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Making Your Manuscript the Best It Can Be
by Susan Denney

Do you remember your last job interview? You probably dressed carefully. You realized that even though your resume was dynamite, your clothing was going to make the first impression on your prospective employer. You may have even asked someone to give you advice or to check out your appearance before you left your home.

In the same way, you should always be sure that your query, proposal or manuscript is putting its best foot forward. The best idea or story can be tossed aside if an editor is offended by a spelling, grammar or format error.

Here are some steps you can follow to make sure that your writing is the best it can be.

1. Check spelling. You can begin by running the spell check function on your word processor. But don’t rely on that alone. Consider this sentence:

Andrea ran her fingers through her main of golden hair.

As far as my word processing software is concerned, this sentence is one hundred per cent correct. Although your computer does know the difference between its and it’s, it cannot distinguish between homonyms (words that sound alike). Be sure that you know which word you want. Also, you probably have a bigger vocabulary than the word processing program.

There is no substitute for a dictionary. Not only do dictionaries contain more words than your word processing program does, they also give you alternate spellings and information about usage. Dictionaries are not all created equal. Spend time looking for one that suits you. You may prefer using online dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster OnLine (www.m-w.com). Double and maybe triple-check the spelling of the editor’s name in your cover or query letter. None of us like to have our names misspelled. If you are using snail mail, also check the name of the market and the address in your cover letter.

2. Correct your punctuation. The reason for punctuation is to make your written words read as easily as if you were speaking them. Punctuation also clarifies your exact meaning. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White has an excellent chapter on punctuation. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Grammar by Lynne Truss makes learning about apostrophes fun. Punctuation in bibliographies can be a nightmare if you don’t know about www.easybib.com. Answer a set of questions and this website will create a free bibliography for you using the MLA format.

3. Check grammar. Your word processing program can find all sorts of annoying errors like repeated words and problems in subject/verb agreement. But it can also make mistakes. Here is an example:

How important is it that Alice be here on time?

The correction my program offered was “How important is it that Alice is here on time?” This means something completely different. In my original sentence, Alice hasn’t arrived yet. But in the word processing version, she is already here.

There are many good references on English grammar. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is classic in its simplicity and delightful to read. For those who want to wade deeper into the murky depths of English grammar, Fowler’s Modern English Usage can be very useful. If you are completely stuck, the Grammar Lady will help you for free. Send your question via email to her website and she will respond. Her web address is http://aacton.gladbrook.iowapages.org/id3.html

4. Check format. Whether you are submitting through email or through snail mail, formatting is important. Your cover letter should be in standard business letter format. This website, http://www.writeexpress.com/business-letter-format.html, has a number of examples of appropriate business letters. They should be single-spaced.

The way you format your manuscript depends on the type of writing you are doing. Some genres, including screenplays, plays, and poetry, require special formatting. Otherwise, most manuscripts are double-spaced. There are a number of good articles on the Internet about manuscript formatting. The Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuscript_format) is straightforward and well written. The ultimate expert on this topic is the editor who is looking at your work. Some editors prefer Courier font while others prefer Times New Roman. Some want italics and others want underlining. If there are writer’s guidelines for your chosen market, look carefully for information about formatting.

No matter what format you are following, the following rules apply to all. If you are emailing, don’t use a fancy or colored font or a colored background. If you are mailing, use high quality white paper, black ink and a good quality printer. Always provide a SASE. Remember that you wore your best suit to that job interview. Your manuscript should look as sharp and professional as you did.

5. When your manuscript, query or proposal is the best you can make it, ask someone else to read it. Share your manuscript with a friend, a family member or a member of your writing group. What looked perfect to you may have errors that someone else will see.

Once your manuscript is as perfect as you can make it, send it out. Whether you mail it or send it electronically, your professional-looking submission will make a good first impression. After that, your writing can speak for itself.

© Copyright 2007, Susan Denney

Susan Denney is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania. She has published childrenÂ’s fiction and nonfiction as well as adult articles on a variety of topics. Check out her website at www.susandenney.com.

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