Making Your Writing
How to Edit a Manuscript
by Robyn Opie Parnell
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
When asked what they were looking for in a
manuscript, one of the publishers answered:
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.
"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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Tim didnt need his fifteen year-old sister
to look after him. Hed 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
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.
He looked down at his bandaged body. Walking
might be easier, he decided.
indicated by double-spaced line)
minutes later, Tim was almost in the centre of
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.
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
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
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
Consider the way your sentences are written. Do
they make sense?
Beware of dangling
"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
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
Substitute - Where the children were was a
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
Showing is a great way to add to characterisation
without looking like you're adding to
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
For example (showing):
Tim held up his hands. No more.
Come on, were having fun.
Yeah, right, thought Tim. She was having fun. He
was being tortured.
I'm showing you here that Tim is not happy.
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!