The Editing Checklist Book Editors Use on Your Novel

If you’re writing a novel, chances are you are hoping to submit it to a traditional book publisher for a book deal. To do this, you need a novel submission — a standard package that pitches your novel to a literary agent or book publisher. It comprises three things: a query letter, a one- to two-page synopsis, and the first 50 pages of your manuscript.

This post focuses on how editors, agents, and publishers review the first 50 pages of any manuscript.

Did you know that you really only have only 5-10 seconds before literary agents and publishers have made up their minds about your writing, your book idea and its marketability? While every manuscript is different, there are certain things any book-publishing professional looks for when assessing a novel submission. It all stems from ensuring that it has a strong chance of standing out in today’s ultra-competitive market.

Refer to this checklist before turning in your novel submission. It’s based on my own personal checklist when I review my author clients’ submissions before they query.

Remember: You only have one shot to impress. Making the extra effort to ensure your submission is as professional as possible can mean the difference between a rejection and launching your author career.

9 ways to check your manuscript like a pro:

1. Is this story pulling me in from the get-go?

As a book editor, I pay close attention to my own interest level as soon as I crack open a fresh manuscript. I ask myself: Does it have a grabby opening, with engaging language that hooks my interest right away? Is the story world intriguing enough to beckon me to read further? And, is the novel premise juicy and built around substantial themes? 

2. Do the characters feel well defined?

If a novel’s cast of characters don’t feel as real as a flesh-and-blood human being within the novel’s first 50 pages, chances are they won’t be any more engrossing in the rest of the book. If an editor is having trouble remembering who certain characters are, that’s a red flag. Consider reading your manuscript with this in mind. Ask yourself: Do you describe characters vividly enough? Are each distinct enough for a reader to picture?

3. Does the main character have a clear journey?

In any book, it’s important that your main character is drastically changed by the end of the novel. Looking at just the first 50 pages of the manuscript, it should be clear what a protagonist is missing in their life — and how the journey set in motion could make or break them.

4. Is the story coherent?

Are there vague details that make me stop to ask, “What’s going on?” Is it easy to flow from one plot point to the next? Are there any missing bits of key information that prevents readers from fully picturing a scene? If a reader is able to clearly name the “Who, what, where, when, why, and how” of your story from the first 50 pages, you’re in good shape. If not, it’s time to clarify some elements.

5. Is the pacing well handled?

I pay attention to the timeline of events. I see if they flow — or if I find myself confused at how one thing led to the next, or how time passes. Scan your first 50 pages with pacing in mind. See if a new reader would be able to absorb how and when each beat of the story unfolds.

6. Does this author handle POV correctly and effectively?

I always look at an author’s handling of point-of-view. Improper use of POV includes: If the manuscript shifts POV abruptly, if we “head hop” too much between characters without a clear transition, or if the narrator describes information they can’t possibly know.

7. Are there mechanical or grammatical errors?

It’s nearly impossible to have a novel submission that is 100% perfect, but careless spelling errors, improper use of punctuation, or sloppy formatting are definite no-nos. Typos are also, as you’d expect, a red flag. These kinds of errors communicate to literary agents and publishers that an author didn’t take the time to invest in editing.

Grammar mistakes that any grade schooler could spot are also signs that an author might not know what they’re doing. Improper sentence structure, faux pas like misplaced modifiers or confusing words like affect and effect, and they’re, “there” and there are also problematic.

Wonder why book professionals can seem so harsh about spelling and grammar? Any mistake in a submission can be a sign of bigger mistakes down the road.

8. Are there any other amateur mistakes?

They can also include wild choices, such as opting for a flamboyant array of font sizes and styles, formatting your manuscript to look like a book (instead of adhering to standard manuscript format), or stamping distracting watermarks on every page. Another alarming choice: Turning in way more than 50 pages, which shows you don’t care about the rules or don’t follow instructions.

9. Is there a market for this book?

This is perhaps the most important question a literary agent or publisher asks when assessing a manuscript. Does the author adhere to genre well? Is the market already saturated with this type of novel (such as vampire romances)? I question whether an author is breaking new ground with a book. If it’s already been done, or is so obscure it’s hard to pinpoint a viable target audience, that decreases its chances of marketability. Authors need to do initial research themselves to see where their book fits into the marketplace. If it’s clear that an author has been writing in a bubble, that could be worrisome.

Writing a novel submission that an agent or editor jumps to accept may seem impossible. But, with the right help, you can achieve the traditional publishing deal you’ve been striving for.

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