Ten Ways to Upgrade Your Manuscript (Part One)

Aside from the huge issues of plot, characterization, and theme, dozens of small devices line in wait, ready to make a manuscript better. Simply by applying the following techniques, authors have moved their manuscripts from good to publishable. The following methods, shared by author Maralys Willis at the IWOSC seminar in March, and are applicable to both fiction and non-fiction. Most are so simple you could call them “tricks.”


1. Always End Your Sentences With a Strong Word.

By saving the strongest word for last, you infuse your manuscript with power. Do this in sentence after sentence, and your whole manuscript will resonate with power and drama. Leave the power in your readers ears. Most well-known authors do this instinctively, but it’s simple for you to do it too.


(weak) “An outpouring of blood escaped from his wounds.”

(better) “From every wound came and outpouring of blood.”

(strong) “From the back of the room came a scream.”

2. Change The Order of Sentences.

For maximum drama, put the set-up part of the sentence first and what happens last. (Set up means: times, setting, distances, and moods). Description should come first and the action second.


(weak) “She walked to school on Mondays.”

(better) “On Mondays she walked to school.”

(weak) “He fell out of the tree after is fingers slipped.”

(better) “His fingers slipped and he fell out of the tree.”

3. Use Simple Paragraphing and Punctuation “Tricks” to Add Drama.

By isolating key words, or key ideas in their own sentences, or their own paragraphs, you highlight them and make the reader notice. Drama follows automatically. White space is appealing and it makes the reader want to keep reading.


“Jake swallowed the whole chunk of mean without thinking.

And choked.”

Likewise, much-admired authors like Harper Lee use punctuation to add drama. When using a semi-colon – both sides of the semi-colon must be complete sentences. However, this is not true with a colon. When technique starts to stand out, you should start doing something different.

Example of colon: (From To Kill a Mockingbird) “Everybody’s appetite was delicate this morning, except Jem’s: he at his way through three eggs.”

Example of semi-colon: (From To Kill a Mockingbird) “Mr.Tate handed the rifle to Atticus; Jem and I nearly fainted.”

Example of dash: (From Clown in the Truck) “Never mind all those suitcases stuffed with sweaters and jackets, once again the garb-de-jour was shorts-an Alaska neatly customized for Rob!”

Example of ellipses: “He croaked in a scratchy voice, ‘You’re a… whore.”

4. Add Sentence Variety – With Short … or Long … Sentences.

Don’t get trapped in endless, medium-length sentences. Make some sentences short. One word. Just a few words. Then juxtapose sentence fragments with sentences that are very long and and seemingly go on forever, as if the reader had all the time in the world. Pretend he does. This is all about rhythm and pacing.

5. Use Prepositions to Add More Sentence Variety.

Don’t fall into repetitious Subject … Verb … Object patterns. Try starting your sentences with prepositions. They add instant variety. They also add complexity and strengthen the work. Possible prepositions: under, over, from, beneath, into, beyond, within, besides, outside, etc. etc. etc.

Example: “Outside his line of sight, he sense something threatening had crept closer, that if he didn’t turn around immediately, the thing would leap on top of him.”

Prepositions can be chosen arbitrarily. Complex sentences almost always flow from a prepositional start.

Tips 6 through 10 – will be posted in a  second post shortly! Please look for it.

Other Insight and Advice from Maralys Willis:

Maralys Willis is the author of twelve books and memoirs including Higher Than Eagles, a  poignant memoir about her son’s tragic hang gliding accident. She is also a college-level teacher of creative writing and novel writing, and her most recent book is the acclaimed “How To” book on writing novels entitled: Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead

This seminar was presented on March 20th, 2010 by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC). Learn more about IWOSC events and membership at: www.iwosc.org

2 thoughts on “Ten Ways to Upgrade Your Manuscript (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Ten Ways to Upgrade Your Manuscript (Part Two) « Ingrid's Notes

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