Final Draft: How I Improve my Manuscript
This week, I wanted to give you an insight into how I edit and improve my manuscript. Remember, this is my process, and is not necessarily correct or the only way. I’ve used examples from my current work in progress (WIP), ‘Guardians of the Poor.’ The section I’ve borrowed from started off at 224 words and ended up at 164. That’s only 60 words shorter, but then editing isn’t always about cutting down your word count. I have identified several areas where I edit, and a professional editor would identify many more.
Here are my thoughts with examples.
The first thing I do is write the first draft. When I do this, I am simply telling myself a story. I usually know how it will open and close, and I start at the beginning and work through. I make notes as I go and it’s a long list. I note:
- Questions raised in the story, which I must answer later
- Clues to be solved and their solutions
- Character descriptions, eye colour, etc.
- Dates and times, ages, birthdays
- Ideas for developments and plot points
- The timeline
- My common typos so I can run a search/find later
I am also aware of my overall structure and pace, and as I like to use a classic four-act structure, I note when I have reached the end of each act. The acts generally run:
- Set up, inciting incident, MC’s current world, ending with a shift into a new world/experience/state.
- Developing to a mid-way twist or crisis,
- Reaction to that, finding answers leading to the major crisis and climax,
- Settling down, denouement and change.
Here’s an example of my section at draft one stage:
What hit him was a building as tall as the workhouse, a gravelled stable yard, and the smell of trees beyond a red brick wall. Once out of the carriage, Mr Hawkins told him to wait while he and the coachwoman stabled the horses, and taking in his surroundings, he noticed the double gates through which they had come. For a second, Clayton contemplated making a run for it.
Great, the first draft is done, and I have an overall picture of the story. Now, I start on draft two. The first thing I did with my current WIP was change the MC’s name from Clayton to Dalston. That’s easy to do in Word with find/replace. I also read through the text highlighting repetitions. When writing draft one, it’s easy to think, ‘Have I made that point? Will the reader take that in?’ So, I tend to restate important facts, mainly to ensure I have put them in. Later, I have to identify them and take them out, else they become repetitious.
Also, I’m aware of repeating words. In my current draft four, I am conscious that, in dialogue, I’ve been writing, ‘Now then,’ Mr Wright continued…’ for example, and I think my characters ‘continue’ on just about every other page. So, I’ve been finding ways around that repetitive habit. Similarly, I look for overuse of ‘He’ at the start of a sentence, as there’s always a better way around that. Ending a sentence with a pronoun doesn’t tread well either, so anything ending with him, her, it, they, is rewritten. There’s also the overuse of a character’s name, although you don’t want to constantly replace a name with him/her either. So, balance is key. (As is not using split infinitives such as ‘to constantly replace.’)
Right ideas in the wrong place
Here’s another thing I am guilty of. As I go through draft one, I often write in ideas for later or change an idea for a better one that comes naturally to mind as I write. This can be a real pain in the arse. For example, at one point, Dalston has lived 13 years in the workhouse and later, he’s been there since he was a baby. Here’s an example:
There was nowhere to go. The workhouse had been his home for thirteen of his eighteen years, and he couldn’t remember where he had lived before. His first memory was of a matron in a white cap standing him beneath a tap, naked and shivering, and dousing him with cold water. From then on, life had been a repetitive round of sitting in silence, standing in line, sharing beds and, later, picking at oakum with a spike, or breaking rocks in the rock shed.
That was draft one. By the time we get to draft four, we have something much more succinct and accurate to the story.
There was nowhere to go. The workhouse had been his home all his life; a repetitive existence of sitting in silence, standing in line, sharing beds, and picking at oakum with a spike.
The mention of his first memory was one of those ideas that felt right at the time, but later, I realised it was something for further on in the story. The example is from chapter three, now Dalston’s first memories come out in chapter 14 where their placement makes much more sense.
Too many words
Here’s part of the above example: From then on, life had been a repetitive round of sitting in silence, standing in line, sharing beds and, later, picking at oakum with a spike, or breaking rocks in the rock shed.
That, remember, has now become:
The workhouse had been his home all his life, a repetitive existence of sitting in silence, standing in line, sharing beds, and picking at oakum with a spike.
That’s 33 words down to 28, but again, cutting the word count isn’t everything. What’s missing from the later draft is or breaking rocks in the rock shed. We don’t need two examples of workhouse life, not at that point in the story. The sentence, although still long, is more succinct.
Here’s another example of me trying to get my thoughts in order over four drafts.
Draft one: Whether Joe would survive on his own was another matter, and one that brought Clayton more sadness than being left on his own.
Draft two: It was a question of survival, but not knowing if Joe would survive on his own caused Dalston more sadness than being left on his own.
Draft three: Joe could have been anywhere, though, and not knowing if Joe would survive on his own caused Dalston more sadness than being without him.
Draft four: Is the same as draft three, but I’m still not 100% sure. (The second Joe is not needed, it could be a ‘he’, the ‘would’ might become a ‘could’, and caused Dalston more sadness than being without him is clumsy.)
Ah, yes, grammar. I’m not wonderful at this, and my punctuation is dodgy. That’s why I employ an expert proofreader. I also use a couple of programs. I started off with Grammarly, which is good at finding punctuation issues and other things according to its own style, but I found it messed around with my Word autocorrect and spellcheck. I unplugged that plugin and now use ProWritingAid. This wizard of a programme looks at all manner of things such as spelling, grammar, style, repeated phrases, passive verbs, sentence length, readability, clichés… There’s a lot to it, and you pick which parts you examine.
After draft two, I run each individual chapter through specific points in ProWritingAid. I look for grammar and style, overused words, sentence length, and clichés. Within those settings, the programme flags up passive verbs (which are not your enemy, just don’t overdo them), readability enhancements and repeated sentence starts.
Don’t just rely on these plugins, though. I also refer to published books on grammar and style and have my wonderful proofreader. Some would say that as you are creating your story in your style, you can employ whatever grammar you think fit, and yes, I suppose you can.
But it’s more about readability than showing off your crazy grammar style. Oops! I started a sentence with ‘but’, my old English teacher wouldn’t approve. But, it’s fine for emphasis. And, you can do it with and as well, for emphasis, but do it too often and you’ll read like an action comic. What you should do however is make sure the reader can understand what you’re saying because if you don’t write consistently and clearly using proper punctuation and you make your sentences too long and complicated as I often do in drafts one to three then your reader is literally going to run out of breath by the time they reach the end of what you’re trying to say.
In other words, don’t write sentences with no punctuation like I just did.
Be aware of some classic mistakes, such as the use of the Oxford comma: This book is dedicated to my readers, Harry and Sam. I have only two readers? No. This book is dedicated to my readers, Harry, and Sam. The comma replaces ‘to.’ This book is dedicated to my readers, to Harry, and to Sam.
And remember to help your uncle, Jack, off a horse, not help your uncle Jack off a horse.
And so on.
Do I mean that? (It.)
Every time I write a book, I do it for two reasons. 1) To write what I would like to read, and 2) To improve my writing a little more each time. Thus, I stay aware of bad habits, like starting sentences with ‘He’ and having my characters ‘continue’ during dialogue. Or, ‘What is that?’ she asked. We know she’s asking, there’s a question mark right there! Oh, and don’t use too many !! Certainly don’t put two together, and try to aim for none.
Another thing I’ve found myself doing recently is using ‘it’ when I know what I am talking about, but the reader may not. This usually happens with a break between the subject and the use of ‘it.’
Dalston put his sketchbook on the table when Frank came back with a sewing kit and wanted to fix a lock to it.
Say what? That was a made-up example, but not far off what I sometimes do when my brain is working faster than my fingers. What I meant was, Dalston put his sketchbooks on the table. When Frank returned, he brought a sewing kit, intending to attach a lock to the book…
Always read and reread sentences as if you’ve never seen them before. In fact, you should do that with the whole MS and ask yourself, ‘Am I saying what I mean to say, or am I writing lazily?’
Oh yes, and you can use adverbs, just don’t do it all the time.
Don’t be lazy: ‘I ain’t like that.’ Dalston was angry. (Boring!)
‘I ain’t like that!’ Dalston kicked the chair away and balled his fists. (Better.)
This leads me on to:
Can I make it better?
All of what I’ve been talking about comes down to the same end: Can I make it better? The answer is always ‘Yes’, but the question is always ‘How?’
There’s a theatre saying that’s bantered around as a joke, and I’ve used it myself when working on musicals as a director. ‘Let’s do it again, only better.’
Better is not specific, of course, and only you will know when your MS is perfect. For you. It will never be perfect for everyone, but you should always make it the best it can be.
Be critical of your own work. Don’t write it, read it, and think, ‘That’s wonderful. It’s done.’ Nothing is ever finished. I rarely read my books once published because I always see how I could have done something better or differently. I’m still finding better words for lyrics I wrote for a show in 1997, not that it will ever be performed again.
It’s not about taking out words but improving the ones you have. Well, sometimes it is about taking out words and putting them in another chapter because it’s something you want to say but doesn’t feel right when you first put it.
It’s not about trawling the thesaurus for something other than good, bad, ugly, it’s about asking why you wrote ‘good’ rather than leaving the reader with the impression something was good. Dalston woke feeling good, is pretty rubbish, really. Dalston woke with a spring in his step, is a cliché. Dalston woke full of the joys of… Don’t even go there. Dalston woke, remembered what the day promised, and grinned his toothy grin. Well, it’s a start.
Have I gone too far?
As I rewrite my drafts, I ask myself ‘Is this needed?’ and if it isn’t, it goes in the Cut folder, just in case I want it after all, or it contains something I can reuse another time. Currently, I have an entire chapter in the ‘Guardians’ Cut folder, and three other folders containing the first three drafts. I have been editing the MS for some weeks now, and it started at 105,000 words and is currently at 104,000. That means I have taken out only 1,000 words. Some writers suggest you should cut 20% from your first draft word count, and maybe that’s correct. I probably have cut 30,000 words from my first draft, but then I have replaced most of them with something better.
The trick is to improve your work, and if that means cutting, then do so, but remain aware of your style. Don’t just cut for the sake of it, but similarly, don’t leave something in a) if you’re not sure about it, and b) just because you like it. Whatever you take out, you can use elsewhere. Even if you can’t, what you have written has been practice, and by cutting it—no matter how painful it was to do—you have learnt something from the experience.
When I set about writing a chapter, the first thing I ask myself is, what is the POC? That’s my shorthand for Point Of Chapter. What is the point of this chapter? Is it to advance the plot or the character? Hopefully, both. I apply the same to any sections I am not sure about. I ask myself, what is the point of this paragraph? Is it scene-setting, a transition from one scene to another, is it colourful background, setting the time or era, or is it because I rather liked the prose and thought everyone should be treated to it?
Always wonder about your POC, and if a chapter has no plot advancement or character development, then you probably don’t need it.
And now, I think I have gone too far. I’ve rambled through my early morning thoughts, and I must return to my WIP and continue to check my POCs, cut out ‘continue’, check my pace, spelling, punctuation and readability, and make the MS as good as it can be.
I’ll be back next Saturday with an update on ‘Guardians of the Poor.’