Friday, May 18, 2007

DR: Spit Polishing Your Manuscript

When I teach at writers conferences, one of my favorite workshops to present is on rewriting. I just turned in a manuscript last week that was written in the midst of several out-of-town trips and moving to a new home. Unfortunately, I simply did not have time to do a proper rewrite of the book before the due date hit. Granted, my method of writing—starting each day by rereading and editing what I wrote the day before—means I am automatically in second or third draft by the time I write “the end.” But with this manuscript, even those edits were “quick and dirty.”

One of the handouts from my rewriting workshop offered just the ticket to “spit polish” my manuscript before I turned it in. In this workshop, I highlight five quick fixes I’ve discovered—things that can all be done in a few short hours, but that make a real difference in the quality of the manuscript you turn in. I’m here to testify that my spit-and-polish job was a success and I’m rather proud of the manuscript I turned in. Here are the five quick fixes I employed:

1. Search and destroy speaker attributions. Replace with action beats where necessary to make it clear who the speaker is and to paint a more vivid visual image. Avoid most speaker attributions meant to replace “said” (such as retorted, exclaimed, asked, inquired, etc.) But don’t kill all attributions! It’s better to have too many, than for the reader to be confused about who’s speaking.

2. Search for pet words and phrases and “lazy” words. Every writer has personal pet phrases they overuse. I usually have a different set of overused phrases for each book. Discover what your particular pets are and do a manuscript search. Delete or use the thesaurus and alter a few for variety. Words like really, just, even, that, and superlatives, very, most, -est words, etc. often signify lazy writing. Search and delete or replace with fresher, more precise word choices.

3. Check first and last paragraphs. The first paragraph of each chapter should set the scene and establish the POV (point of view) character so the reader has an immediate frame of reference. The last paragraph of each chapter should be a “hook”—a story question or plot twist that will keep the reader turning pages.

4. Sprinkle in the 6 senses. Most manuscripts could benefit from a bit more sensory info to bring the scenes to life. Quickly scan the book, looking for places to judiciously add in a few more of the unique images, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile feel of each scene. Don’t forget that “sixth sense”—perception, intuition, spiritual awareness, etc.

5. Allocate white space. Go over each page with an eye to the graphic, visual look of it. Plenty of “white space” makes a book more reader-friendly. Are there paragraphs or series of paragraphs that are too long, making for an intimidating “block” of type? If so, can you break the scene into shorter paragraphs or add a bit of dialogue to incorporate some white space on the page? (Often in a novel, a lack of dialogue for several pages means you are telling not showing—a good way to risk losing your reader. If this is the case, rewrite to put the telling parts “onstage.”)

I much prefer having time to go over my manuscript a dozen times with a fine-tooth comb before I turn it in, but in a pinch, a spit and polish is just the ticket!

Deborah Raney, author of Over the Waters and A Nest of Sparrows


At 8:23 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Every suggestion is on the mark. Thanks for sharing.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Joanna B. said...

Deb-you might be interested to know that I have finally finished the first (and not pretty) draft of the novel I began many years ago. (You graciously read and critiqued a couple chapters--I am forever grateful!)

Your quick editing tips are just what I needed today as I am now reviewing that manuscript with a fine tooth comb.

As always, thank you for sharing your wisdom! ~Joanna

At 4:42 PM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

Thanks for some quick editing tips. They're also useful as a place to start the rewrite process for a new writer, such as myself, before enlisting the aid of a professional editor.

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

I've used this on my manuscripts and it's a great quick edit! Or even a final last look before hitting send. :o)

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Michael Ehret said...

Deb: Have heard you speak on these before, but each time it's a good reminder that I need to actually DO these, and not just hear you speak about them. :)

Mike Ehret


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