Manuscript Checklist

Mary Keeley

Almost all of the writers conferences are over for the year. Now begins the busy time of refining, rewriting, editing, and polishing to make your manuscript ready for agents’ and editors’ scrutiny. I’m going to point out a few things to be alert to as you read through your manuscript one more time before you submit it.

Receiving requests for your work can cause even veteran authors to get jittery. All out mood swings is probably a better description of a new authors’ emotional state in this window of opportunity. That’s why the first item on this checklist is:

  • Take a deep breath and spend time with God. Read Scripture and pray for his help to keep your priorities in place and for the sensitivity to hear his gentle voice offering guidance. Remember, he loves you and wants the best for you.

When your heart stops racing and you are flooded with peace, your are ready to move on to the other checklist items. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it pinpoints areas that pop out to agents and editors quickly as they read the first pages.

  • An opening that grabs interest. Does your non-fiction book start out with an intriguing statement that capsulizes the message? Does your novel begin with a unique, action-packed scene in the present? There is no place for easing in. Think of the thousands of other books being proposed along with yours. Your opening paragraphs must compel the professionals’ desire to continue reading rather than to quickly dismiss it and move on to the next proposal. They know if it doesn’t grab their interest, it won’t grab readers, that is, book buyers’ interest either. Causes for quick rejection often involve an uncreative, uninspiring beginning.Writing-on-typewriter-007-300x180
  • Unnecessary details eliminated. We don’t need to know that the heroine’s red leather purse was underneath her polka dot umbrella on the upholstered seat next to her unless that detail is important to the plot. This is a common occurrence in manuscripts by new writers. Eliminating extraneous words will keep the pace moving forward and readers focused on the story. Details of corroborating sources of information in your book for pastors should be given in endnotes or an appendix instead of in the body of the book.
  • Keep it consistent. Are your characters true to themselves? For example, if you introduced your hero as a strong, levelheaded leader, he wouldn’t all of a sudden appear weak and indecisive without first setting up some extraordinary history. A lofty, academic explanation wouldn’t be consistent in a Christian living book.
  • Cliches are replaced. Cliches are as common as everyday conversation, but they indicate lazy writing on the printed or electronic page. Replace them with more creative expressions.
  • Appropriate use of words and terms. As much as you want to write masterfully like the literary heroes named in Wendy Lawton’s blog on Tuesday, be careful not to overdo it, that is, beyond what you are confident you can accomplish superbly. And be sure to apply the words and terms you choose correctly. These are flaws agents and editors spot right away.
  • Flawless grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I feel like I harp on this often, but truly, a few errors on the first few pages will be reason for a quick rejection. Agents and editors assume the writer isn’t a professional that is ready for publication.

Resist the urge toward urgency. it is better to spend a month, if necessary, to polish your book to near publishing perfection than to submit it too soon and reap a quick, “Sorry, it doesn’t meet with our current publishing needs.”

In which areas do you need to polish your manuscript before it is ready to submit? In which areas do you feel confident you are doing well?


Use this checklist before sending off your manuscript to agents and editors. Click to Tweet.

Before you submit your proposal, read through your manuscript using this checklist. Click to Tweet.



55 Responses

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  1. Anne Love says:

    Mary, it was so wonderful to finally meet you in person, and now these words are comforting for the urgency I feel to accomplish my goals. I’ve already ordered my self-editing book and hope it comes in the mail soon. Thanks for the clarity and the reminder to lay it all before the King and Author of our own stories.

  2. Good morning, Mary,

    Wel, speling is inportrant. πŸ˜‰
    And don’t name your heroine Katniss. Or Harry. Or Madonna.
    Although, naming your athletic, amazingly gorgeous, brilliant, yet utterly faithful and kind super-spy ‘Jennifer’ is perfectly FINE.

    I mean,I know, right? I admit it, being a role model to literally NO) people can be awesome and humbling!

    One important thing for me is the flow and syncopation of the words. I have this thing about each sentence having its own melody, its own cadence. Otherwise, it jars my nerves and when read aloud, there is no music to the words. Which is jarring, and makes the reader annoyed if it happens too often. Dialogue flow is one thing, but smooth non-dialogue, at least for me, is really important.

    Feeling like it MUST all be done now leads to mistakes. Unless you’re in labour, then I suggest starting the car.

  3. Jeanne T says:

    Mary, you must have been in my head this morning. I was thinking about all I would need to consider before I send off a query and prepare a proposal. This checklist is invaluable! Thanks so much for sharing it.

    For me, I’m still revising, so I’ve not gotten to the polishing yet. I know I’ll need to find those unnecessary details and eliminate them. πŸ™‚ I’m a wordy sort of gal.

    I think I’m pretty strong in using proper words and punctuation, spelling and grammar.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      In planning for this week’s blog, I was hoping to offer something that would be especially helpful to everyone who attended ACFW and other recent writers conferences. I’m glad you find it helpful, Jeanne. You’re well on your way with your strong command of the basic writing skills.

  4. Norma Horton says:

    Well, Mary, now that proposals litter publishers’ computers across the country, I can’t very well eliminate the bit about my heroine’s polka-dot Glock .365 magnum pistol covering her red leather saddlebag on the upholstered camel, can I?

    Seriously, I appreciate your reviewing all these elements.

    I see Jennifer (for whom all great heroines except mine are named) touched on dialogue, and want to add a tip I applied to this latest Herculean version of my manuscript. Read dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t “sound” right, it’s not right. You might want to warn your family first, though. Ranchman the Superhero finally opened the office door to see if I was okay…


  5. I think I need to work on those deep breaths, Mary. πŸ™‚ Thanks for giving us permission to take our time with submissions.

    In my polishing just yesterday, I found a cliche. It fits the moment and the character’s deep POV perfectly, and it’s one I think would resonate with readers, but it’s still a cliche. I’m still mulling it over this morning, trying to find some other way to express the thought.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, it was so nice to meet you in person at ACFW. A rare use of cliche in a manuscript is acceptable if it’s a perfect fit and you can’t find another perfect way to get the thought across to the reader.

  6. I love your first point, Mary: to bring it all to the throne. It’s so easy to get all knotted up inside with worry and stress, trying to get in our manuscripts before the masses send theirs. But ultimately, God’s got this under control. If I need to take time to polish, then whenever I submit is the perfect time.

    As for me, I’ve just got a final proofread before mine is ready. I’m hoping the four other rounds of revisions I’ve done on this ms have solved a lot of the other issues. This time around I’m really just looking for grammar, repetition that can be eliminated, and cadence. πŸ™‚

  7. Mary, after a conference, do you receive majority of the proposals you requested?

    I need to polish pacing and scene shifts.
    I tend to underwrite, but rather than see this as a disadvantage I want to be economical and wise with the words I choose.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jenni, I estimate that I receive about a third of the proposals soon after a conference. Some I receive months later, which is wise on their part if it takes that long to make the manuscript the best it can be.

      Definitely, tighter is better unless there is a need for further set-up or clarity or gaps needing to be filled, for example in scene shifts, as you mentioned.

  8. Mart Ramirez says:

    Love the checklist! And I LOVE the first one on the list! Spend time with God. πŸ™‚

  9. One more writer’s conference of note:

    Tomorrow I’m going to the 2-day “Cuesta Writer’s Conference” in San Luis Obispo on the beautiful California Central Coast.

    I am so excited! During one of the classes offered, I get to make a 1-minute pitch to three editors (and get feedback) for my recently completed (upper-middle grade) novel for boys titled: The Adventures of a Boy and His Creature.

    Wish me luck and God’s Speed.

  10. Rick Barry says:

    I appreciate so much Point #1, Mary. Contract or no contract, inner peace and regular quiet times with God are invaluable. Blessings to you!

  11. Jean Wise says:

    This is a great checklist and one I am going to print out for inspiration as i work on the book proposal you said you would consider. Number One is of course the way to start but I needed to be reminded about cliches. They sure slip in unnoticed!

  12. Thank you, Mary. All very helpful suggestions. One question. I have a character, the troubled bad guy. I don’t enjoy getting into his head thus, I avoid him and move ahead, then come back. Is this a negative habit I should strive to break?

  13. Thanks Mary for the manuscript checklist. Maybe this should be a conference workshop. In the meantime, I’ll be printing it out.

    Since I talked with you at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference, I’ve started on a new manuscript! Thanks for all your help and encouragement, it was such a pleasure to see you again.

  14. lisa says:

    Great checklist, thank you so much!

  15. Lynn Hare says:

    Mary, excellent post.

    It was a pleasure to speak with you at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference last month. Thanks for highlighting the importance of polishing the first few pages. I’m working hard on an interest-grabbing opening. When we spoke, you told me to do five drafts of each chapter to bring them up to speed. I’m taking this to heart and doing just that on my manuscript, which is my first book.

    I encourage anyone who’s looking for a book on the manuscript checklist to read a book called “The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile” by Noah Lukeman. I’ve been reading it carefully and making changes, producing significant gains in the manuscript.

  16. Mary, it was so nice to meet you at conference last week.

    I can’t imagine somebody not sending you their proposal if you requested it.

    Thanks for this great list. I’m so glad you made spending time with God the number one thing.

  17. Jaime Wright says:

    A checklist! Mary, you read my mind–or heart. I’m so at peace with the polishing process because it’s so fun to do, but knowing what to look for and honing my voice is daunting. And my biggest encouragement? Your first step. Take a deep breath and spend time with God. It’s wonderful to center myself in His Word and seek HIS story. May He craft in us and through us … what a blessing to be His handiwork. Thx, Mary, you totally 100% were a part in blessing me tonight after a day of writing discouragement.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jaime, it might help to follow the tip Norma suggested earlier: read your manuscript aloud. Are you comfortable reading it? Or does it sound strange to your ears?

      I need checklists every day. I’m glad this one is helpful to you. Yes, no matter what we are doing, everything seems clearer when we begin by spending time with God.

  18. Emily Rogers says:

    Thank you so much for this article … and for helping me feel like it’s okay to take a breath and make sure I’m ready before I submit! And thank you, also, for the advice to spend time with God. I think consistency in my walk with Him will help me avoid the mood swings of doing this essentially for the first time. πŸ˜‰

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You are welcome, Emily. Yes, it okay, beneficial even, to step away from your manuscript for a few days, and then read it through again with fresh clear eyes and the peace from having spent time with Jesus.

  19. Preslaysa says:

    Great tips. I’m in the final stages of one of my manuscripts, going through it with a fine toothed comb (clichΓ©!). I appreciate your advice about not rushing submissions. My first instinct was to rush, but your post reminded me that I can give myself a few weeks.

  20. One suggestion I would make would amplify Norma’s – but have someone else read your MS, and particularly dialogue, aloud.

    This was the technique my mentor used in his writing classes. It could be devastating, but it did make for a better finished product.

    I mean…if your reader dissolves in giggles during a scene of tragic loss, there’s some remedial work needs doing. (Yes, that happened to me.)

  21. Solomon V says:

    Hi Mary,

    thank you for the wonderful post! I chanced upon your blog through a twitter post! I wrote a book on self-help. Reading many spiritual books that were with my late brother who is a priest made me stick to non-fiction, and also my own curiosity to live a better and happy life. And also, my own journey interacting with so many youngsters and people who are leading a less-than-contented lives and bringing out children in less-than-good way of bringing up children. Prompted me to write a book on self help first, which would ground me as a Motivational Speaker and later to attempt to write on parenting, marriage etc etc. Finally, I would like to attempt write a good fiction novel which can be made into a film.

    But, I don’t have any literary acquaintance who can help me how to publish my book. I’m alone on this journey. Kindly do help me how to go about it.

    I live in Bangalore, India.

    I didn’t like my introduction – so I struggled to write a new introduction. At last one day I changed the whole thing.

    I loved your first tip to Read the Scripture and pray for sometime – is a very good tip. I woke up from sleep and start writing. But, will, try to read the scripture before doing it :).

    I thank you once again for this wonderful blog and also for all the people who generously share through the comments !


  22. Solomon V says:

    I didn’t reread my comment. I could see so many corrections. Pls bear with me. I couldn’t edit it as I want to complete the comment, as soon as possible πŸ™‚