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Ask an Editor: Theresa Stevens on Ten Steps to A Clean Submission

Did you receive a request for material while attending RWA’s national conference? If so, are you frantically giving your manuscript another sweep of your editorial eye? Whether you received a request or you’re submitting to the slush pile, editor Theresa Stevens has provided some great tips below to help you through the process. Read on!

Some of you will be sending in requested material as a result of the recent conferences. Because you want your submission to be as clean as possible, here are some tips to help you with the final edits. Each item on this list is a common problem in raw work, and it’s something that can get your manuscript rejected. We’ll take these in order of scale, from big picture to small detail.


1. Match the Edges.

Look at the big problem that’s set up in the opening of your book. When is it resolved? If it’s in the last chapter or two, good. If not, your book might have structural problems which will require a fairly extensive rewrite. The general idea is that the opening and ending should match in terms of plot: the major conflict established in the opening should be resolved in the end. (There are exceptions to this rule, such as stories with lead-in conflicts or “false” openings, but those are rare in romance.)

2. Check the Major Characters.

Isolate the scenes in which each of your major characters appears. This is easy to do if you use the cut and paste function in your word processor. Take all the scenes with your hero, and lay them out end to end in a separate file. Then do the same for your heroine. Read these scenes in isolation to evaluate each character’s behavior. Is it consistent? Does it ever lapse into blandness? Is the character’s motivation clear throughout? Are there instances of melodrama?

3. Check the Minor Characters.

Make a list of your minor characters, and for each one, jot down the purpose each serves.  What happens to the plot if you remove that character? If there’s no penalty for removal, then remove the character. If there is a penalty, but it can be resolved by having a different secondary pick up the functions of the cut secondary, then rewrite those scenes accordingly.

4. Measure the Middle.

We already matched the ends of your story to check for one kind of large scale structural problem. Now let’s look at the middle. Make a list of the scenes in the middle of the book. (The middle is everything that happens after the conflict is defined but before the final crisis that leads to the ultimate resolution of the conflict.) Look at the major actions taken in each scene. Can you explain those actions using a “because” statement? If not, it’s time to think about why your characters are taking those actions. If so, check the scene carefully to be sure that this causation is clear on the page. The reader has to be able to understand those reasons.

5. Location, Location, Location.

As long as we’re looking at this list of scenes, make a note for each scene indicating where it’s set. Next, jot down all the ways the setting contributes to the action of the scene. For example, if they’re on a boat, does the rocking motion have an impact on the scene action? If they’re in a restaurant, does the noise level make conversation difficult? Does the scene have symolic relevance of some kind? If the environment isn’t relevant to the scene action, can you think of ways to leverage the setting? Can you think of a different setting that might be more interesting?

6. Scene Openings.

Look at the first five lines of each scene. In that first five lines, do you establish setting, point of view, and some sense of the scene’s purpose? Setting and point of view are essential to ground and orient the reader, but in some cases, we use the openings of scenes to do something a little more omniscient and less personal. Those are special scene openings that require special handling, but for most scenes, you will want to lock down the sense of orientation right away. The scene purpose can be small or large, external or internal, subtle or direct, but it ought to be there in some form. If you get these things out of the way early, then there’s less likelihood for confusion as the scene unfolds.

7. Scene Endings.

Some scenes will end with a sense of things being all buttoned up and neat and tidy. Most scenes will end with a sense of forward movement, though. Even if the scene question is answered, even if the scene problem is solved, the end of the scene should make the reader wonder what’s next. The character might think, “Well, that’s done now,” when thinking about the problem on which the scene focused. But you don’t want the reader to think, “Well, the story’s done now,” and close the book. You don’t have to end on a cliffhanger or make the scenes feel unresolved, but you do have to keep the story moving forward, and sometimes even a subtle reminder of other problems at the end of a tidy scene will keep the reader interested.

8. He Said, She Said.

Scan your pages for quotation marks. Every time a character speaks, do three things. First, check the puntuation and mechanics. Commas, periods, open and close quotes – make sure this is all shipshape. Then make sure the paragraph changes every time the speaker changes, and make sure there aren’t random paragraph changes in the middle of one character’s dialogue. Second, check the tags. Can any of them be converted to beats? Beats (small bits of action attached to dialogue) are stronger than tags (he said, she asked, he exclaimed, and so on). Third, check for whether the identity of the speaker is obvious. If there are three or more characters in a scene, use a tag or beat with every line of dialogue to avoid reader confusion. If there are only two characters in the scene, you don’t have to tag or beat every line of dialogue. You can skip as many as three in a row before reader comprehension might become an issue. And even then, you might be able to skip more, but it’s risky and should be handled carefully.

9. Search and Destroy Mission.

Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of sentence mechanics. I recommend using the “find and replace” function in your word processor to change the font color of any overused words or weak words (just, that, so, very, and similar words). Also use the font color change to highlight weak verbs and verbs of being or appearance (was, seemed, looked, and similar). Use it to highlight thought tag words (wondered, thought, pondered, and similar). Finally, use it to change the font color of the letter combination “ing.” This will highlight present participial phrases, though it will also highlight unobjectionable words like finger and sing. You can ignore these safe words, but for everything else you’ve highlighted, revise to eliminate the color changes. Be ruthless. These things weaken your story, and you don’t want to submit a weak story, do you?

10. The Safety Net.

Proofreading is not something to be done quickly or to be taken lightly. I recommend a multi-step process for proofreading, because each step can catch different kinds of errors. First, run the spell-checker. This will clean out all the easy mistakes. Second, read the pages out loud. This will force you to slow down enough so that your eyes won’t skip over any missing words. It will also help you spot clunky rhythms and awkward phrasings. Third, do a separate proofreading pass for punctuation. It can be easy to overlook little details like commas in a regular proofreading pass, so a dedicated punctuation pass will help you catch more mistakes. If you’re worried that you might get sucked into the story again and overlook details during proofreading, then read the paragraphs in reverse order. You can either do all the passes on each paragraph before moving backward to the next, or you can do the entire chapter or manuscript in separate full passes.

These ten steps are time-consuming, to be sure, but then, so is the process of writing a novel. Don’t skimp on the last stages just because you can see the finish line. It’s far better to take a few extra days to make sure everything is clean and tight. Just take it step by step, and before you know it, your manuscript will be ready to dazzle the first reader.


Do you have any special revision and editing techniques? Share them in the comments!

Thinking of writing erotic romance? Stop by Jennifer Probst’s post Monday to see if you have the right stuff.


Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors.

After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers.