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Your Revision Checklist: A Few Final Steps Before You Submit Your Manuscript

Your Revision Checklist: A Few Final Steps Before You Submit Your Manuscript

By Mary Carroll Moore

Years ago, when I began publishing books, my editors used a checklist to help writers through final revision.  We writers were expected to know our topics, produce decent manuscripts, but editors made that manuscript clean.
When the publishing world made its huge industry shift over these past years, writers had to clean up their own manuscripts (or hire a freelance editor to do it).  Writers who assumed clean-up is an agent's job were in for a surprise:  in today's super-competitive market, agents don't want to babysit a new writer, unless they have great interest in that writer's book.

Over the eighteen years I worked as a professional editor, I compiled my own revision checklist, which I used to review manuscripts.  The most important items are below.  Some are no-brainers, others may surprise you.

Word to the wise:  Be methodical.  Use one list at a time.  Don’t get sidetracked into general editing as you do this—it’s very easy to lose your place.

Give your manuscript the best chance:  print out this checklist and use it before you send your writing into the world.

Checklist #1--Continuity Check
My first checklist requires lists of location, players, and objects.  Make the lists, then scan quickly through each chapter to check that item of the list.

1.  Verify physical details about each major location:  List the locations in your book and check consistency on details such as number of rooms in a house, placement of doors, and anything else that might have shifted unexpectedly as you wrote.
2.  List main characters' names (including narrator) and write down their physical descriptions.  Check each chapter to make sure everything is consistent.  (My elderly mother once read a novel where the main character's name changed from Emily to Amanda mid-story.  Obviously the writer didn't do this step.)
3.  List major objects, such as cars, favorite possessions, and anything else the reader will keep track of.  Scan to make sure these are consistent throughout.  (I once inadvertently changed a red Fiat to a blue Honda halfway through my book--and luckily I caught it at revision.)
4.  Verify place names.  Make sure these are spelled correctly (if real places) and referred to consistently throughout the book.
5.  Check for unconscious repetition of similar scenes.  My last novel had five breakfast scenes, all with blueberry pancakes.  Easy to vary that, once I noticed it.

Checklist #2--Table of Contents against Chapter Titles, Subheads, Exercise Titles, and Page Numbers
1.  If you've titled your chapters, go through them and compare to the table of contents--you'd be surprised how often these are not matching.
2.  If you've used subheads (section titles) and these are listed in the table of contents, check them.
3.  In nonfiction books, authors use exercise boxes, titled sidebars, and other pull-outs--verify these if listed in either a table of contents or appendix.
4.  Finally, make sure everything listed in the table of contents corresponds to its correct page number there.

Checklist #3--Beginning and Ending of Each Chapter and the Book as a Whole
1.  Read the last sentence or two of each chapter.  Then read the beginning sentence or two of the next chapter.  Add an image or other repeating note to link them.  (This was taught to me by one of my instructors in the MFA program--and it made my first novel a page turner, according to many readers, after it was published.  A very simple step but essential.)
2.  If the point of view (who is narrating) changes between chapters, check the first paragraph of each new chapter to add identifiers (so we can tell who is speaking).
3.  Look at the opening two pages and the final two pages.  Do they echo each other in some way--via similar image, location, who is present, topic?  If possible, strengthen this "echo."

Checklist #4--Sentence and Paragraph Lengths 

1. Print each chapter and lay it out on a bed or the floor, so all the pages line up and are visible.  Squint at the pages until they become a visual blur.  Look for blocks of text without any white space.  Then look for blocks that are too similar in length, whether short or long.  Break all of these up more.  They will feel visually monotonous to the reader, even if they are full of action.  (Thanks to novelist Alex Chee for this tip.)

2.  In key chapters (in all chapters, if you have energy for it), do the same with your sentence lengths.  Break them up, vary them.  Avoid sleepy rhythms.

Checklist #5--Final Spell and Grammar Check

1.  Run spell check (and grammar check, if you use that) one final time after you've made all the above corrections.
2.  Read the manuscript aloud to yourself one last time, to catch anything spell check and grammar check doesn't.  Use a yellow highlighter to mark places that still sound awkward.
3.  Check the homonyms that often get misused:  they're, their, and there; your and you're; to, too, and two.  If you're not sure which is correct, get help.
4.  Check all dialogue--make sure opening and closing quote marks are in place.  Make sure quote marks are outside the punctuation at the end of sentences.  (Correct:  "wow," she said.  Incorrect:  "wow", she said.)
After you fix everything you find, I recommend one more pass through the checklists.  I'm always surprised at how editing (even just one more time!) can place the manuscript at ground zero again.
If you’re not yet at final revision, bookmark this blog post or print it out for future use.  Add to the checklists as you learn more.  Hopefully, they will streamline your revision process—plus save you embarrassment and easy rejection.

 

Mary Carroll Moore is the award-winning author of thirteen books in three genres.  Her latest book on writing, Your Book Starts Here, won the 2012 New Hampshire Literary Awards in People’s Choice.  She was a syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times for twelve years and has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and other publications.  She teaches the popular workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” at Grub Street and writes a weekly blog for book writers at http://HowtoPlanWriteandDevelopaBook.blogspot.com.  

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