The Well-Presented Manuscript: Just What You Need to Know to Make Your Fiction Look Professional by Mike Reeves-McMillan - Read Online
The Well-Presented Manuscript
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Do you want to be taken seriously by editors, readers or reviewers? 
Do you make errors in your fiction writing?
This book is for you. 

Mike Reeves-McMillan is a fiction author, reviewer, and former copy editor and technical writer. He's analysed the errors he's found in almost 250 books, both indie and traditionally published, and written a simple, clear guide to avoiding the most common issues. 

- Why editors reject 90% of what's submitted to them—and how to increase your chances.
- How to get punctuation right every time.
- The special conventions of dialog.
- The most common word confusions, typos, and research errors—and how to check for and eliminate them. 

Published: C-Side Media on
ISBN: 9781516395897
List price: $3.49
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The Well-Presented Manuscript - Mike Reeves-McMillan

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More than 90% of what gets submitted to editors—both fiction magazine editors and publishing house editors—is rejected as soon as a reader sees it, often because it doesn't meet basic standards of competence in presentation and language use. This book gives you a guide to meeting those standards.

Meeting them will help with self-publishing too, since discerning readers also reject books that don't meet them. A review, or, even worse, multiple reviews that mention basic errors in your prose can do a lot of harm to your sales.

You may even be missing out on sales because you’re making simple mistakes in your blurb, and putting people off before they read a word of your book. I can’t count how many books I’ve dismissed sight unseen because an error in the blurb suggested that the book would contain many more distracting errors. A blurb is a job interview. Dress nicely.

Beyond just getting past the gatekeepers (including readers and reviewers), developing the skill of communicating clearly with correct punctuation, grammar and usage will help you become a better writer. A musician plays notes; a great musician knows why those notes, in that relationship, work together, and what effect that will have on the audience, because a great musician thinks about the notes, and plays only the ones he or she means to play. For us as writers, words are our notes.

I review a lot of books, and I see the same easily-corrected errors over and over. In fact, I have a habit of marking the errors I see as I’m reading, and since I do this on my Kindle, I have a record. Since I first got a Kindle, I’ve found almost 7000 errors in 250 books, most of them published, a good many of them traditionally published. That’s more than two dozen errors per book, on average, which I’ve noticed on a casual read-through. And as part of writing this book, I’ve analysed them to figure out which basic problems are most common.

I'll especially address the short story market, because I've done a lot of short story submitting recently. I have also been an editor in a major publishing house, though, and most of the advice also applies to submitting novels, or even nonfiction, to traditional publishers. And, of course, if we self-publishers are to fight the common perception that our books are badly edited, we need to master these skills.

So here's some of what I plan to cover in this book:

Style and voice, and why I'm setting out to help you write invisibly.

Understanding how a sentence fits together, so you know how to punctuate it.

The special conventions of dialog, so you don’t distract your reader from what your characters are saying.

Commonly confused words, and how to distinguish them.

The most common typos and other errors, and how to check for them.

Names, words and research, and why it’s important to get things right.

How editors select what to publish (and what not to publish)—and how to increase your chances with them.

When it comes to punctuation, I’ll work in two directions. First, I’ll talk about how the structure of the sentence tells you how to punctuate it. Then I’ll go through the different punctuation marks and talk about when to use each one. That will involve some repetition, but repetition is good for learning, and presenting the material in two different ways will, I hope, make it clearer and easier to grasp.

Note that this book isn't about writing the actual story, which is another set of skills above and beyond these. It’s about meeting the basic standards that will get your story read in the first place.

The aim is to provide just enough information to help you look competent, so I won’t go into the finer details in some cases. For example, there are some arcane comma rules that are really only known or understood by advanced editors and grammarians, and if you don’t observe them, nobody but a serious pedant will dock you points. I’ll mention these rules, and point to places where you can find more details about them if you want—if your comma usage is generally good already, knowing these rules will make it excellent—but if you struggle with the basics of commas, you don’t need to confuse yourself with the more advanced rules.

Does every editor care about these things? No—as poorly-edited books from major publishing houses demonstrate—but most will. Does every reader? No—as five-star reviews for books that are full of errors demonstrate—but some will. If you want to communicate I am basically professional so that people who read your writing won’t be distracted by simple language mistakes and can concentrate on your story, this book is here to help you achieve that standard.

There are several good grammar sites around, most notably Grammar Girl, but they do tend to focus on theory and get deep into the detail, and they're for a wide audience, not just writers of fiction. The famous Strunk & White is, I'm afraid, overcomplicated, outdated, and doesn't always follow its own (sometimes bad) advice. This guide is written by a fiction writer—one who's also a former book editor and technical writer, and a current book reviewer and beta reader—as a practical tool for other fiction writers.


Throughout the book, wherever I give an example it’s indented from the left margin. If the example is of something that’s incorrect, it will be marked with a strikethrough, so you’re left in no doubt that you shouldn’t do it.

I’ve marked each error based on how common it is, as follows:

**** Extremely common. Even some people who make few errors sometimes make this one.

*** Common. I see this error all the time.

** Uncommon. I see this error occasionally.

* Rare. I’ve only seen this error once or twice.

You might wonder why I bother to even mention the rare errors. There are two reasons.

First, if one person has made the error there are probably others.

Second, rare errors, by definition, are the ones where most people know the rule. This means that the one- and two-star errors are ones that most readers will notice, so it’s especially important not to make them. If you make a four-star error, many editors won’t even notice (though some definitely will).

Three-star errors—the ones that many people make, but not the people who really know what they’re doing—are probably the most important to focus on, though. There’s a high likelihood that you’re making them, and getting them right will lift you above the crowd.

Style and Voice

In order to explain the main purpose of this book, I need to talk about style and voice.

Style is about the choices you make between valid alternatives. For example, do you use parentheses, dashes, or commas to set off a clause that interrupts the main sentence—or do you not put such clauses in at all? All of these are valid choices, and if you make one particular choice consistently, it becomes part of your style.

Voice is largely, but not completely, made up of the sum of all your style choices. It also takes in point of view, word choice, and a few less definable qualities. This is what tells us that we are reading Ursula K. Le Guin rather than Neil Gaiman, however similar their writing might be in some ways.

Voice is also something that belongs to characters, as well as authors, and one of the skills that raises authors above mediocrity is the ability to give their characters distinctive voices. Again, point of view, the things they notice and talk about, has a lot to do with it, but so do stylistic choices. I often make my characters sound less like me by having them choose a word which wasn't the one I first thought of.

George Orwell, in a famous essay, spoke about language which, like clear glass, was there for people to look through, and other kinds of language which were like stained glass: designed to be looked at. In fact, there's a spectrum of style, which Jeff Vandermeer sums up well in Wonderbook. (I recommend that book, by the way, which is about everything about writing that I don't cover here: how to find ideas and develop them into stories. You’ll find full details in the Further Reference section at the back of this book.)

Vandermeer mentions four levels of style, which, as I'm sure he'd be the first to acknowledge, are points on a spectrum rather than distinct steps.

Minimal or stark style has hardly any detail or description, leaving a lot to the reader's imagination. Done badly, it's dull and unengaging, emotionally distant and ploddingly literal. Done well, it has the beauty of simplicity and purity.

Invisible or normal style aims to disappear, like Orwell's clear glass window. It's the most common style of writing, particularly for commercial fiction. Although it doesn't sound the way people actually talk, because we're used to fictional conventions we think of it as sounding like the voices of real, ordinary people. Done badly, it's mediocre, bland and lacklustre. Done well, it lets the reader focus on the story.

Muscular or conspicuous style uses more sensory detail, more metaphors, and more complex sentences than ordinary people tend to in real life. It draws a little attention to itself. Done badly, it seems too clever and gets in the way of the story. Done well, it feels rich and vivid.

Lush or ornate style draws a lot of attention to itself, like a beautiful woman dancing in a sequinned dress. Extended metaphors, long sentences, passages of pure description, language tricks borrowed from poetry, unusual word choices and a layering of detail give an overall richness to the prose. Done badly, it's like wading through treacle, and produces impatience in the reader who just wants to know what happened next. Done well, it’s glorious, a work of high art.

The commonest style, and the one that's easiest to read and easiest to write, is invisible style. My advice in this book is aimed at helping you to write invisibly, because if you use the basic tools of language correctly, nobody will notice that you're using them. Using them badly draws attention to your writing, for all the wrong reasons. It's like you're a cabinetmaker, and you've left tool marks on all your surfaces and your joints don't fit well. People will notice that you're incompetent with your tools, rather than noticing the piece of furniture