There are milestone moments a-plenty in book writing. The moment you finally commit to writing that book is a big one. Shaping the initial idea and then working out the structure/flow, are two more. Typing that first word, on the first blank page, feels pretty epic too. Then there is the champagne-worthy moment of getting a publishing deal, which makes it all very real. After that, there’s a long period of negotiating and triumphing over many more milestones (writers block, self doubt, plot holes and dead ends) before the day when you type the final word, of the final sentence, of the final chapter.
However, (if you’ll excuse the pun) the story is not over yet.
The next significant milestone is getting the manuscript you’ve agonised over ready for publication. Printing it out and popping it into an envelope with a relieved sigh, or attaching it to a triumphant ‘I’ve finished!’ email is not good enough. There is much to be done before submitting your manuscript.
First up, you need to proof read your book. Preferably several times. Ask your partner or a good friend to do the same. Yes, it is true that if you have a publishing contract an editor will be assigned to this task, but they will be unable to make valuable suggestions on content, conflict or characters if they are bogged down in misspelled words, or dialogue that is not punctuated correctly.
So, what should you be looking out for? One of the easiest things to get right is spelling. Don’t just rely on your spellchecker though. English has one of the largest vocabularies in the world and spellcheckers don’t always get its nuances right, particularly in creative writing. It also may not pick up on mistakes where you’ve used two words instead of one, such as girl friend, instead of girlfriend. Hyphenation is often a weakness too, so it is no-nonsense, not no nonsense. This is also a good time to look out for confused words such as accept, when you meant except, or conscious instead of conscience, and that old favourite their, there, or they’re. While you are on the case, check your apostrophes too. Plus, scrutinise your capitals. When I work with authors I often find that they err of the side of Starting As Many Words as Possible with Capitals. Don’t. Oh, and if you are interested, my own personal pet hate is double punctuation. It doesn’t matter how startling your plot twist is: no one is ever this surprised!! See what I mean?!
Check out how you’ve presented the dialogue of your characters. As a rule, signs of emotion go ahead of the dialogue, as in: she stuttered (whispered, shouted). If they just plain old ‘said’, ‘asked’ or ‘replied’, it goes afterwards. Think carefully about how much dialect or foreign accents you decide to include in your dialogue. It can get tiring for a reader trying to work out exactly what the character is trying to say if the language is unfamiliar. Certainly never put it in the main narrative.
If you have written a work of non fiction, this is also the time to check and double check your resources. You need to keep an accurate list of works that you have cited, consulted, paraphrased or quoted from. This can be either in footnotes, or a separate file. Think carefully about the resources you put on that list too. While Wikipedia and Ask.com are great for quick answers, most publishers will require more credible references.
When you read your book, do so with a really critical eye. Do you really need all those words/that sentence/that paragraph? Does it add anything? It is not always easy to do, particularly after you have sweated for months over a manuscript, no doubt watching your word count like a hawk, but this is what will make your book highly readable. Ernest Hemingway, who was ruthless in editing his own work, said each sentence he wrote should be as sharp as a matador’s sword. That’s what you should be aiming for. Now is the time to really hone in on your word choice too. Most writers are guilty of having a few favourite stock words or phrases. What are yours? If you find your main character frequently ‘fiddling with her hair self-consciously’, find her something else to do when she feels awkward. Or if your protagonist is always grinning, get a thesaurus and give him some alternative expressions.
This is a process that can’t be rushed. I often advise authors I work with to edit one chapter at a time, take a break and then do another. If you try to do it all at once, the quality of the edit goes down because you’ll find yourself just reading the book, rather than really working out whether every word counts.
Your final act before submission is to make sure you have a completely clean manuscript. No publisher wants to see a supposedly finished book with a stack of Track Changes, or highlighted words, or notes in the margin. Send over your absolute best work. That’s a milestone that’s worthy of the name that goes on the front cover.