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Surgery for Your Manuscript


By: Terry Odell

Whether you’re traditionally published, indie published, or working on getting published, you want to present the best possible reading experience. I edit as I go, with much appreciated feedback from critique partners, but even so, when I hit “The End,” it signals the beginning of the real editing process. It’s highly unlikely the manuscript is ready to turn in at this point.

A tip: You want to fool your brain, because you’ve been looking at the manuscript on screen for months. Print a hard copy. You’ll be amazed at how much more you “see.” Also, use a different font. If you’ve been working in a serif font, like TNR, use a non-serif font. In fact, this is a great place for Comic Sans. I also print it in two columns, which totally changes the line length, and the words line up differently. More glitches will be visible.

Start with Major Surgery

So, you have your manuscript ready to go. First: the major surgery. This is a read-through with one big question in mind: Does it advance the plot?

Often, the answer is no. I’m not a plotter, so my characters lead the way much of the time, and sometimes they insist on a scene that’s brilliantly written, but doesn’t help the story. Or a plot thread that turns out to be unnecessary.

Cut the threads, then, right? Or the scenes. Trouble is, threads don’t exist in nice, tidy packages. There are other things to watch out for. Did you foreshadow that scene or thread? Did you follow up? Make a reference, even in passing. Those have to go. Then, you have to go back and deal with transitions. Consider this phase reconstructive surgery.

It’s more than likely the scene before the one you cut led into it. That will have to be adjusted. Likewise the one after it. If you ended the scene with a page-turning cliff hanger, that cliffhanger now sends readers into an abyss with no bottom.

Same goes for any shorter bits you’ve cut. Watch what happens right before and right after, and smooth out the edges.

One tip for dealing with these spackling jobs is to note key words from your threads and search for them. It might be the name of the character, or some specific scene detail, like what they ate for dinner, or what they were wearing.

An example: After deleting a thread, there was a subsequent reference that included a trigger for a reaction from my hero, and I needed that reaction. But the conversation was no longer viable, and when I cut it, there went my trigger.

I went back quite a few chapters, and found another conversation that had shown a much milder reaction from my hero. By snipping it from that scene and including it, with the requisite modifications, I was able to salvage the trigger I needed, plus the reaction.

Don’t Leave any Instruments Behind

Once you’ve dealt with the big things, and have checked to be sure you didn’t leave any instruments or sponges in the body after performing the surgery, it’s time for minor surgery. Your story might be finished, but you need to deal with the inevitable excesses. Words that don’t add anything to the story. In fact, they might add distance, keeping a layer you don’t want between your readers and the characters. Or, there might be awkward bits.

How do you deal with these?

You probably have your list of crutch words and filler words. Words that are the written equivalent of throat-clearing, or the ums in spoken conversation. Word lets you search for those. However, there are the inevitable words or phrases I’m not aware of, and new ones crop up in every book. I use a program called SmartEdit, and highly recommend it. The cost is nominal (I get nothing from the company—I just like the product)—and I think there’s also a free version. This program does not check for grammar, which is hard to do for genre fiction anyway. Also, grammar is not a problem for me. The minor errors I make, my editor catches.

What kinds of things does a pass through the SmartEdit program flag?

  • An Adverb Usage list
  • Repeated Phrases list
  • Repeated Words List
  • Possible Misused Words List
  • Foreign Phrases List
  • Profanity/Swear Word List
  • A Sentence Length Graph
  • Dialogue Tags (this doesn’t work as I expected it to, so I don’t use it.)
  • Proper Nouns list (This is more of an “anything that begins with a capital letter” list, but it’s helpful in catching a name you thought you’d deleted, or two spellings of the same name. In my Mapleton books, there’s always at least one place where I spell my protagonist’s name Helper instead of Hepler.
  • Sentence Start List
  • Suspect Punctuation List.

Going through all of these is tedious, to be sure, but as you work through them, you’ll see places where your can tighten your writing, so there’s an extra bonus.


At this point, I’m comfortable sending the manuscript to my editor, but there’s one last step. Microsurgery in the form of listening to the manuscript. I do this after I’m done dealing with my editor’s feedback, because it’s another tedious process, and I’d rather listen to the “finished” product. Like it or not, there will still be clunkers and minor typos.

There are those who suggest reading the manuscript aloud yourself, but your brain still knows what’s supposed to be there, and you’ll miss things. I use Word’s “Read Aloud” function (it comes with Office 365. If you don’t have that version, there’s “Read Selected Text” which does almost the same thing.) There have been a lot of improvements in the voices, but it’s still going to be a computer. The plus side is that a computer reads exactly what you’ve written. There are pronunciation issues, but I find those make sure I’m paying attention. You’ll hear ‘clunkers’ as well as actual mistakes.

Here are a couple of examples of errors nobody caught.

She drove the up the dirt lane. A beam of sunlight shone through a break in the gray winter sky, reflecting off a sprawling white two-story house, as if to say, This is your light in the darkness.

Did you catch the mistake?

Or, a potentially embarrassing one: A line was supposed to say “Come in here” but as written, it was “Come in her.” That made the extra listening step worth it!

Terry Odell, Author

Terry Odell is the author of over thirty novels, novellas, and short stories. She writes both mysteries and romantic suspense, but calls them all “Mysteries With Relationships.” Terry’s books have won awards including the Silver Falchion, the International Digital Awards, and the HOLT Medallion. A Los Angeles native, she moved to Florida for far too long, and is now enjoying life in the Colorado Rockies. Learn more on her website, or find her on Facebook page.

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