After putting the final period on my latest excellent manuscript, I feel the temptation to click the Share button and send it to my peers, friends and family pet. That’s a huge mistake. I re-learn this lesson frequently. If you share your raw, unedited work, people who can’t see the forest for the trees will find every mistake and focus on that, rather than the bigger question of whether the words are understandable and enjoyable. Since tools exist to help smooth out that first draft, you owe it to yourself to clean up before frittering their time or your credibility.
After you finish typing your incredible work, run through all the tasks listed here to find common mistakes and clean it up. It is tedious, but most of these steps have tools to help. I will not spend a lot of time explaining the reasons for each step. My goal is to give you concise tools, other people did a lot of thinking and work inventing this advice, if you doubt any of it, please go do the research.
Add any made-up words or names to your word processor’s Dictionary
Scroll through your document and look for any made-up words or names. They are underlined red for an error. Right-click the word and choose “add to dictionary” or “Ignore All”. The menu option will vary by word processor. What this will do is ensure that if you misspelled your made-up word later, the spell-checker will flag it. This will also prevent the spellcheck from pestering you every time you use the word.
Run spell-check manually
In your word processor, go to the menu and launch the spell-checker directly, rather than scrolling and looking for red-marks. This will force the computer to stop at each questionable item for you to review. It’s easy to miss the red-marks when you scroll through and your mind fills in the blanks as you read. This shakes you out of that and confronts you with each possible error.
Remove almost all the -ly adverbs
Modern writing considers the -ly adverb superfluous. I use either of the following sites to paste my text in. Then it highlights the adverbs, and I scroll through my original document and take them out, sometimes adjusting the sentence so it phrases better without it.
Adverbs in dialogue can be left alone. You may find a few -ly adverbs are fine to leave, the goal is to not have many of them.
Fix passive voice
Passive voice offends many editors. There’s tools to help spot that so you can decide how to fix it. The main goal is to find the word “was” and re-work the sentence. If you add “by zombies” after the verb, and the sentence makes sense, you’ve got passive voice. This site helps you spot these, and it will even do the Zombie Test for you.
Simplify the ten dollar words
Unless you are writing high-brow material, you should check to see if you’ve used too fancy of a word. There’s a tool for that:
Swap out the homophones
Homophones are words that sound alike, but mean something different. I find them to be sneaky because they pass a spell-checker and some grammar checkers and the brain can ignore them when you are reading. The most common trio I trip over is “there”, “they’re”, and “their” even though I know what they mean and when to use them, when I am typing, I am bound to mess up.
I have searched, and there’s not a tool for this. I found a few sites with lists of common ones. You should do a Ctrl+F in your word processor and search for each one, stepping through to the next instance until you’ve confirmed you have reviewed them all. That’s not any fun, but it will make your writing look like you passed English class.
Replace repetitive words
The thesaurus is a writer’s friend. But before you can bring it to bear, you need to realize just how over-used a word is. For example, while writing this article, I use the word “waste” or “wasting” far too often. Here’s an online tool to paste your text into and detect the repetition.
Use the Standard Manuscript Format
I imagined it was funny putting this last. I assume you will sell/submit your work. Just because. You should have set up your document in the standard manuscript format before you started. You need to check it is all compliant and update the headers and word count. Here’s a link to a handy guide for that:
Setup Word document properties for E-Readers
I learned that many Agents load submitted documents into their e-readers for easy reviewing. The problem is, certain popular e-readers don’t use the file’s name, they use embedded properties the originator didn’t realize were there. As a result, the default ends up saying the title is “synopsis” or whatever the first sentence in my document was. This is preventable.
In Microsoft Word, find the document Properties menu item (on older Word, it’s File -> Properties, in newer Word it is File -> Info). Now you can see what is set for Title and Author and some other fields. Get rid of any extraneous text and make the Title match your story title and the author match your author name on the actual document.
Here’s the original article where I learned this straight from an Agent:
That wraps up all the mechanical editing you should do before wasting anybody’s time trying to get them to read your writing. I say anybody, because if it is chock full of mechanical problems, you will get negative feedback that focuses on mechanical mistakes. Likewise, it damages your vision, because you are putting yourself out there and giving a bad impression. That is time you spend waiting for feedback, only to get a negative response on technical matters, rather than getting to the subjective quality.
I have broken the initial edit down into a process, with many of the steps automated. There is little excuse to not take the time to do this and present a better version.
I ran this article through this checklist and found things to fix. I also left a few -ly adverbs. So the process requires you to think and decide, not just obey the computer. This process isn’t perfect, it simply reduces the total number of possible problems. A reader will find another mistake, I am certain.