Catching Fireflies

finding magic along the way

After Your Manuscript Ferments in a Drawer

So, you wrote a novel in November. Or maybe it was November 2007. Either way, you are in one of two camps; you are just itching to pull it out and read your magnificent words, or you are terrified that they may be discovered. Their future is up to you.

I would think at some point you will want to take them out from under the bed or out of the drawer where you have hidden the thumb drive under 8 pounds of clutter and read them. Even if you have no intention of ever attempting to publish them, reading them is good for you. It helps you see them for what they are – either well-constructed plots and characters, or detritus of your brain which runs around like a toddler with ADD.


After the appropriate waiting period – a few months or years – please take out your manuscript and read it through. On the very first run through, I correct spelling and obvious grammatical errors, fix run on or incomplete sentences and make large marks where there is a plot hole or gap in the narrative that should be filled. This is the quickest run through and I don’t lose a lot of sleep over how good or bad it seems at first glance.  A written page can be edited and polished. An unwritten page cannot. 🙂

Then I go back to the beginning and start rearranging scenes if need be. I also fill in those plot holes and correct the items I noted on the first reading. If I have pages of dialogue with very little narrative and description, I remedy that. Likewise if I have pages and pages of description and very little dialogue. I strive for balance.

Self-editing is not easy. It takes discipline and it takes a completely different mind set than the one you used to write the first draft. It is a tedious and analytic task whereas the initial writing taps into your creative imagination and runs rampant (at least on a good writing day).

The process of self-editing can save you money when it comes time to hire an editor for the final polishing. They will not have to waste their time with minor typos and basic grammar fixes. They can focus on content, story arc, and the nitty gritty grammar stuff we haven’t thought about since 9th grade. Since their time is your money, and they no doubt charge more for a manuscript that comes in looking like a car wreck, making sure your work is as tight and correct as you can make it will be time well spent. Learn more about how preparing your manuscript can save you money, here.

So where to begin, other than the obvious typos? Here are some suggestions of things I try to catch and fix before sending my work to my editor.

  1. Stephen King was right. Kill the adverbs.
  2. Don’t over-punctuate. A period often works better than an exclamation point.
  3. Read your work out loud to catch sections that are clumsy and don’t read well.
  4. Watch your verb tenses.
  5. Don’t try to change all your “saids” to prettier words. “Said” is a perfectly acceptable tag in most dialogue.
  6. Avoid passive writing. This was a biggee for me. I found myself saying things appeared to be something, or someone was going to do something. Make those sentences pop by making them more active.
  7. Show; don’t tell. An oldie but still a goodie. Instead of saying a character was mad, show it by having them stomp out the door and slam it behind them.
  8. Don’t overuse words. I realized as I read my novel aloud that I would sometimes get stuck in a rut for a page and reuse the same word too often. If it stood out to me, I changed it.
  9. Make sure you picked the right word! There, their, they’re, which v. that, weather, whether, affect, effect…
  10. Omit excess words. Say it simple. This was particularly important as I was writing for younger readers, but the same holds true when writing for any age group. Keep it simple. I don’t mean your sentences should be kept to three words as in See Spot run, but they shouldn’t be a paragraph long either.
  11. The same goes for word choice. Keep it simple. Choose a normal word, not one that will send your reader to the dictionary every other page.
  12. Buy The Chicago Manual of Style. It will answer all of your grammar questions!

Along the way, don’t forget to check your plot for continuity. Does it flow? Are you, as the reader, left with questions where you, as the writer, don’t intend there to be questions? Do your characters act in character? Sometimes you want your characters to fly off the handle when they are normally calm and rational; sometimes you don’t. Do your plot twists twist enough? Does that story arc like you intended?


I know, I know! So much to think about! This is why you need to wear your editor hat when doing this. Do not let your inner writer take things personally. Also, do not throw away anything you are cutting out. You never know when you may need that perfect description of some random object in a future novel. I save all my cut sections in a separate file.

I also highly recommend the following books:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
Revision and Self-Editing

For those of you who, like me, have completely forgotten some of the basic grammar rules and have to go now and google “dangling participles” and “passive voice,” there are some great articles and blogs that will help you re-learn what you forgot.

English Grammar Revolution
Grammar Girl
How to diagram a sentence

When you have rewritten and edited your manuscript to the point where you want to throw it out the window, you are ready for the next step. Beta readers! Tune in next week…


  1. I’m in the polishing phase myself. Not with a NaNoWrMo project, but with a novel that’s going to the editor in February for March publication. Thanks for the list! 🙂

  2. charliebritten

    Really helpful advice, Cheryl. I’m about to reblog it.

  3. charliebritten

    Reblogged this on Write on and commented:
    Really helpful advice for all novelists and hopeful novelists, from Cheryl Fassett. And some really useful-looking links, which I haven’t checked out yet myself.


  1. Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer | Glass Highway | Steven Ramirez

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