Before Editing, a Checklist

Before you ship off that manuscript for professional services, there are a few things you can do to make the editor’s job easier and maybe save yourself money. The less goofs and missteps the editor has to wade through, the better. Remember to always put your best foot—erm, manuscript—forward, no matter how joyful you are about letting someone else tinker with your writing for a while. A few simple preparatory steps keep you sharp and looking like a professional author—good practice for the future and making great impressions on agents and publishers.
  • A neatly formatted manuscript with proper margins and sensible font choices is as important as what you wear to a job interview. Learn general standards for your genre or field and apply them so your editor doesn’t have to struggle with formatting.
  • When you type be sure you know how word processing programs work. Learn about setting up indents and understand that line ends wrap. An editor’s worst nightmares come from the hands of writers who haven’t explored the time-saving advantages of pc-based writing.
  • The dictionary is your friend. Use it to check word meanings. Hunt for words online if they fall outside the scope of your outdated desk copy.
  • Use spellcheck and if you have unique words like character and place names, add them to your dictionary so they get checked too. Remember word processing programs don’t catch everything and notoriously miss the wrong word that’s spelled correctly.
  • Punctuate, punctuate, punctuate. Period. Okay, so you may not know every punctuation rule in the English language, but you should familiarize yourself with all the ones you need for whatever you’re writing. If you aren’t sure about how something’s used, look it up. There are numerous books and online guides available.
  • As with spellcheck, grammar checkers in programs like MS Word sometimes apply rules differently—in other words, you can’t always trust them. Again, it’s worth your time to brush up on grammar. If you’re not sure of something your software has marked, take the time to look it up online in a style manual or in that guide collecting dust on your shelf.
  • A big turn-off for editors (and agents and publishers) is writing that relies on tired idioms or cliche phrases (thick as pea soup), vague phrases (the leaves are beautiful), and mismatched metaphors (unless we tighten our belts, we’ll sink like stones). Be creative, original, and vivid, yet make sense.
  • On the other hand, don’t detail the writing to death. Too much of anything is too much. Use enough detail to be clear without being excessive or redundant. When it comes to describing things in fiction, ask yourself which element or elements are most critical to paint a picture for the reader. Forget the rest or use them later when you revisit that person, place, or thing.
  • Write as actively as possible and vary your sentence and paragraph lengths. Writing should have rhythm and flow. It’s okay to use “to be” or helper verbs like “was” but don’t use them as crutches, it causes lame writing. If you can write “Pablo bit the mailman” instead of “the mailman was bitten by Pablo,” do so.
  • For fiction, read your manuscript thoroughly after as long a respite as possible. Verify your fictional elements, consider your plot, judge how well-shaped your characters are. A professional manuscript assessment or writing mentor can help you develop and refine things further, but any shortcomings or excesses you can correct or identify on your own is a big step forward.
  • Nonfiction relies on accurate facts and details. Check references and citations. Be sure attributions, foot- or end-notes, and bibliography entries are correct.

Finally, go back to the start and do as many of these steps again as you can. It’s easy to miss something in just one pass over a manuscript. That’s why most editors do at least two or three passes through a manuscript. Don’t you owe it to your project to be as thorough?


Inspired by a similar article by Janice Campbell, Director of NAIWE.

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