Polishing your Novel

You'll not be able to correct everything in your novel at one go, and will probably need to take polishing in stages, working from the broadest to the most detailed, i.e. in something like this order:

1. characters added or deleted

2. changes in plot and subplot.

3. characters given more substance and depth of personality.

4. scene changes and improvements.

5. replacement of off-stage narrative by live scenes.

6. tightening of dialogue.

7. general style improvements.

8. grammar checks.

9. spelling checks.

For items 1. to 5. you'll need distance, the ability to read the manuscript cold as would the first-time buyer of your work. Put the manuscript aside for some weeks or months, therefore, and then reread it quickly, noting immediately where the pace slackens, the characters go dead and the plot isn't clear. Generally you'll have only the one chance to see the manuscript with fresh eyes, and it's essential that you're honest with yourself, and sufficiently organized to note the failings as they appear. A second or certainly a third reading will put you inside the work again, seeing what you intended rather than what will strike a detached and skeptical reader. A novel's dialogue is helped by supporting matter, but it must still be individual and convincing. You may have to work repeatedly on your drafts until real voices appear in your characters, cutting lines, changing phrases, adding identifying turns of phrase as necessary.

At step 7 the viewpoint changes, from creative to critical. Though interwoven in all writing, these two aspects call on different gifts. Many skilled proofreaders, indispensable to publishers, couldn't create a character to save their lives. Conversely, some household names have never learned the rudiments of English grammar, and their work is a nightmare, requiring extensive recasting by sympathetic ghostwriters. Most writers fall somewhere in-between, but few are without their pet phrases, overworked constructions and doubtful grammar. A decent proofreader will pick these up, but if you're proofing yourself then you must first know what to look out for. Spend time with guides to style and grammar. Better still, check out the stylewriter program. It's not cheap, and recommends an impossibly plain style of writing. You don't have to blindly follow its recommendations, however, and a dialogue shorn of common turns of phrase and the occasional cliché would not sound natural, but you'll at least know what a conscientious proofreader would flag, at a fraction of the cost.

Run the manuscript through a spell-checker, setting this to American, British, Canadian, Australian or whatever English. Especially run the spell-checker at the conclusion of the proofing: it's amazing what slips are made in correcting a draft.

Finally listen to the manuscript being read by audio software as the text appears on your VDU screen. Spell-checkers will not detect words missed out or sentences that could be clearer. Moreover, though the voice will not be entirely natural, you will be hearing your manuscript as new readers will. Problems for you will certainly be problems for them.


Audio Software

TextAloud. Offers 32 voices in 21 languages: from $30.

BrowseAloud. Free: reads HTML pages.

Adobe Reader. Later versions of free reader have audio.

Text and Screen Readers. Short listing from the State University of New York.

Grammar Checkers

Mechanics of the Introspection Fiction-Writing Mode. One of several useful posts.


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