How to Polish Your Manuscript With These Shortcuts

    Do you want to polish your manuscript to make sure your next rewrite turns into your final draft?

    Or would you rather write draft after draft until you get sick of your novel and condemn it to a dusty drawer?

    Your grandkids might one day unearth your manuscript, read it, and realize that you were an unrecognized genius.

    Or you can approach your next draft like a professional.

    The difference between published and unpublished writers

    If you’re like most writers, you’ve picked up a novel at your local bookshop and thought you could write better than that.

    And you probably can. If you’ve been working on your writing, you’ve probably become a competent writer. But for some reason, your novel isn’t working, and agents are sending you form rejections.

    At this juncture, future published writers realize what their unpublished  colleagues miss.

    They’re climbing a mountain, and there’s a bloody long way to go.

    This realization cuts years out of their rewrites.

    To explain how, allow me to extend the analogy.

    When you started writing your novel, you could see a peak in the distance, and although it was a bit hazy, you knew that was where you needed to go. Then you wrote your first draft and reached base camp.

    Now that you’re closer to the mountain, it’s harder to see the top, but you know that you’re not there yet. Your main character’s a bit flat, apparently – whatever that means. So off you trek, joyously taking the path to the right.

    Another draft later, you reach a new camp. It’s dark so you go to sleep. When you wake up the next morning, you look around and your excitement turns to despondency. You still can’t see the top. Your dialogue rambles, you hear. So off you go, taking a path to the left this time, working hard until you reach the next camp.

    By this stage, you know what’s going to happen. You wake up the next day, tired but determined, and you look around yourself. You still can’t see the top.

    What do you do next?

    If you’re a masochist, you begin yet another draft, working on the minor characters this time, because they aren’t coming across right.

    And then another, and another, until you’ve either given up on your novel or turned into a snarly hermit.

    Please, don’t do that.

    The right way to polish your manuscript

    Instead, turn professional.

    No self-respecting mountain climber would approach a mountain without having studied the path and prepared for the difficulties ahead. When they get lost, they pull out a map. When they reach an ice cliff, they reach for their axes.

    To quote the always quotable Benjamin Franklin: by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

    Likewise, you need to consider how you can improve your book for every aspect of the novel-writing process. This means reading other novels to learn what works and what doesn’t. This means devouring books and blogs on craft.

    You’ve already proved that you can write an entire draft. You don’t need to rush this next one. Instead, put aside a month or two to identify issues and work out how you will address them in your next draft.

    Does your manuscript suffer from these issues?

    Some issues come up time and again, making manuscripts I’ve read unpublishable.

    1.      Point of view:

    This one comes first because it affects something like two-thirds of the novels we see, and it only takes two or three pages to notice.

    Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to fix, even if it often entails a major rewrite of your book.

    Just watch out for changes of point of view within a chapter, a scene, or worse, within a paragraph. Such jumps are extremely taxing for your readers.

    2.      Tension/emotional involvement:

    These are two sides of the same coin.

    For each scene, ask yourself what your reader cares about, what is creating tension.

    If you struggle with this in your own book, start by doing the same exercise for a book you couldn’t put down, and for another that didn’t hold your interest.

    3.      Characterization:

    Your characters feel flat – this often seems the hardest problem to fix.

    To check whether you suffer from this problem, ask yourself: how would your characters behave if they had to fly to Argentina to meet a cousin they knew nothing about? (Or substitute some other random imposition.)

    If you know your characters, you’ll know the answer to this question, and that will come through in your novel.

    There are many excellent resources on characterization. The key is to start with your character’s personality and build from that, remembering that preparing a major character will take at least a full week’s worth of work.

    The good thing is that good characterization leads to good dialogue.

    4.      Style:

    I’ve intentionally kept this one last. If you’re still reading this, you’re probably a hard-working writer who cares about their style.

    The quickest way to improve your style is by identifying what doesn’t work in others’ writing so that you can avoid making the same mistakes.

    You might aim for the poetry of John Banville or for the flow of John Grisham. Whichever it is, make sure you’re happy with the sound of every sentence you write, and listen to what fellow writers say about your prose.

    See the mountain, climb the mountain

    You know there’s a long way to go and that it’ll be hard work, but once you know what you need to work on, you can address everything now, not in the next draft.

    It’s the quickest and easiest way to reach the mountain top you’re aiming for.

    So go ahead – think about your book like a professional. Identify and work on all the issues of your manuscript in one fell swoop, and make it as good as it deserves to be.

    I’ve shared the problem areas most common to the manuscripts I come across. What about you? What do you struggle with?  Let me know in the comments below.

    About the author

      Albert Alla

      Albert Alla is the author of Black Chalk and the founder of Paris Book Doctors, where you can find more articles on writing, editing and publishing.

    • Andre Cruz says:

      Point of view is not easy to tackle for the novice writer. Thanks for mentioning how to watch out for jumping from one pov to the next. That’s why I have a writer’s circle read my manuscripts.

      Great article!


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    • Damien says:

      Great tips – thanks Albert. I really like the idea of deconstructing good writing and applying the lessons to your own writing.

    • Thanks for the great info. I’ve found that writers have a very hard time seeing the problematic issues in a manuscript, especially if they are fairly new at writing. I’m a writing coach and copyeditor, and since I’ve written fourteen novels in different genres, I get hired to critique about 200 novels (or partials) a year, and what I see attests that writers need professional outside help. In other words, as much as they can study the craft, they often “can’t know what they don’t know.” So having a good critique partner or writing group can help, but it often is not a good enough substitute for hiring a professional writing coach that really understands novel structure and is experienced in helping other authors get their stories in shape. I highly recommend writers spend the money and hire a pro so that their book will be the best it can be and stand out from the crowd of a half-million self-published books a year. And it, of course, will help the chances of getting picked up by an agent or publisher.

      • Albert says:

        Wow, 200 a year! That’s a huge amount.

        I certainly agree that writing coaches can play a huge role. After all, I’ve been helping fellow novelists for a few years, and it’s a huge thrill to see how far the right advice can take someone’s writing.

        Reality check, though: we can’t handhold an aspiring writer all the way up the mountain. The most we can do is chop off a few years of their path. That’s huge, but there’s still a long way to go.

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