The Perfect Polish

bar keeper's friendWith what I’m about to say here, I risk looking pathetic, but I’ll take that risk….Bar Keeper’s Friend has changed my life! It’s the best cleaner, like ever! It whitens my sink even better than bleach, yet it’s gentle, simple, and cheap. And hey, any friend of a barkeeper is a friend of mine.

So I’ve found my perfect polish, literally speaking, and it just so happens that I’ve got a go-to metaphorical polish for my manuscripts, too. Just like Bar Keeper’s Friend, it’s simple, effective, and cheap. And also like my new favorite product, it’s no big secret. In my opinion, the single best tool to polish a manuscript is reading it aloud.
That’s no earth-shattering advice, I know. Lots of people use this technique. Lots of people think they use it, too, yet don’t see the benefit. Here’s the thing: it does work. It’s the Bar Keeper’s Friend of editing: but you’ve got to commit to it.

Why do I think reading a manuscript aloud is so valuable that it earns comparison with the incomparable Bar Keeper’s Friend? Because it will help you address all sorts of nebulous things that make the difference between an okay manuscript and one that a reader, editor, or agent can’t put down. Stuff that’s hard to quantify, but obvious when it’s right…or “off.” Stuff that makes an apprehensive author break out in hives at the thought of a contest judge holding our precious three chapters, red pen poised for attack. Stuff like:

  • Does the dialog sound real?
  • Am I over-using certain words?
  • Do my sentences have a sense of flow?
  • Does my pace feel right for the story?
  • Are there any parts that are….for lack of a better word, cringe-y?

It even helps with more cut-and-dried editing tasks like proper word choice (think two/too, peer/pier, etc.) and transposing errors (form/from, sign/sing) that Spell Check won’t catch. Your word processing program’s Find and Replace function is good for picking out “ tic” words that you know you overuse, like just, that, and was, but reading aloud is the only way to find the ones you didn’t notice. For example, I once repeated the word “dock” three times in a single paragraph. In my defense, it was a nautical setting. Point is, I had no idea they were there until I read it aloud… after submitting it to an agent who requested a partial based on my query. Oops!

Reading aloud activates additional areas of the brain that silent reading doesn’t. In effect, it gives us that much-needed “fresh set of eyes” within ourselves—and that’s a great thing, indeed when a critique partner isn’t available.

I’m not going to lie—it’s a long, tiring process to read an entire 85,000 word manuscript out loud, and if you really want it to work, you can’t skim over anything. But if you’re going to do it, you really need to do the whole thing. Going through until the end will help you make sure your writing doesn’t weaken after those first crucial chapters. If I’m not constrained by a deadline, I do 2-3 chapters in a day. Reading your own writing aloud is also awkward. If there are other people in the house, I feel like a first-class dork. But whatever, my family already knows I’m a weirdo, so I don’t let it bother me too much. As for the sex parts…. an empty room is a necessity. Then again, it could be just the thing to spice up your relationship—no judgment, here!

Whether you read from your screen or from a printed copy is a matter of personal preference. I find I read more thoroughly when my words are on a physical page, and I write notes as I go, to edit later. But if printing out a 300 word manuscript makes your printer sound like a cross between an early Kraftwerk record and an overworked breast pump, in-screen reading is probably the way to go.

Reading aloud to edit a manuscript isn’t particularly exciting, and it’s certainly not new, but it totally works. It’s the secret ingredient in Author’s Friend…the perfect way to get your manuscript perfectly polished!

Happy writing,

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