Please welcome guest writer Bessie Blue with some tips on polishing your manuscript.
Have you ever written a first draft and edited it in next to no time? You found three grammar mistakes—typos, really—and your outline was so solid there were no plot holes.
As you sent your story to writing contests, you were bothered by a nagging thought: you just knew you could still improve your manuscript. But you didn’t know how.
So off the story went. And sure enough, it wasn’t accepted into a single contest.
I’ve struggled with this problem, and I’ve learned a thing or two about editing and proofreading.
Is Your Writing Awkward?
Sometimes, sentences don’t sound quite right. When editing my own work, I’ve often come across sentences that were plain ugly. I couldn’t put my finger on why. Grammatically, they were correct. Every word was spelled correctly. The punctuation was accurate. But in each sentence that gave me pause, something was off.
Like this sentence: “The day passed without my even noticing her.”
Technically, it’s correct, but it sounds wrong. There are many ways to rewrite it, such as:
“The day passed and I never noticed her.” Or: “I didn’t notice her all day.”
Often, clunky, awkward style is the result of taking a long time to reach the point. In the above example, I could have expressed my idea in fewer words. As you proofread your manuscript, ask yourself this: “Is my style concise? How I can rewrite this phrase to get to the point more quickly?”
Why You Shouldn’t Always Write in Active Voice
As you edit your draft, you may be tempted to change all your sentences to active voice.
Most of us have heard that we should favor active voice in our writing. But I’m not a fan of this blanket-statement type of advice. In fact, active voice can often be blamed for awkward and clunky passages.
Yes, it’s true that writing in active voice can create more dynamic writing—at times.
But there’s a reason passive voice exists. Look at the following passages:
- “Mold covered the walls in the bedroom.” (Active)
- “The walls in the bedroom were covered with mold.” (Passive)
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between these two sentences. But imagine the first sentence in the context of a paragraph that describes the bedroom. Including a sentence that puts so much emphasis on mold rather than on the bedroom could interrupt the flow and understanding of the paragraph.
When deciding between active and passive voice, my advice is to ask yourself two questions:
- What is your passage about? Match the voice to the type of scene you’re writing. Is it active or descriptive?
- Who or what is the main point of your sentence? In the above example, we care about the bedroom walls, not mold, and passive voice correctly puts emphasis on the walls.
How To Write Like a Poet
You may never have written a poem before, but as a writer, you’re a poet. That’s because rhythm is just as important to writers of prose as it is to writers of verse.
As you edit your draft, think of each line as a verse belonging to a poem. Does it read well? Does it flow? Does it have rhythm?
I’ve created an equation to help myself write like a poet. Here it is:
Sentence variety + word choice = rhythm
Alternate long and short sentences for good rhythm. Use shorter sentences during tense or high-action moments. Prioritize longer sentences during descriptive scenes.
Choose words wisely in your prose just like you would in a poem. Read your chapters aloud, and if the fluidity is interrupted by a word, rework the passage or find a synonym.
Sometimes, you will find that a paragraph has too many adjectives and adverbs. Try removing them—you may be surprised to find that your passage reads better and we can still understand it!
However, don’t automatically remove your adjectives and adverbs. While many dislike this class of words as they’re not really necessary to convey meaning, they can be important for style or rhythm purposes.
Are You Writing With Your Readers In Mind?
You should have identified your audience before you began to write. Now it’s time to make sure every passage in your manuscript has been written with them in mind.
Are you using words and expressions that your intended readers will understand? Is your language accessible? Are you writing at, above, or beneath their reading level?
Once you’re confident with your manuscript, hand it over to a test audience. I write for kids, and I love seeing their honest reactions to my work. While you may be tempted to ask for critiques, I’ve found that the best way to see if you’ve done your job is to watch your readers. Are their eyes glazing over in boredom or have you hooked them?
What about you? What do you find more important: language or content? Will you be using these tips as you edit and proofread? Share your thoughts in the comments.
About the Author: Bessie Blue is a freelance writer, copyeditor, and translator. She gives writing advice and waxes nostalgic about classic children’s books at Vintage Book Life. You can follow her on Twitter (@vintagebooklife).