, feel, taste, touch, and smell what you are writing. Let your readers think. Do not bludgeon them with what you want them to think.
- Study, memorize, and use the words on the “Dolch Sight Vocabulary” list if you are going to write children’s books. The average pre-primer reader understands the word “jump”—not “caper” or “jounce.” The average primer reader grasps the word “pretty”—not “pulchritudinous” or “winsome.” The average first grader knows the word “walk”—not “ambulate,” “shamble,” or “traipse.” Read at least two dozen published children’s books before you even begin thinking about writing a children’s book because you like to draw kittens and you think it would be “easy” to write down all the stories “Granny Foo Foo” told you as a child.
- Try not to curse out someone who is trying to improve your writing. You came to me for help, so learn to accept my constructive criticisms or look for someone else to tell you how “wonderful” your writing is. Because you tell me “All my friends and family think my book is awesome” does not mean that it is automatically awesome. Really.
For more information on copy-editing in general, visit the American Copy Editors Society. Yes, they are, indeed, ACES, and as a writer, there are none better. After my brief experience as a freelance editor, I know I could never do what they do and stay sane.