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  • Writer's pictureMichael Mills

Simple ways to improve your manuscript

Back in June of this year (2019), Michael Gallagher and I talked about ways to improve your manuscript and the basic things you can do to save you time and money.

Please see the original post on Michael's blog.

Identify your grammar weaknesses

If there’s something you have a problem with, go online and get it sorted out. There is help out there for practically everything. Is it “stainless-steel” or “stainless steel”? The answer is both, but it depends on how it’s being used. I have a stainless-steel sink (used as an adjective), but my sink happens to be made of stainless steel. Nothing puts a reader off faster than a catalogue of grammatical errors, and my own particular bugbear is seeing apostrophes being misused. My heart sinks. And if I find it’s not a one-off typo—wouldn’t matter how intriguing the story is, or how rounded the characters—I stop reading then and there. One of my #amwriting colleagues on Twitter, C. T. Moor, threw a really interesting question my way: what if a writer is dyslexic, and no amount of online grammar tutorials will help? Then I’d suggest they find some kind person to copy edit their manuscript for them—preferably chapter by chapter as a 60K-word MS is a daunting prospect for anyone to undertake. See my tips below about finding yourself a proofreader.

Type your MS without formatting it

Type your manuscript with minimal formatting then format it later—when you know just what style is required of you. When your unformatted MS is finished, select ALL, then clear formatting. Hey presto! You should now have a squeaky clean file. Keep this in its pristine state and only ever format copies. Why? Because formatting adds invisible commands to the document. If you are ever obliged to re-format your work, they are easy to overlook. So, what is minimal formatting? Default text only, always left aligned, no indentations, no centering or justifying, no page breaks, and no extra spacing between paragraphs or sections. No bolds, italics, or underlining (though you can use html tags as place-savers to be removed by using Find & Replace once you have formatted your copy)—and absolutely no tabs, lists, or tables, bookmarks or hyperlinks.

Create your own house style

Though it may not be so apparent these days, years ago publishing houses would create a house style for the titles they published, which their copy editors would religiously adhere to. It gave a uniformity to the individual books and to their catalogue as a whole. If you create your own house style—and stick to it—it can lend an impressive consistency to your own work. Where to start? By making decisions. American or UK English (or some other form of it perhaps)? Oxford -ize, -izing or Cambridge -ise, -ising for verbs (though it’s always “surprise”)? The Oxford comma (I ate beans, chips, and egg) or no Oxford comma (I ate beans, chips and egg)? UK ‘’ or US “” for speech marks? UK “” or US ‘’ for quotes? Do you start each chapter with three or four capitalized words (“ONCE UPON A TIME, many years ago…”) or not (“Once upon a time, many years ago…”)? If so, how many words do you capitalize (usually at least three)? When it comes time to format, will the first line of every chapter and every new section of a chapter be indented (like the rest of the text), or will it sit flush against the left-hand margin?

Edit your work by viewing it as a book

Nothing quite focuses the mind when editing more than the sight of unalterable text in a PDF that’s been formatted to look like a book. Every little horror screams out at you. So, alongside my unformatted MS I keep a formatted A5 document going, with Times New Roman 14pt text as standard. Any changes I make to my MS I cut and paste to my formatted version, which at the end of the day I export as a PDF.

Do a proper spellcheck

You’d think this would be obvious, wouldn’t you? And yet I’ve known published authors who’ve had spelling mistakes in their final Word files. So, proper. Step one. Select all, then set the language and save. Now do a spellcheck from the beginning, scrutinizing each word that is highlighted. There will be a reason for its highlighting, even if it is just because it’s somebody’s name. Be aware, however, that spellcheckers aren’t always correct, so if you are not a great speller, do this in conjunction with a dictionary.

Do a basic typo check

A Find & Replace search can be a writer’s best friend. Type in a double space, tap “find”, and you’ll soon see what I mean. It’s almost impossible to write a 60K+ MS without at least one of these slippery devils burrowing in. Now try “,,”, “..”, “the the”, “a a”, “an an”, “in in”, “on on”, “to to”…I’m sure you get the picture.

Find yourself a proofreader

This is the hardest step of all, but it’s also very important. You need to find someone whose grammar you trust, and who is prepared to read with minute attention to detail. It’s a big ask of anyone. Maybe you know someone who is retired who might do it? Someone from your local reading group perhaps? Check in with them frequently as they work through the chapters. If they ask questions, you’ll need to figure out why. Are they asking because this is what any reader would ask at that point in the story? Or is there something you’ve failed to make clear? Be scrupulously careful when making any changes to your MS. If any lengthy passages need changing, ask your proofreader to check them again. Btw, when everything is finally perfect, a second or even third pair of eyes can only help.

Michael Mills: I have to admit that a lot of these were painfully learnt lessons during my writing. I checked and double-checked but in the end I couldn’t be sure that I had eliminated all the mistakes so, I eventually paid a proofreader. However, due to my experimental writing style, there were some things that I insisted on staying the same. So I would be careful to not just be making changing for the sake of it.

Michael Gallagher: Exactly. My proofreader and I have lengthy discussions about the changes she wants me to make. She usually wins, but only if I can see her point. I am incredibly lucky to have someone who knows my characters well and understands what I’m trying to do.

Michael Mills: In regards to the grammar, I couldn’t agree more. There are so many places you can go to get help and a lot of the time you won’t even have to look that hard. You may be overlooking some close friends and family. We all know that person or people who are avid readers. These people can be your greatest critics and an asset to you as they tend to know subtle differences between good and bad grammar. Also, getting readers who favour different genres to see whether your idea is getting across.

Michael Gallagher: I’m so glad you mentioned families. I know I’ve already said it, but this is an area where people my age and older can shine.

Michael Mills: These brief and incredibly helpful tips would have been, and are, invaluable. I will definitely be applying them going forward. Something as simple as the aforementioned “formatting” is an issue that I personally faced when finalising my MS and it cost me a lot time.

Michael Gallagher: Me too. While it might seem like a lot of extra work on the face of it, next month, when we look at what’s needed to upload ebooks to Amazon KDP and Smashwords, you’ll see why it can save you a lot of heartbreak. Anyone considering the self-publishing route, do join us then!

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Michael Gallagher

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