Editing Your Manuscript for Overuse of Words, Awkward Constructions, Grammar and Mechanics

The act of creating a novel, short story, or play is always an impressive feat, sometimes an astonishing one. After the creative muse quiets, however, the painstaking work of editing a “finished” manuscript begins.

Editing is critically important to completing a work. A poorly edited manuscript has virtually no chance of seeing a readership unless the author self-publishes, and then the author will likely later regret that he or she ever clicked the “submit” button.

Manuscript editing involves several phases, best tackled one at a time to avoid missing key errors or problems. Few publishers have editors that catch all of a manuscript’s mistakes today, so if you want a manuscript to be proud of, do the hard work. Read your manuscript out loud to discover problems. Then tackle editing tasks one at a time to avoid missing mistakes.

Even if you decide to spring for a professional editor, an expensive but probably worthwhile endeavor, you should still go through these steps first. Most editors will not work with a manuscript that contains a mass of errors.

Phase I: Spell-check (incredibly easy, thank you, technology) and checking for homonym errors (to, too, two; which, witch; sum, some; affect, effect; advice, advise; site, sight, cite; accept, except; knew, new; dessert, desert; whether, weather; etc.). The English language contains a myriad of homonyms, and this kind of error really makes the writer look silly when “too people ran into the room” when you meant to write “two people.” Spell-check won’t find homonym errors, so this is where a careful reading is necessary.

Phase II: Repetitions. Word repetition is hard to overlook when you have hundreds of repetitions of a word in a document. Often, simplest words are most repeated, and readers experience that cloying effect of one after another of the word “appears.” Editors note the unnecessary repetitions of the article “the,” particularly when plural nouns are involved. To eliminate overuse of a word, use the FIND function tab, located in the top right corner of your computer screen. Type in a word you suspect you might be overusing, and the number of times the word appears in your manuscript will pop up, each instance highlighted in yellow. This function makes it easy to find every example and either substitute synonyms or reword the sentence.

Phase III: Awkward phrasing and missing words. The most reliable way to discover these kinds of defects in your manuscript is to read it out loud. Your ear picks up problems that your eyes don’t notice. Almost every good writer will find some awkward sentence constructions and/or missing words in a manuscript. Rewriting a sentence for clarity is time-consuming but necessary. Probably every published book will be missing a few words, but each absence may later feel like a sting.

This critical area of editing will stump a lot of writers unless they have a solid background in the rules of Standard English. Grammar check on your computer will pick up some errors but not all. If you are one of those people who really struggles with grammar (subject-verb agreement, etc.) and mechanics (punctuation), find and pay for a grammar/mechanics editor.

Good luck. You and your brilliant work are worth it.

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