Margin Comments in an Edited Manuscript

The following are tips I wrote in the margin comments of a manuscript “overview edit.” They are the kind of tips you may get from your editor. Maybe you’ll find some useful tips among these for your own manuscript before you even send it off to an editor.

Narrator commentary: Be careful in your writing to make your “points” through the characters and the plot, rather than having the “narrator” (you, the writer) make “commentary” about whatever it is you want to express through the story. Novel readers are expecting story, not an “article.” Don’t “tell” people that they should or shouldn’t do this or that thing. Rather, make your point through the actions, the storyline, and the dialogue. You do this so well in chapter ___ where your characters express their views and back them up with their personal experiences. This works so much better than you, the writer, “telling” people things—novel readers don’t like to be “preached at.”

First chapter hook and story circle: In one of your notes to me, you mentioned that you originally planned to start the book with one of the incidents that ended up being put at the end of the story. I thought that would have been really worthwhile, though I also understand your reasons for changing your mind and starting in another way. But in your future writing, you could maybe consider doing that. In this novel, you could have really “hooked” your readers straight off by starting off the book with a paragraph or two featuring the scene in which the heroine of the story has just been poisoned by a jealous relative. Then at the end, you could have that scene again, and this time fill out the details. This is a great way to create a “circle” in the story, giving the readers a hint of what is to come through a taste of a key event that will come at the climax of the story.

Introducing the story’s main character and problem: A really important thing to remember in writing a novel is to introduce the main character and their “problem” immediately, even if only for the first couple paragraphs. Once the main character and the main “problem” of the story is introduced, you can go ahead and introduce other characters and other aspects of the story as the plot develops.

Tips for the beginning of the story: Here are some questions to ask yourself when planning the first paragraph and first couple pages of the story:

  • Is the main character (protagonist) identified in the first paragraph or at least on the first page or two?
  • What is the most important setting of the book, and is it at least briefly introduced at the start?
  • Does the reader find out in the first page or two (or even in the first paragraph) what the major theme of the story is, and how the major character is related to it?
  • Is the major opponent (antagonist), and the major problem or challenge, identified in the first chapter?
  • Does the first chapter (and especially the first paragraph or two) grab/hook the reader and give them reason to continue to read? If not, how can the beginning of the story be changed to fix that?

Remember to show rather than just tell. In this story you “tell” us over and over that the heroine has improved things for her people—but we are well over halfway through the book before we actually find out anything practical that she has done . . . and even then, it seems to have been mostly speeches she’s made about community issues. Other than the example of her coming to the aid of the princess and her son, what actual, “real” actions did she do and what examples did she set that make her a heroine?

Planning and consistency: Before you start to do the next self-edit this novel, now that you’ve had an initial overview edit done for you, I would suggest you list on a piece of paper each of your characters, the names you plan to use for each one (including nicknames), and a description of each one (physical, emotional, all aspects of each character that will come up in the story, including their main purpose for being in the story, their inner story, and their main personal goals). Create a diagram or flow chart to show their goals and motivations, and how they are all related to each other. You could even create a family tree. Then, as you edit, you can spot inconsistencies in names, spellings, confusion about relationships, changes in physical looks, or any of those kinds of things that will confuse the reader … and the editor. 🙂

Planning your characters: When you are planning your characters, make sure that every character is important to the story, and needs to be included.

  • What is the central purpose of the whole story?
  • How does each character fit in with that purpose?
  • Also, are any of your important characters “stock”? How can you make them more complex, give them more depth, make them more real, alive, interesting, and unique?

Main characters: In particular relation to your main character(s), ask:

  • How does my central character(s) change, develop, grow, and mature during the story (this is called the “character arc”)?
  • How have the challenges and trials of the story affected the main character, and changed him/her forever?
  • How has the hero, at the end, become master of his/her own fate, and resolved the major conflict/problem of the story, and/or of his/her life, through summoning personal courage, determination, abilities (not just by luck or by other characters’ actions or advice).

Character names: When you are naming your characters, choose names that are realistic and suit the character’s personality, cultural heritage, etc. Not just names that are “nice” or whatever.

Conflict: It is very important to be clear in your own mind, as the writer, what the major “problem” or “conflict” in the overall story is—the central premise, the main point or problem or question. There are a few overall types of “conflicts” of which one or two are found in every novel. The “big ones” are: man vs man; man vs nature; man vs society; man vs self. Others that some novels have instead are: man vs fate/destiny; man vs the supernatural. If you are not familiar with this very important aspect of novel writing, you might want to study it before writing your next novel.

Ask yourself, “What is the central conflict in my novel?” I definitely saw a variety of conflicts, but I was puzzled by what might be the main conflict, central to the entire story. It is very important to figure that out when you are planning the story, so you can keep focused on that, and keep working on solving it throughout the story. Ask yourself:

  • How does each problem, event, dialogue, and scene in the story relate to this central conflict/idea?
  • If it doesn’t relate to it, why is it included in the story?
  • Are there places where the story goes off on a tangent or “rabbit trail” or meanders along or sputters to a halt? (If so, either cut them out or rework them to fit in, if you feel they are truly important).

Central characters: Who are your most central characters? Usually, there is one, or at most two, central protagonist(s) (the “good guy”) and one, or at most two, central antagonist(s) (“bad guy/thing”) that pushes against the protagonist. (Note: The antagonist may be a person, but may also be a natural thing like a storm or wild animal, or something supernatural or metaphysical, or something social like a bad government). In this novel, I am sure that ___ is the protagonist, and she is helped by a variety of other “good guys” …. but who/what is the main protagonist?  If it is hard for the reader to tell who is the central antagonist—or even protagonist—it means the author needs to spend more time developing that character).

A believable protagonist: What “dark traits” does the main character (protagonist) have? Even heroes and heroines are not perfect; they have inner conflicts, baggage, insecurities, vulnerabilities, moral questions, fears. All humans have good points and bad points, and a story is much more believable if the reader can see both sides of a character to some extent. Including imperfections also gives the character the chance to grow, mature, and develop. In this novel, sometimes it seems like the heroine is almost too perfect, almost too kind and nice and helpful and heroic. Also, “bad guys” (antagonists) also have some “good traits” as they are human, too, and if the bad guy is “all bad” that is also hard for the reader to relate to or believe, though most readers are more willing to have “really bad bad guys” than to have “perfect heroes.”

Of course a main character WILL have lots of great characteristics: strength, courage, passion, steadfastness, determination, tenacity, resilience, resourcefulness, skills, etc. That is what makes him/her a hero. So be sure to develop those characteristics well, not just mentioning them, but showing them through the character’s actions and words both. Show how the hero is attractive to others, relates to others, is a bit unpredictable (this is a good thing—it keeps the audience intrigued and guessing). Show (don’t just “tell”) his/her special worldview, distinctive background, and attitudes that makes him/her truly central to the story. (Avoid “telling” us about it from the narrator’s voice. Let the character him/herself prove it).

Dialogue: Most of your novel is connected to the story as a whole, but there are a few dialogue sections that seem like an awful lot of pointless chit-chat. Remember, when writing, to ask for each section of dialogue:

  • How does this relate to the central point of the story?
  • Does it add to and develop the central purpose?
  • Does it build the characters?
  • How does it relate to the ultimate goal?

Realistic and plausible: There are a few places in this story which didn’t seem realistic and plausible at first read.  As you work on your self-edit, ask yourself:

  • Is every scene realistic and plausible?
  • Will it be believable and interesting to the reader?
  • Do I need to explain background information (cultural, historical, belief systems, scientific knowledge, myths, etc.) which the reader might not know, and without which the story would make no sense to the reader?

Remember, even scenes and stories that are meant to be “fantasy” or “fairy tales” or “science fiction” must be plausible to the reader on some level, or they will not want to finish reading the book.

Audience: All the time you are writing, keep your audience in mind. Ask yourself:

  • What aspects of the reader do I want to appeal to (mind; logic; emotions; etc.)?
  • What emotional involvement and responses do I want from my readers?
  • After they finish reading the story, how would I like to see it affect their own life and attitudes, in both theoretical and practical ways? How am I going to make that happen?

Point of View: As you review your story before starting your next self-edit, and then work to improve it before sending it back to the editor, ask yourself:

  • What would change in this story if it (either the whole story, or parts of the story) were told from a different point of view (POV)?
  • What if it were told not only from the POV of the protagonist, but sometimes from the POV of the antagonist? Of a friend of the protagonist? Of a servant?
  • Jot down your thoughts as you think about these different points of view.
  • Then pick out important viewpoints you missed the first time around, and integrate them into the story to make the story, and the characters themselves, deeper and more interesting and intriguing.

Grammar and polishing: Once you feel you have a draft in which the “story” itself is as well written as possible, and before you send it back to the editor or even to your beta readers, go through it yourself, and correct every single mistake you can find. Pay attention to all the squiggly blue, red, and green lines that your Word program has put in your manuscript. Consider using a grammar program such as Grammarly, too. Ask yourself, “Why is that here? Do I need to change this?” Don’t give the manuscript to anyone else until you have made it the best you can make it yourself, in every way. Use handbooks (such as The Chicago Manual of Style) to find out how to solve all those little problems of spelling, tenses, wording, punctuation, homophones, etc. And fix them (unless you’ve “broken a rule” for a good reason)! No matter how strong or weak a writer’s skills are, this repeated self-editing is absolutely necessary to improve one’s own writing skills, and also will be absolutely worthwhile in terms of the manuscript itself. The goal is to make it as perfect as you can itself before anyone else sees it! (You’ll also save a lot of money in the line edit and proofreading stages).

Multiple drafts and edits: At this point, I have given you important tips, based on your first draft, to help improve your storyline, and also to “polish” the manuscript. Now it is your turn to take this tips and use them to improve your novel–your second draft. And then, before you send your improved draft back to your editor, ask at least 3 or 4 friends who you know read and enjoy books in the genre and topic of your book, and who are good English speakers and writers, to read your manuscript. These are your “beta readers.”

Ask them to look for even more ways in which you can improve the story line, develop your characters, attract your readers, and all those other “big issues.” If they want to look for spelling and punctuation mistakes, that’s okay too, but ask them to really focus on the story itself. Then integrate their suggestions into the story, if you agree with them. This will be your third draft. Once again, read through your entire manuscript with those new ideas included, and also fix all those grammar issues, so that your third draft, with the beta reader suggestions integrated, is as perfect as you can make it.

Finally, you can send your “perfected third draft” to your editor. Why not send an earlier draft? Because you are wasting your money and time if you send it to the editor any sooner. Also, the purpose of an editor is to really help you with the “story issues,” and when you send a manuscript riddled with all kinds of “minor issues” (spelling, grammar, language, poorly worded sentences, that kind of thing), the editor gets so “bogged down” in all those things that they can’t clearly see the big issues that need addressing. As the saying goes, because of all the small mistakes, “They can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Once you have received the “final edit” back from your editor, read the whole thing once more. Do you agree with everything? Does anything need to be added, explained, or even removed? If so, fix it again! Make it as perfect as possible. This is your fourth draft. ( If you are going with a traditional publisher, their editor will no doubt help you work through yet more drafts/improvements!)

Finally, when you receive your “sample copy” from your printer or publisher, ask someone who is really good at catching tiny mistakes (spacing, spelling, punctuation) to read it through one last time and find any last little fixes. There is nothing like a good proofreader with a  “fresh set of eyes” to find those final tiny bits and pieces that you and your editor have missed because you’ve both looked at it over and over and are seeing what you expect, not necessarily what is actually there.

Responses and questions: Has this article been helpful for you? What other tips would you add? Why not share them with us in the comments? Thank you!

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