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Making Your Writing Sparkle -
How to Edit a Manuscript

by Robyn Opie Parnell

A few years ago I went to a seminar at our local writers' centre. It wasn't specifically on writing for children. My interest was in hearing the speakers, which included two publishers and an agent.

When asked what they were looking for in a manuscript, one of the publishers answered: sparkle.

So how do you make your writing sparkle?

Pace can be considered the speed of a scene or the entire novel.

Does your children's story flow smoothly? Does it get bogged down in places? Is it fast-paced? Is the importance of some scenes lost because they're too fast? Is your children's novel too slow and laborious? Is a scene too long, thus losing its tension?

Short sentences are good for creating tension. In other words, when you want to show characters in conflict make their dialogue short and terse.

For example:

"I hate you!" snapped Katie.

"I'm sorry," said Paul.

"No, you're not!"

"I didn't mean it."


Short sentences can create a sense of urgency, drama.

But short sentences can become monotonous. Consider this sentence. Then this one. Here's the next. And one more. This is fun. I'm having fun. Maybe you're not. Come with me. Please play along. Okay, it isn't usual to have a paragraph of three-word sentences. I'm just making a point. Now you can see how paragraphs with short, medium and long sentences are a nice blend.

Longer sentences can slow the story down and give readers a break from all the action and drama.

Remove Unnecessary Words (Clutter)


Many writers feel a need to repeat information, usually in a slightly different way, to empathise their meaning. You shouldn't need to say almost the same thing again to reinforce your message and make sure the reader understands. If they didn't get your point the first time then you may need to rewrite the original sentence.

Many writers also have a tendency to repeat favourite words or over use a word in a paragraph or page.

For example:

I wrote a story featuring a treasure map. As I read through one page of the manuscript, I realised that I'd used "treasure map" too many times - it started to become annoying. I had to find alternatives.


It's important to keep the reader with you. Sometimes I've been enjoying a good book and had to stop to reread a sentence or paragraph because it wasn't clear to me.

Having to reread sections ruins my escapism and reminds me that I'm reading a book. Suddenly I'm dragged out of the story and I've lost the connection with the characters.


Adding words like "very", "extremely" and "really" weaken a sentence and its meaning. There are usually better alternatives. It's a matter of finding the best word or phrase to do the job.

For example:

Consider - Jane was very angry.

Substitute - Jane was furious.

Consider - I was really cold.

Substitute - I was freezing.

Or better still - I couldn't stop shivering. (Show Don't Tell)

Adjectives and Adverbs

Some adjectives and adverbs are fine but, again, it's a case of choosing the right word to do the job. Adjectives and adverbs can weaken a sentence and meaning.

For example:

Consider - Kim walked angrily to the bedroom.

Substitute - Kim stomped to the bedroom.

Consider - Dale spoke loudly.

Substitute - Dale shouted.

Description and Action

Because I'm given information in a book I believe that it must be important to the plot or characterisation. The same goes for TV shows and movies. So when I read on and realise that the information has no relevance, I'm disappointed and confused. Why was I given this information?

The best way to insert necessary information - relevant to the plot - is to look like you're not inserting necessary information. In other words, work it into the story as naturally and subtly as possible. Let the readers know these important details in small doses, rather than bucket loads. Sprinkle!

For example:

Tim didn’t need his fifteen year-old sister to look after him. He’d be twelve in two months. Old enough to look after himself.

I've added to characterisation. My readers know the age of the characters. It also moves the plot along because Tim's sister doesn't do a good job of looking after him and he has to fend for himself.

Remember that people read for the story. The story is vital. Keep it moving.


Early in my writing career I was given a good piece of advice: establish the setting at the beginning of each chapter. The reason for this is that chapters often mean a transition in time and/or place. To avoid confusion, your readers should know the where and when as soon as possible.

Keep transitions short. Keep the story moving.

For example:

He looked down at his bandaged body. Walking might be easier, he decided.

(Transition indicated by double-spaced line)

Ten minutes later, Tim was almost in the centre of town.


Jumping from one person's head to another can be confusing for readers, especially younger children. Books for younger children usually stick to one viewpoint.

In books for older children, multiple viewpoints are fine. Chapter breaks are often used to indicate a change in viewpoint.

Your story should always sound as if it's written from the point of view of a child. Never sound like an adult. Children want to read about their peers. And they definitely don't want to be preached to or lectured at.

Chapter Endings

One of the things I do when editing a novel is look at the last page of each chapter. Do the final scenes or sentences inspire the reader to keep reading? Will the reader want to turn the page?

You don't have to end each chapter with a cliff-hanger. But you do need to consider each chapter ending and make sure it teases the reader or rouses their curiosity so that they have to continue reading your book. Leave them wanting to know more.

Something should be happening at the end of each chapter. More questions should be raised. Don't finish a chapter at a quiet spot in the story, where nothing is happening. Keep the reader curious. Make them turn the page.


Your story should be plausible, believable. Your character's motivation should make sense to your readers. They should be able to understand why a character wants a particular goal. The obstacles between the character and his or her goal should be believable, expected in a way. And your character's actions should always be consistent given their background, personality and feelings.

Even fantasy needs be logical. Your readers should be able to believe that the events in your story are possible given the world you've created.

Sentence Structure

Consider the way your sentences are written. Do they make sense?

Beware of dangling modifiers

For example:

"Having been thrown into the air, the dog caught the ball."

In this sentence, the subject (the dog) is the 'doer' of the main clause - or action (caught the ball). In the modifying part of this sentence (having been thrown into the air) the 'doer' of the main clause is not clearly stated. It does not directly relate to the subject of the main clause, and so, it would be considered a dangling modifier.

Sentence Endings

A good sentence can be weakened by the last word. A strong sentence should end on a strong word, not tail off because of poor word choice.

Consider - It was a mystery where the children were.

Substitute - Where the children were was a mystery.

And remember that the most important words of a sentence should go at the end. The most important sentence should go at the end of a paragraph.

If you want to emphasise something put it at the end of the sentence.

Show Don't Tell

Showing pulls readers into a story. It allows them to see scenes unfolding as if they're there, like a fly on the wall.

Showing allows readers to relate to your character, to see the character's world through his or her eyes. And soon your readers are empathizing and sympathizing with the character. They're experiencing what the character is experiencing.

Showing is a great way to add to characterisation without looking like you're adding to characterisation.

Telling distances your readers. You've told them exactly what happened and why. It doesn't allow them to get involved, to make their own judgements.

For example (showing):

Tim held up his hands. “No more.”

“Come on, we’re having fun.”

Yeah, right, thought Tim. She was having fun. He was being tortured.

I'm showing you here that Tim is not happy.

Spelling, Punctuation, Typos

This one seems pretty obvious.

Do your best to eliminate any spelling, punctuation and typing errors from your manuscript before you send it to a publisher. Otherwise you'll look like an amateur. You'll look careless and sloppy.

The above advice is important to all writers, not just those writing for children. Your manuscript should be your best possible work to attract the attention of a publisher. It should sparkle!

Copyright Robyn Opie Parnell. All Rights Reserved.

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