by Joelle Steele

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Before you give your manuscript to an editor, make sure that it is as accurate as possible. Editing can be very time-consuming and therefore very expensive. One of the reasons it takes so long is that an editor must look at every item on every page, and he or she must think carefully about what the author is trying to communicate so that any changes recommended will be applicable to achieving that author's desired result. It can take even longer if the editor is distracted by having to look at the same kinds of repeated errors throughout the document.

The following is a list of items that you should always take care of before submitting your manuscript to any editor. There will still be plenty of things left for your editor to correct, and you will become a better writer in the process. Use the Chicago Manual of Style so that your editor doesn't have to do it for you and charge you a hefty fee for the service.

VOICE. Most publishers prefer that a manuscript be written in the active voice so that it sounds more authoritative and dynamic. In some instances it may be necessary to write in the passive voice, which turns the object of a sentence into the subject, which then results in the acting subject being placed at the middle or end of the sentence where it can sound awkward, particularly in a long sentence with multiple clauses. Here are some examples of sentences written in active and passive voice:

Active: The marketing department is currently reviewing our new line of products.
Passive: Our new line of products is currently being reviewed by the marketing department.
Active: The FDA determined that the drug was not safe for use by children.
Passive: The drug was determined by the FDA to be unsafe for use by children.

SPELLING. Look it up in the dictionary or use your computer's spell check option. Also learn to spell so that you can spot errors, especially in the use of soundalike words such as "their," "there," and "they're." Make sure that names of people, places, book titles, products, or any technical terminology are spelled correctly.

TYPOGRAPHICAL ERRORS. Remove double words (e.g., the the), transposed words or letters, extra letters inadvertently typed into or surrounding other words.

APOSTROPHE. Use it only to indicate a possessive (e.g., Mother's, Jane's, or parents') or to mark an omission of letters in a contracted word (e.g., o'clock or hasn't). Do not use "it's" and "its" interchangeably. The first means "it is" and the second is the possessive as in "virtue is its own reward." When referring to plurals of numbers, apostrophes may or may not be used. It was previously correct to write "1990s" with "1990's" being technically incorrect. The former is preferable, but either is acceptable as the latter is now in common use.

CASE. Remove capitalization from words that are not proper nouns (i.e., names) and be sure that all names and titles are capitalized.

QUOTATION MARKS. A quote within a sentence usually follows a sentence ending in a comma or colon, but not always:

Correct: Jane was told by her supervisor to 'play by the rules' if she wanted the promotion.
Correct: To get the promotion, Jane's supervisor told her: "Play by the rules."

Words or non-words used in a special way should be in quotation marks (e.g., "angel dust," "quick-fix," or "iffy"). A "quote within a quote" should have single quotation marks nested within double quotation marks, (e.g., "He told me, 'This is poorly written,' so I rewrote it," she said.). Do not put quotation marks around cited information that has been set off from the rest of your text in a sub-paragraph format or that is in italics. Pull-quotes may or may not have quotation marks. If not, they are usually italicized.

PUNCTUATION. This plays an important role in clarity, so be sure that your work is properly punctuated.

Colons and semi-colons. Use a colon in front of a list or an emphatic phrase. Use a semi-colon to link independent clauses not joined by a conjunction, and to separate a conjunctive adverb (e.g., "however" or "furthermore") between two clauses.

Dashes, commas, and the ellipsis. These are not interchangeable. Each has a specific use:

Dashes. Use for abrupt changes or breaks in the continuity of a sentence or to emphasize a word or phrase.

Correct: The stone walls were crumbling onto the street — just like Ellen had described!
(emphasizes Ellen's description as being an amazing coincidence)
Correct: The stone walls were crumbling onto the street, just like Ellen had described.
(use a comma, not a dash, if Ellen's description is not emphasized)

Commas. Use these to separate main clauses, long adverbial clauses, transitional words and expressions, and items in series.

Commas introduce direct quotations, separate words to avoid ambiguity, and are used in terms of address and geographical names, among many other things. A comma should always be used before a conjunction in a list of items:

Correct. The fruit basket contained apples, pears, mangoes, and bananas.

Ellipsis. Use to indicate the omission of one or more words or sentences, usually in a cited passage such as a poem. The ellipsis is also used in dialogue to indicate pauses in speech or unfinished sentences.

Correct: "This work is an entertaining and graphically pleasing reference ... it presents the verses in a clear and straightforward manner."
Correct: "Uh ... well ... I'm not sure," he offered.
Correct: "I guess I could always call him or ..." her voice weakened and trailed off.

HYPHENATION. Check that words are divided correctly at the end of a line. If you use terms that can be written with or without a hyphen, decide which way you are going to write it and be consistent in that usage throughout whatever you are writing. Be sure that certain expressions are hyphenated such as "well-spent" or "cross-reference," and that words with double vowels are hyphenated such as "co-exist," anti-inflammatory," or "re-enlist." Check your style manual often as there are many kinds of hyphenated words and expressions such as "blue-green," "twenty-one," "chit-chat," and "hard-hearted." And, be aware that there is currently a trend towards dropping hyphenation from many words altogether, including those with double vowels.

ITALICS. Use these only for emphasis, for titles, or for pull-quotes, but only if the latter two are not already in quotation marks. In scientific works, remember that in binomial nomenclature only the genus and species are italicized.

GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX. We all learn grammar in elementary school, but many of us forget some of its finer points by the time we graduate from high school. Pick up a basic book on grammar (the aforementioned Chicago Manual of Style is great) if you remember sleeping through fourth grade English. Grammar is a system of rules governing the structure of sentences, particularly the agreement between subjects and verbs, the use and placement of adverbs and adjectives, and the conjugation of verbs in all their various tenses. Grammar is also composed of syntax (the arrangement, order, and relationships of words, clauses, and phrases in a sentence), punctuation, semantics (the meanings of words and sentences), morphology (the form and structure of words), and phonology (the way the language sounds).

Organize your sentences using proper grammar, and be sure to avoid misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, etc. They only promote confusion and force the reader to re-read, sometimes several times, for complete or even adequate comprehension. Syntactical errors are usually responsible for the most confusion, and syntax is often impossible for an editor to correct. Some examples:

Poor Syntax: The instructor handed it to him, and he appeared confused, and he put the book down on the desk.

Can you tell for certain who "he" is and what "he" is doing in this sentence? Is there only one "he"? You might be able to tell from other sentences surrounding the one in question, but not always. Look at the following examples before you answer the question about just who is doing what in the above sentence.

Good Syntax: The instructor handed it to George, who appeared confused as he put the book down on the desk.
Good Syntax: The instructor, who appeared confused, handed it to George, who put the book down on the desk.

More example of syntactical choices:

Poor Syntax: In general, as with most houseplants, ferns prefer to be kept evenly moist.
Better Syntax: As with most houseplants, ferns generally prefer to be kept moist.

Another gardening example shows how to keep word count down by changing syntax:

Long (13 words): Spathiphyllums have been found to wilt if they do not receive enough water.
Short (4 words): Spathiphyllums wilt when underwatered.

VOCABULARY. Select your words carefully. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus. Write at the level of your readers and refrain from using lengthy or archaic terminology that is not appropriate to the topic. Avoid using the same words repeatedly. Be sure that the words you use are used correctly. Many writers and editors alike misuse words and expressions simply because they "sound" good, "read" well, or are used incorrectly by the general public in daily conversation.

PROOFING. Just when you think you're done, you're not! One last look over your work before submitting it to an editor, an advisor, or a publisher is called "proofing." Proofing consists of critically examining a work for the sole purpose of looking for errors.

Fixing Manuscript Problems

The three biggest problems that a manuscript can have are in: plot (in fiction)/structure (in non-fiction), character development, and dialogue. Most of these problems can be avoided entirely by fixing them before you start to write.

PLOT AND STRUCTURE. Write a very detailed outline and/or a plot chart (see sample below) that shows the plot and subplots chapter by chapter. This will make your writing hang together in a logical format that is easy for the reader to follow. In fiction, your plot and subplots will all mesh well and wrap up successfully. In non-fiction, your manuscript will be in the structure that is wanted by publishers and that is thorough and complete (credible), with appendices, indexes, bibliographies, etc.

CHARACTERS. Write a thorough biography of your character and include every single detail you can think of about that person to make them come alive. This includes, among other things: birth date and place, parents, childhood, friends, habits, hobbies, work, education, mannerisms, phrases commonly used, places they hang out, character flaws, losses, successes, children, etc. You may even want to draw up a family tree for your main character(s).

DIALOGUE. Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like people really talk. Listen to people when they speak, listen critically to movies and TV shows, and read plays to get a sense of how dialogue is written and spoken. Keep your dialogue clear and concise; don't waste it on anything that is unessential to the story. Be discriminating in the use of dialect; don't overuse it because that makes it hard to read.

How to Submit Your Manuscript to An Editor. When editors read your work, they are not reading for pleasure. Editors read critically and they must be able to see everything very clearly and have sufficient room to write in their corrections and changes. In addition, they must be able to reference a page number in their notes to you that accompany their edits. Unless your editor specifies otherwise, always submit your manuscript to an editor (or publisher) in "edit format."

- white paper, 20 lb stock minimum, 8-1/2 x 11
- unbound (no staples, no 3-hole binders, etc.)
- 1-inch margins all around (nothing less)
- double-spaced (not 1.5 spacing or anything less)
- regular print mode (not draft) so the letters are dark enough to be easily read
- Times Roman 12 pt or Arial 10 pt (nothing smaller and no "fancy fonts")
- paginated (page numbers on each page, same place on each page)
- no embedded images (show where photos or illustrations are to be inserted)
- only ONE space after all punctuation or after quotation marks
- punctuation within quotation marks in dialogue
- left justified (not full justified)
- page header with title and author name on each page
- every possible kind of contact info for you on the title page

This article last updated: 09/28/2015.