Before Someone Sees It
Updated: Mar 12
At the Woodlands Writing Guild, we encourage writers to publish their work. Before that, writers bring their darlings to critique meetings. Where mistakes get found. Some critiquers can’t see past the errors to the gem of the story. This is also true of editors, agents, and friends. So you owe it to your manuscript to be in the best shape before you let another person see it. This checklist will help.
After you finish typing your incredible work, run through all the tasks listed here to find common issues and clean it up. It is tedious, but most of these steps have tools to help.
Note on format for search text
I put what I want you to search for inside double-quotation marks. Don’t type the double-quotes. Also, some of the tricks rely on spaces being part of the search text. I use the ancient notation for space as a lowercase ‘b’ with a strikethrough* (ex. b). Printers (as in people who laid out print) did this to denote exact spacing, because spaces are invisible and hard to count).
*the strikethrough doesn't work in the blog software so I italicised it. Thanks Wix.
Use the Standard Manuscript Format
I assume you will sell/submit your work. It’s a lot easier to follow the expected format while writing it, than changing it after. I keep a template document just for that purpose. Once your story is is ready, 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:
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.
We can leave adverbs in dialog alone. You may find a few -ly adverbs are fine to leave, the goal is to not have tons of them. Also, don’t just remove the adverb. Look at the verb next to it. The admonition against adverbs is because a better verb could have been used.
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, 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. But when I am typing, I am bound to mess up.
Replace repetitive words
The thesaurus is a writer’s friend. But before you can bring it to bear, you need to realize how overused 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.
Kill The Filler Words
Do a search (Control+F) for each of these words and check if we can remove them. Anything inside dialog might be fine as people talk that way. But outside of that, try to kill them. Here is a list of common filler words:
In order to
Some of these you must mend the surrounding words. The “ing to” shows up as “starting to” or “swimming toward” and can be converted to “began” or “swam toward”
Consistent Tense and Voice
Most fiction is written in past tense. Allowing for the exception of writing in present tense, avoid mixing tense. Knowing how most verbs work, there are some tricks to see if you used the wrong tense.
In Present Tense:
There should be no verbs (outside of dialog) that end with ed. Do Control+F and search for “edb”. This will step you through many words, some of them are verbs. Be patient and click through Next until you spot a mistake. There’s a few verbs like “ran” and “stood’ that you’ll have to find the hard way.
In Past Tense:
Unlike most past tense verbs ending with “ed”, present tense verbs are sneaky. You’ll need to read through and check every sentence.
First person and third person are the two common voices to write in. One is easier to test than the other.
In third person, you should never see “I” outside of dialog. So search for that. In first person, unless the character is Bob Dole, you should never see the character’s name. There are exceptions of course, the goal is to do a quick check for an obvious mistake.
Two Spaces or One
Some editors prefer a single space after the period because two spaces don’t format uniformly with modern fonts or web browsers.
If you want one space after the period:
Do control+H for find and replace
Enter “bb” in the find box
Enter “b” in the replace box
Click Replace All
If you want two spaces after the period:
Do the steps for converting to one space after the period (trust me)
Do control+H for find and replace
Enter “b” in the find box
Enter “bb” in the replace box
Click Replace All
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 spell check 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 confronts you with each error.
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:
Read It Out Loud
There is no substitute for your eyes scanning the words and your mouth saying them. That will exercise the part of your brain that says, “This didn’t sound right.”
This became a lengthy list of editing tasks. Do these steps after you’ve slept on it, re-read and made revisions and you’re ready to hear what another human thinks. They will still find mistakes, but your work will read better to them so they can focus. Some of the tips imply brute force changes, but the real goal is to make the writer look at the trees instead of the forest. Deliberate steps draw your attention to potential weak spots. Try it out on your next manuscript and see the difference.
More Editing Checklists
Software That Does This
About The Author: KL Forslund
A man of many words, trapped inside a small text box. KL Forslund keeps his stuff in Texas, where he writes Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Steampunk and Dino-Pirates. He can be found where hungry writers gather or at his website https://klforslund.com