Sweeping Your Manuscript Clean

So you’ve bought yourself your red pen, good, and you’ve printed out your manuscript, even better, and you’re ready to get correcting. This post is about how I go about editing and correcting my work. Now, to give you a bit of insight and a frank confession, my first attempt at editing was an utter shambles: I re-read the manuscript on the screen, made corrections in place and lost where I was up to a bazillion times as I was interrupted again and again and again.

Net result? Sub-par editing, a bad neck, burnt eyeballs, and the need to go back and do it all again properly.


The first thing to know is that you’re not going to get it all done in a single sweep. It’s just not going to happen. Get used to the idea that even though your book is written, it’s far from being finished. Once you are reconciled with that, you can move on at a slower pace.

Break up your goals into parts and perform each in a separate sweep. A sweep is a single iteration through the book with a single goal in mind. This way you can concentrate only on a specific set of issues.

That’s a waste of time! I want to get my book out now. We all do, Tiger, I get it, but what I’m yapping on about here is not plucked out of thin air, it is borne from (painful) experience. Stick with me, OK?

Why can’t I look at spelling and grammar right off the cuff? Because the words, the sentences, heck, whole paragraphs an chapters can change from the first sweep to the last. Trying to do it all in one sweep means that your brain is working overtime on each and every sentence, every word, while at the same time making sure the voice is correct, checking for tics, and remembering what it was you said in the last chapter about the protagonist’s wife, all while juggling work, cooking dinner, settling the child to go to sleep and booking your stay at the asylum.cleanSweep

If, on the other hand, you are looking solely at a high level perspective, you needn’t slow yourself down with the gritty details. Likewise, once you’ve got the macro nailed down, you can afford to ignore it when you’re looking at the micro. Kind of a ‘take care of the pennies’ approach. But not quite. You’ll see what I mean.

The House Built by Many

Still not convinced? Let’s build a house. The civil authority and architect comes on site to inspect. They care that the house is on a solid foundation, that it hasn’t extended its boundaries, that it’s actually being built in the proper orientation and according to standards. They do not care, and do not waste time, checking to see if the front door is brown, or that the cornices have been cut at forty-five degrees. They’ll drive up with the plans, check the essentials, make some recommendations and drive off.

That’s all.

The carpenter might need to be called in to make some modifications, the plasterer then has to re-do that back wall now that it has been moved two feet that way, and close off the second dining room.

The painter, who comes in after the wood and plasterwork is done doesn’t have to worry about anything except what colour goes where.

Now, let’s take the same example, and get a multi-skilled architect/plumber/carpenter/plasterer/painter to do everything, all at once. It’d be a shemozzle.

That’s why I recommend that you print, sweep, edit, print, sweep, edit, etc. until your goals are met.

My current set of sweeps, going from the macro to the micro, looks like this:

  1. Story
  2. Language
  3. Correctness

But you could easily break these up into finer goals if you’re inclined, or if you have people who are particularly good at certain things. For example, getting a member of your target audience to check your story is great: so long as they understand that it’s a draft and far from perfect, they will be able to give you valuable insight into where the story falls down, if it’s gripping or tantalising or entertaining (or the antonyms of these).

Likewise, if you know a stickler for grammar, grab them by the scruff of the neck and help distribute the load. If they refuse, you can always bait them into helping you out:

You – “Hmm. I might have put the apostrophe in the wrong spot. And is it right to end a sentence in a preposition?”

Stickler – “Huh? Where? Wait, is this just a trick to rope me into correcting your book?”

You – “Never! But, now that you mention it…”

My only rule here is that you cannot perform the sweeps in parallel. Well, as you get to the pointy end, it ain’t so hard and fast, since the structure isn’t going to change a lot, but if you try and do grammar and spelling and language and story all at once, you’re going to need to do it all again, anyway.

One idea I have been toying with, to ease the pain somewhat, is using a versioning tool like SVN to track changed between ‘versions’, much the same as I would track changes in software. I’m not sure how it would work, or if it would actually provide any benefit, but I’m willing to give it a crack on my next book. I’ll let you know how I go.

So what do I mean by Story, Language and Grammar? I’ll fill you in on my next post.