Your goal is perfection. Of course, we all know that achieving such a goal is next to impossible in real life. Nonetheless, it is important to approach your revisions with the mind set that no mistake is acceptable. Many first-time writers believe that their work is so special, so fresh and exciting that any agent or editor will gladly overlook the small spelling and/or grammatical boo-boo here and there. Wrong! These people receive hundreds if not thousands of submissions every week, and they will not waste their time on a less-than-immaculate manuscript.
Arm yourself with a dictionary and a Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation or their online equivalents and set to work. Computer spell checkers are helpful, but typing errors can create legitimate words that pass the spell-check test but do not fit the context of your writing. Therefore, there is no substitute for your own eyeballs when editing your manuscript. Put every word, every phrase under a microscope. When in doubt, look it up. This is a tedious process but absolutely necessary.
If you have not done so already, it’s time to format your manuscript. There are certain standard guidelines that are universally required. Pages must be double spaced on one side of the paper only. Print margins should be one inch all around with the header placed within the top inch of margin. The purpose of the header is to identify all pages of your manuscript beyond the title page in case they should somehow become separated from each other. The header begins one-quarter of an inch down from the top of page. On the header’s left margin, type one or two words from your title followed by a dash and your last name. Then set up page numbering on the header’s right margin. The body of the manuscript begins one inch down from the top of the page.
The title page has its own unique header. Your name, address, and contact information such as phone numbers and e-mail address go on the top left margin one-quarter of an inch down from the top of page. Indicate the number of words in the manuscript on the right margin (i.e. 80,000 words). Center and capitalize your title about a third of the way down the page with “by” and your name on the double-spaced line below. Center the words Prologue or Chapter 1 three double spaces below your name. Begin your text three double spaces below the chapter title.
Each subsequent chapter begins with the heading about five double spaces below the top margin (about one-third of the way down the page). The text begins three double spaces below that.
Word count is something you will have to address eventually, and now is a good time to assess it. Today’s publishers are focused on their bottom lines and will seldom publish a book that does not fall into the 70,000 to 110,000 word range unless it is the work of a blockbuster author. They vastly prefer a new author’s work to come in at no more than 80,000 words. Using the rule of thumb of 250 words per printed page, this translates into a book of some 320 pages. If your work is considerably longer or shorter than these guidelines indicate, you will want to think about how you can bring it into line as you do your revisions.
I ran into this roadblock on my most recent novel Last Stop Freedom, a historical novel focusing on the Underground Railroad and women’s rights in the mid-nineteenth century. The manuscript attracted the interest of several agents, but all agreed I would need to cut it nearly in half for them to have any hope of selling it. I agonized over the cuts for nearly a year but finally managed to bring it down to a more acceptable word count. In the process, I had gutted the story to such a degree that it was no longer compelling enough for the agents to take it on. I tell you this so you will understand the importance of your original concept. If you undertake something of epic proportion in today’s publishing environment, be aware that you will have a difficult time selling it. In my case, I decided it was more important to maintain the integrity of my story than to sell it to a traditional publisher. So I restored it to its original form and made it available to interested readers on this website.
Your title is another matter you need to address if you have not already done so. You will want to come up with something that captures the essence of your book at the same time as it is catchy and memorable. Be aware, however, that if you should sell the book, your publisher will have the right by contract to change the title as well as anything else of consequence in the manuscript if that change increases the marketability of the book. In such cases, however, marketability is the issue, and most writers readily swallow their creative pride and accept the publisher’s judgment.
You have many miles to travel before you need to worry about such details. For now it is sufficient to simply roll up your sleeves and get to work perfecting your writing. Make it the very best it can be, and you will have taken a giant step forward on the road to success.