The 3 Essential Questions to Ask When Editing Your MS

By Catherine Matthews

Pencils down, computer off—you’ve officially finished your manuscript. Hooray! Congratulations! Now you’re off to find an agent…except that there’s just one more step you need to take before pursuing representation. You, my friend, have reached the editing stage—and it’s the most crucial point in your writing journey, because without it you may just be dooming all your hard work to remain unread and under-appreciated. If query letters are the promise of brilliant work, then your manuscript needs to follow through on that promise with a story that slays from plot to punctuation. So how do you do it? How do you return to a work that you could quote in your sleep with fresh eyes and a big red pen?

Well, firstly, you should know that you don’t need the pen; track changes will work just fine! Then, you need to get cracking by answering the following 3 questions…

  1. What kind of editing are you doing? 

Know the difference between content editing and copy editing. Editing for content means tweaking the dialogue so that it sounds more realistic, re-working plot lines, nixing the elements of your story that simply aren’t working and polishing those that are. Copy editing means cleaning up the grammar, perfecting the punctuation, and generally making sure everything works on a technical level. Content editing should come first. Once you’re satisfied with the content of your work, proceed to copy editing; think of it as a tidying up of an already solid manuscript. 

  1. Are you being persnickety enough? 

Get snippy with your story. Ask yourself if this plot makes sense—really—and if the answer is ‘no’ (or even ‘kind-of’) then go back and figure out where the break down occurred. For example, if you’ve written about flying elephants, ask yourself if you’ve explained why these elephants fly and how that’s relevant to the world you’ve built. 

Get personal with the prose. Don’t settle for clichés, but also don’t try so hard to sound sophisticated that your metaphors stop making sense. Find the best words for your voice and your characters. 

Get down to the details that distinguish the so-so submissions from truly great ones. Re-read your characters’ dialogue; does it suit their age, gender, and background? Does it sound authentic, communicating what you wanted to communicate? Are your characters consistent in their actions and motivations; are any transformations explained by you, the author?

  1. Have you rested from your writing?

Stop and celebrate your achievement. This last question is actually first in terms of importance. Writing is hard work, as you will have certainly found out (if you didn’t already know) by the time you’ve finished your first draft. You need to treat yourself to a cooling off period. Lock your story away for at least two weeks, allowing yourself to return to it afterwards with a clear head and fresh perspective. 

Don’t be discouraged if editing proves to be the most difficult part of the writing process. Expect it. Embrace it. Know that editing your story will bring it that much closer to perfection—and that’s what will make your story stand out to agents. 

Catherine is an assistant at Holloway Literary.