Writing tips: 7 ways to improve your manuscript

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced writer, working on a novel or a short story, editing a manuscript for publication can really help.

Congratulations!  You have finished writing your novel.

First step: celebrate.  You’ve achieved an awesome feat.

Now what should you do?

You should do lots of things, and quickly.  This post looks at how you can make your novel as good as possible, before you send it out to seek an agent or a publisher.

Of course, you may want to send your novel out as soon as you have written “The End”.

Feel free.  Perhaps you are a great writer (see below) and your first draft is of such quality that it needs no further  improvement.  Well done.

Signing a copy of your printed book is a great experience

Most first drafts of novels, however, will be improved by editing.  This raises the question of how you, the author of a book, can best edit your own manuscript.  Some of this post is based on a course I attended at the Arvon Foundation (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).  I found both Arvon and the two tutors excellent and would recommend them.

Here are my recommendations on seven steps to improve the first draft of your novel.  I illustrate the steps with experience of my new Istanbul-based thriller Palladium, which I revised for several months a year after finishing the first draft.

  1. Step one: celebrate.  You have completed a novel.  How many people can say that?  Reward yourself.  Put a spare copy in a safe place (your computer might crash, or your house burn down).  Take your loved one out for a meal, or let them take you.  When I finished my first draft of Palladium, in Vienna, I went cycling by the Danube.  You can ignore this advice if you are Anthony Trollope, who would finish one book and start his next immediately, sometimes the same day.
  2. Put your manuscript to one side (“in the drawer”) and focus on another project for a while: a month, or two, or three.  This gives you a bit of a distance, so that you can take a fresh look when you start revising.  I put Palladium away for a year while I wrote another novel.
  3. Take out your manuscript and read it start to finish, as if it were someone else’s book.  Try not to edit as you read, but make notes about things that strike you about it.  With Palladium, this took me a weekend – I did nothing else for 48 hours.  You  should consider questions such as: is this scene or chapter confusing?  Does it contain too much information?  Have you become becalmed in a descriptive scene that doesn’t drive the story forward? What is this scene, this chapter, for?  What are you telling the reader which will make him or her want to read on?  Other questions: – How does each of your scenes, or chapters, change the character? How does it advance the story?  Is the characterisation consistent (“surely my hero would never do that?).  Do the characters – especially the main characters – develop?- Is your causation strong?  In other words, is something happening because of what the characters have done (good)?  Or are you dropping in events at random (not so good)?- Are your characters quality characters?  Are they interesting?  Are they necessary?  Do they drive the story forward?- Are you using your locations well?  Do they contribute to the narrative?- Are your coincidences too handy?  Or too random?  Bernard Cornwell, author of the excellent Sharpe series of novels, notes that if someone is fleeing down an alley and takes refuge by entering a door, you must have mentioned the existence of that door earlier, lest the escape seem too contrived.- Is your text consistent with the theme of the book?  For example, in Palladium, I excised several scenes where my two main male characters were relaxing a bit, on the grounds that they were supposed to be frantic with worry trying to track down a third, missing, female character.
  4. Having taken your notes, implement them.  This is a big job.  With Palladium, it took me several months.  Rewrite your manuscript from start to finish, focusing on your notes.  Cut out less good stuff.  Polish what is left.
  5. At this stage, you may want to send your manuscript to a few trusted readers and get their input.  Some people do this at stage 2 – it’s up to you – but I prefer to send out a more polished product.  I sent Palladium to around six readers. Make sure to thank your trusted readers for looking at your work – they are doing you a big favour!  It may be that you will later ask them to review your book when it is published.
  6. When you have comments from your trusted readers, incorporate those comments which you think are on-target.  You don’t have to agree with your trusted readers on everything – but you should take their views seriously, especially if two or more people say the same thing.  For example: if they say a scene makes no sense, or a character is a bit thin, take a good look at that scene, or that character.
  7. Finally, read your book through again, from start to finish (a “line edit“), trying to improve it.  Is the tone right?  Is every phrase, every word, the best?  Are your images as compelling as you can make them?  is every sentence clear?  You may want to try reading the book aloud at this stage – reading aloud often reveals things you can improve, such as where you have used the same word twice in a sentence, or where dialogue sounds lame.

That’s it.  If you have reached this stage, you should find that your manuscript is better than it was when you started this process.  Now it is time to send it out to try and sell it.  Good luck!

You should also take a look at my other posts on writing:

P.S. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, please subscribe to my weekly newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish).  I’ll send you a free “Hotel Story” to say thanks!  Or I would be delighted if you would like to friend me on Facebook.  

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