Critiquing to Improve a Manuscript

character who understandsWhile teaching and critiquing novels at conferences around the country, I’ve learned a number of common problem with new writers. By improving each of the areas below, pre-published authors or authors planning to self-publish will have more polished, professional-looking manuscripts to present to a reader or to an agent or editor. The most common manuscript problems fall into these areas: formatting, punctuation, paragraphing, scene transitions and breaks, and heavy backstory or over description.

Naturally the author should have a good understanding of POV, show not tell, plotting and placing techniques and then be working with an amazing story that hooks the reader.


All manuscripts should have at least one inch margins. Any font may be used, but a serif is preferred since it is more easily read by an agent or editor. Two of the most common fonts are Times New Roman and Courier New. A font should be 12 point, nothing less, making it easier on the reader’s eyes. Author information, name, address, email address, telephone number, and word count should appear on the first page. Thereafter a header should appear on each page following the first page, including the author’s name, book title and page number. Page numbers are most helpful in the upper right-hand corner.


Writers should spend time looking at the punctuation chapter of a good grammar book or Strunk and White’s, The Elements Of Style. Author can make sure to write sentences without misusing commas and periods, especially connecting two sentences with a comma. This will discourage an editor or agent without question. All dialogue and quoted material in narration are double quotes, except when a quote appears inside dialogue or a quoted line. Then single quotes are used. The exclamation point is only used for an exclamation. Wow! Help! Never use an exclamation point to suggest the dialogue or narration is exciting. This is the lazy writer’s way to avoiding writing in an action-packed style. Using double end punctuation—an exclamation point with a period or question mark—is inappropriate. This is the sign of an amateur writer.


White space in fiction is good. Writing with shorter paragraphs gives the page a more appealing look by providing more white space. Paragraph breaks are used to separate a new idea from the previous thought. In fiction, a paragraph break is used to separate one speaker and his/her action from another speaker. Avoid putting one character’s action into the same paragraph with a different character’s dialogue. This will confuse the reader.

 Scene transitions and scene breaks

When a new scene begins, the writer should leave a double space line break to show the scene change or symbols, such as: * * * or # or ❀. Any symbol or line break is appropriate and necessary.

When the author does not want a scene break, but only to change location of a character to another setting, the reader needs to see a clear transition between one place and another. This is an appropriate time for telling rather than showing by simply creating a sentence such as: Once on the road, he arrived at the restaurant in minutes. This will help the reader follow the scene change without a lengthy driving description that does not move the story along.


Two common elements that tend to weigh down the opening of a novel are too much backstory and description. Editors and agents are looking for a story that captures their interest immediately. This means a story with action, dialogue, and conflict. Too much backstory and setting description in the first chapter makes the story plodding.

Readers care more about a characters once they know them. Beginning with action provides insight into characterization and once the reader knows the character, the writer can introduce small amounts of backstory, but only what is absolutely necessary to know at this point in the story. Pieces of backstory may be introduced as the story moves along. Example: Telling her the whole story would make life easier, but he couldn’t since he would put her in danger. The reader wants to know the whole story—what, why, how. Keeping some information a secret by hinting at a problem without providing detail, is a sure way to arouse a reader’s interest.

 Overused Description

Setting is important. A unique setting has wonderful history and opportunities for description, but again, the information is not needed in the first pages. Yes, a sense of place is vital. Readers want to know where they are and if it’s summer or winter. A few sentences as the character moves down the street or looks out the window or surveys the surroundings helps readers feel where they are, but they do not need a history of the city or details of every knickknack in the room. Allow descriptions to appear in the story as needed and try to tie it in with a purpose that moves the story along, such as: creating mood or deepening characterization. Example: Bric-a-brac covered the tables and mantel to such a degree that they were distracting. Could this be on purpose? Was she covering herself with the same trinkets that would catch him off guard? 

Working to improve these few elements in a manuscript will proved editors and agents with a more polished read and leave them with a more positive attitude about the author. A little work will give big results. And don’t forget about your readers. Avid readers know what makes a good book, so don’t slough off lazy writing, learn the elements that make your books stand out.

© 2016 Gail Gaymer Martin

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