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On Revising Your Manuscript: Looking at Language

Okay, if you’re following orders then at this point you’ve read through your finished book, cover-to-cover, and discovered the story you actually ended up telling. Maybe you read through it with a red pen, maybe you fixed some things, but your primary focus was on discovering what was there.

Now it’s time for revision. That means (as I warned you before), another read through your book. This time, instead of looking for the big picture, your goal is to focus in on the details. Look closely at the way you use language.

Fixing the Typos

On the surface, it might sound like I’m telling you repeat the process you went through last week. In a sense, maybe I am. I did tell you then that every read through your book will involve minor error corrections.

Technically, that process is called “copyediting,” and most people would recommend putting off any serious copyediting until the very end of your revision process. After all, anything you change between now and the end is going to need another look.

That’s good advice. It really is. The thing is, I can’t help myself. If I spot a typo and don’t fix it, it drives me nuts. It distracts me from whatever it is I’m trying to focus on. So I just go ahead and make changes whenever I spot them.

Feeling the Flow

That’s not really what I mean by “look closely at the language,” though. There’ll be copyedits forever, but your job in this pass isn’t so much to fix the language and it is to discover the language you use.

My friend Jessie (a professional copyeditor who reviewed Gods Tomorrow as a personal favor) told me every author has a word or two that he tends to overuse. My worst is “though.” She spotted it in her review, and told me to go back through the book and cut every instance of it I could.

It’s a good chance to double-check your adherence to some of the standard writing rules. Avoid adverbs. Make sure you’ve got at least one active, simple-tense verb in every sentence. Use simple dialogue attributions (95% of the time, it should be either “asked” or “said”).

Now’s the time to look at your verb tenses, too. If the book is in past tense (and it should be), make sure the whole thing is in past tense.

And check perspective while you’re at it. Is it first-person or third? Do you slip into second from time to time? Do you skip around different characters’ perspectives?

You don’t have to fix all that now. You will have to fix it eventually, and if it’s an easy fix you might as well go ahead. But right now your main job is still scouting it out. Discover how you use the language, what your strengths and weaknesses are, so you can make a strong plan for fixing it.

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