Seven More Ways to Improve Your Manuscript

Before you send your manuscript to beta readers or to an editor, here are seven more ways to immediately see an improvement in your manuscript. If you missed the first seven ways, click this link to see the related blog post and the resources available for download.

In summary, we discussed these tips last week:

  • Use available tools to check your spelling.
  • Search for weasel words and eliminate them.
  • Eliminate double words and punctuation.
  • Remove hidden tab characters,
  • Read your manuscript aloud.
  • Insert page numbers.
  • Use page breaks between chapters.

Here are seven more ways to improve your manuscript, and this time, I will number them:

1. Get Some Sleep Before You Revise

If I had a dollar for every time I discovered errors in my writing the next day, I would be able to attend another conference this year.

Something happens when we sleep, and getting some shuteye before you proofread your draft makes errors stand out.

I don’t know if our brains work overtime at night or if things look different in the light of a new day, but taking time away from a manuscript—even a few hours—lets you see your work in a fresh way.

Do not hit publish or send your manuscript off immediately after you think the revisions are done. Let time elapse or get some sleep, then look it over before you send it into the world.

2. Before You Revise, Read for Substance

When you are revising any project longer than a short story, it is easy to get lost in the little stuff and miss the big picture.

First, make a valiant attempt to put on your “reader” hat and read your story all the way through with fresh eyes. Does the beginning pull you in? Are the stakes high enough? Does tension build? Is the ending satisfying?

Make notes separately. Then you can put on your “editor” hat and make revisions.

3. Vary Your Sentence Structure

Scan your sentences, looking for repeated beginnings. She took off her hat and sat on the bench. She opened her bag to pull out a mirror and lipstick.

If you read your story aloud, as we discussed last week, this is one of the problems you will notice. Does the sentence structure change? What about sentence length?

4. Shorten Your Paragraphs

Speaking of sentence length, you also need to beware of long, half-page paragraphs. Readers crave white space so they can speed through the story without rereading for clarity. If you need a long paragraph, be sure to switch up paragraph length as you go along.

Here are a few ways to shorten paragraphs to achieve clarity and improve the reader experience:

  • Avoid excessive, grandiose wording.
  • Break up long descriptions by sprinkling in critical information as the plot progresses.
  • Break up dialogue like your Language Arts teacher tried to teach you. Each speaker gets their own paragraph. If someone interrupts, they get a paragraph break.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases. If something goes without saying, get rid of it.
  • Watch for “that.” Search it out, and see if it is truly necessary.
  • Many times, you can eliminate “in order to.”
  • Search for adverbs, especially paired with speech tags. “I’m so happy!” she exclaimed joyfully. Adverbs are not evil, but they are easy to abuse. Many times, you can choose a stronger verb.

5. Stick with Said and Asked Tags

Much like the previous tip, there are no villains among speech tags. It is fine to use replied, exclaimed, shouted, murmured, and so forth. But said and asked are invisible to the reader. Other speech tags can sound stiff and artificial, especially if overused.

“I need to be clear,” he explained.
“You don’t need to say anything,” she interposed.
“Oh, but I must,” he argued.

Let’s rewrite that.

“I need to be clear,” he said.
She shook her head. “You don’t need to say anything.”
He grabbed her arm. “Oh, but I must.”

Yikes. See how much information the beats added? Minimize speech tags, and make the beats do the heavy lifting.

6. Elevate Your Dialogue

Have you ever thought of the perfect response hours after an intense conversation? At last, you think of the funny turn of phrase that would have diffused the situation?
No? Maybe that’s just me.
I confess, the right words do not come to me when the pressure is on, so I stand there like a lump, which is probably better for my continuing relationships because sarcasm is my first language.
What’s really going on while I stand there in silence is I am biting my tongue, grasping for a grown-up, mature response.
However, I think the quick, witty comeback is one of the reasons I write fiction.
Written dialogue is an author’s opportunity to make the perfect retort sound natural. Your shy character gets to slip in a zinger. Hurray!

Readers love sparkling repartee. You can make it happen, but not if your dialogue is too realistic.

In real life, our conversations are cluttered with inane comments about the weather, the movies, our workouts, and—forgive me—our kids’ soccer games.

Elevate your dialogue by making it better and more focused than real life. Millions of people watch Gilmore Girls reruns for the fast talk. We secretly wish our conversations could be half as witty as theirs.

Your work does not need to be as sharp and snappy as the one-liners in Gilmore Girls, but a sure way to improve your manuscript is to cut the deadwood out of your characters’ interactions.

7. Avoid Overusing Proper Names

Robin Williams was a master of using humor to evoke memories and poke fun at pretentious behavior. As the genie in Alladin, he mimicked the funny way broadcasters speak to co-hosts during holiday parades, frequently addressing each other by name:

“Don’t they look lovely, June?”
“Fabulous, Harry. I love the feathers.”

Imagine proper names used continuously through an entire scene.

“Ah, Lady Periwinkle, how do you do today?”
“Poorly, Miss Throckmorton. I have the gout, you see.”
“Oh, no. Please, Lady Periwinkle, take my seat.”
“Miss Throckmorton, I could never discommode you in that way. I will sit here next to Countess Warwick. She’s always so delightfully energetic. Good day to you, your ladyship.”
“Such a pleasure to see you again, Lady Periwinkle, though you are looking quite unwell this morning. I daresay you are in a lot of pain. Do sit here and prop your foot on the ottoman. My husband—the earl, you know—finds it most useful.”

See how silly that sounds? I hope you read those lines with a stuffy British accent. Using proper names in dialogue sounds unnatural and stilted.

Worse, sometimes authors use speech tags in addition to making the characters address one another by name.


“Don’t they look lovely, June?” said Harry.
June replied, “Fabulous, Harry. I love the feathers.”

If the conversation is between two characters, you need few, if any, tags. They rarely need to address each other by name, although you may sometimes need to state who is doing what. Also, use pronouns when you can because proper names slow the reader down.

Mathilda studied the two pins left at the end of the polished lane—a 7-10 split. This was her last frame. If she didn’t pick up the spare, Ben would win, two out of three, but she hadn’t been a champion bowler in college for nothing.
“No way you’ll get the spare.” Ben slouched in his orange, hard plastic chair, arms crossed.
She lifted her ball from the ball return and cradled it. “Ten dollars says I will.”
“Money’s easy. What say we make this interesting?”
“How?” Wary, she glanced his way. What was going on behind those devilish eyes?
The corner of his mouth lifted. “A kiss. If you don’t pick up the spare, you owe me a kiss when I drop you off, but if you do make it, I owe you a pizza dinner.”
“Pizza? From here? No, thanks.”
“Think I’m cheap? Nah. I know a great Italian place where they cook their pizzas in a wood fired oven. Nothing but the best.”
Her eyes focused for one moment on his lips. A kiss for Ben or wood fired pizza? She nodded. Those were odds she could live with.

In this scene, the characters’ names appear once, but their lines do not get confused. The more people who appear in the scene, the more difficult it is to handle names.

Let’s add two people to the scene. Remember, Mathilda is the POV character:

Mathilda studied the two pins left at the end of the polished lane—a 7-10 split. This was her last frame. If she didn’t pick up the spare, Ben would win, two out of three, but she hadn’t been a champion bowler in college for nothing. Ashley and Tom, their best friends, trailed far behind them on the scoreboard.
“No way you’ll get the spare.” Ben slouched in his orange, hard plastic chair, arms crossed.
Matilda lifted her ball from the ball return and cradled it. “Ten dollars says I will.”
“Money’s easy. What say we make this interesting?”
“How?” Wary, she glanced his way. What was going on behind those devilish eyes?
The corner of his mouth lifted. “A kiss.”
Ashley groaned. “Really? You can do better than that.”
“Yeah, man, sounds kinda desperate to me,” Tom said.
Ben ignored the interruption. “If you don’t pick up the spare, you owe me a kiss when I drop you off, but if you do make it, I owe you a pizza dinner.”
“Pizza? From here? No, thanks.”
Their friends laughed.
“Think I’m cheap? Nah. I know a great Italian place where they cook their pizzas in a wood fired oven. Nothing but the best.”
Her eyes focused for one moment on his lips.
Immediately, Ashley covered her face. “Please, tell me you’re not actually thinking about it.”
A kiss for Ben or wood fired pizza? She nodded. Those were odds she could live with.

Do you have whiplash yet? I mean, we went from Victorian England to contemporary, American romance in a flash. But the principle remains the same. Avoid overloading your scenes with proper names.

In summary:

  • Get some sleep before you revise.
  • Before you revise, read for substance.
  • Vary your sentence structure.
  • Stick with “said” and “asked” for dialogue tags.
  • Elevate your dialogue above everyday conversation.
  • Make your paragraphs shorter.
  • Avoid overusing proper names.