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The Finishing Touches

photo by Pauline Mak [1]
photo by Pauline Mak

As I write this, I’m putting the finishing touches on a major revision of my novel-in-progress. The next step is to send it to my agent, who will decide whether or not the manuscript is Ready with a capital R.

One of the hardest things as a writer, no matter whether you’re just about to start the querying stage or writing your umpteenth book under contract, is knowing when the book is done. It’s easy to rush these things. We’re so exhausted at the end of any draft that it’s tempting to just say Take it, it’s done, it’s the best I can do.

But is it?

There are nearly countless things you can do on a “final” read. Frankly, I considered making this a list of 50. But in the end, the answer is different for everybody. It’s absolutely essential, for example, to check for anachronisms in historical fiction — but obviously that’s irrelevant if your novel is set in the present day.

So if you’re going through your manuscript “one last time”, make it three last times, and take a look at these final touches that can make or break a book.

Follow your key thread all the way through. It might be the relationship between two characters if your book is a love story; it could be the progress of your main character from weak and uncertain to powerful and strong. It could be the series of clues that outs the murderer in a mystery. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, chances are you’ve added and deleted some scenes along the way, maybe changed the order around — does everything still make sense? Read only for what’s on the page in this draft, not all those other drafts before.

Check for your biggest weakness. Is it grammar and spelling? An overreliance on adverbs? Half-page run-on sentences spliced together with comma after comma? Hunt it, find it, fix it. Personally, when I write fast I write long, so I need one final pass through the manuscript to find and get rid of redundant sentences and clunky wording. If the character’s in a barn and she touches the wall, I don’t need to say “I touched the wall of the barn.” What other wall could she be touching? “I touched the wall” does the job. Ditto “There was a thunderstorm outside.” Where else would it be? Inside? Come on.

Strengthen your voice. Voice is one of the most important and intangible things we need to deal with as writers. By this point in the manuscript you should know what your characters sound like and what your narrative voice sounds like, so read every single scene with that in mind. Vocabulary. Tense. Sentence length. Use of contractions. The way you use sound and scent and sight. You’ve made a series of choices to develop the voice in your book — now make sure that you’ve made those choices consistently throughout.

There are obviously a lot of other things you can check for in a final scrub of your work. Logistical things, for example — are those two towns that you say are three hours apart really three hours apart? If a character from Chapter One is going to be important in Chapter Ten, did you at least mention her once or twice in between so the reader doesn’t forget she exists?

What “final touches” do you like to put on your work before you can let it go?


About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.