Seven Secrets to Preparing Your Manuscript for an Editor

by Peggy on January 10, 2012

Many writers struggle with premature-hand off. What I mean is that too often, authors hand their manuscript to an editor before it is polished. Worse yet, some writers never hand their manuscript over to a professional editor—but that’s a different blog post.

Here are three great reasons to polish your manuscript before you take it to an editor:

  • Pre-editing your work will make you a better writer
  • It’s what professional writers do
  • It will save you money on editing charges

What specific steps can an author take to ensure that their manuscript is ready for an editor? As a book coach, I am asked that question by first-time authors again and again. Here are my seven secrets to perfecting your manuscript, before giving it to your editor.

 First Things First

Begin writing your first draft in Times New Roman font, 12 point type, double spaced, with page numbers. If you work from an outline, the first draft will follow the outline you have already created. I write non-fiction books, and I often work from power point slides. I pretend that I am creating a Power Point presentation for a class and it forces me to expose the information in a logical sequence, much like an outline for a work of fiction. I find that if I can introduce the main ideas for each chapter in power point slides, I can tweak the flow of the information by moving the slides.


The Seven Secrets to Preparing Your Manuscript

1.    Finish the first draft.

“All first drafts are shit.” Ernest Hemingway

The first draft is the foundation of your book. Even though your first draft may be only a shadow of the book to come by the time you are published, the first draft is still the place where your book takes shape and form. Don’t impede the creative process, let the writing flow. This is not the time to be worrying about layout, editing, or research considerations. Your goal right now is ONLY to complete the first draft. Don’t judge yourself at this stage. Be creative, and let your sub-conscious mind tell the story. If you see a problem and you need to research a topic, place, or character, check usage, or find a statistic—keep a legal pad beside you and notate the issue, including the manuscript page number. These issues can be fixed in your second draft.

2.    Let it rest.

Once the first draft is complete, it must be quarantined. Tuck it away in a desk drawer for a week. No matter how tempted you are to peek, don’t do it. A week’s rest from your manuscript will go a long way toward restoring your objectivity toward the work.

3.    Read it through in one sitting.

Your week is up, now it’s time to liberate your manuscript. Clear a day on your schedule and give yourself uninterrupted time so that you can read the entire manuscript though—in one sitting. Next, start on your re-write. As you do the re-write, be sure to check the notes you made as you were completing the first draft. Once the changes are complete, incubate the manuscript again. If your publication schedule permits, two weeks in the drawer is better than one.

4.    Get some valid feedback from your favorite reader.

Now comes the interesting part. Find one honest, responsible, and prolific reader (preferably one who reads many books in your genre), and enlist them to listen to you as you read your book aloud. I call this person my favorite reader. It should be someone you trust and whose opinion you value regarding your writing. Read one or two chapters at each sitting until you have read the entire book aloud. After reading each chapter, talk with your listener, and get their feedback. As you read your work pay attention. Did you hesitate on certain sentences? Did you have to read some passages over, in order to emphasize a different word? Those points of hesitation when reading aloud are breaks in the flow of your writing. When you read aloud, you are using a different part of your brain; this helps you hear the areas where the writing needs work.

Discuss with your listener his/her impressions of each chapter. Give the favorite reader permission to discuss any issues or questions frankly. Re-write any clumsy, repetitive, or unclear passages and make any other changes needed.

5.    Expand the circle of favorite readers.

Print out five copies of your manuscript, double spaced, Times New Roman font, 12 point type, with page numbers, and give the manuscript to five people who are well read in your genre, and who will agree to read it right away and give you feedback. This is not the time to give a copy to your Aunt Susan, who “loves everything you write.” This is the time to find, in the words of one writer, “the meanest SOB you can find,” to read your work, get it back to you, and tell you what they really think.

Give each favorite reader a red pen, a deadline to complete the reading, and permission to tell you the truth without judgment, excuses, or rancor from you.  Ask them to mark the mistakes they find in red, and notate any other problems they may see with flow, clarity, or consistency. Make the changes you deem appropriate.

6.    Let it rest one last time.

Now it’s time to put the manuscript away again. Keep your manuscript in the drawer for at least two weeks. If you have flexibility in your publication calendar, keep it locked away for four weeks or longer. Set aside a day when you have lots of time to read without interruptions. When you take it out of the drawer read the manuscript through—cover to cover, in one sitting. Keep a legal pad beside you and make any notes about changes. Make the corrections.

7.    Choose an editor and turn over your polished manuscript.

The last step is the sweetest. Now that you have completed the first six steps to a polished manuscript, it is time for the most critical step—hiring an editor. Find an editor that you can work with, make sure that you understand what you are getting for your editing dollars. Give the editor your manuscript and then make the changes that they suggest. Your editor, if they are a professional, reads books for a living and will give you excellent suggestions.

Don’t allow your ego to stand in the way of making the changes that will make your book better. Polishing a manuscript requires some scrubbing—embrace the process.

In the vein of polishing—there’s a great story about Henry Kissinger, (the Noble Peace Prize recipient, and former Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford), and his speech writer. The young, newly-hired speech writer gave Kissinger a speech he had been assigned to write. “Mr. Kissinger, here is your speech,” he said. Kissinger glanced at the speech and handed it back to the young man, saying, “You can do better.”

The speech writer left, speech in hand. He returned the next day, and gave the re-written speech to his boss one more time. Kissinger again glanced at the speech and said, “You can do better.”

Dejected, he took the speech, determined to get it right. The following day the intern returned with the speech for the third time. Incredibly, Kissinger glanced at the speech again and said, “You can do better.”

The young man quickly replied, “No sir, no, I can’t do better. That is the best I can do.”

“Good,” replied Kissinger, “I’ll read it now.”

Now that you have a polished manuscript and it is ready to be shopped, or to be self-published. You have created the best book you are capable of creating—that’s all anyone can ask.

What have you found to be the most difficult obstacle to finishing your manuscript?


Article by Peggy DeKay

Peggy DeKay is a former newspaper columnist, award winning writer, and the author of   Self Publishing for Virgins: The first-time author’s guide to self-publishing. DeKay is a book coach, blogger and the host of The Business of Writing Today Podcast..

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