Literary Alchemy: How to Transform Your Manuscript into a Published Masterpiece


Have you finally taken that big bold step toward becoming a published author? How is your book coming along? Oh yes, that book launch day is coming, sooner or later. There will be a book that will capture the imagination, tickle the funny bone, rouse readers to make a difference and fight for something … A book that will make an impact. But first, some serious manuscript transformation has to happen.

Take a break from writing for a minute and reorient yourself, take stock of your progress, and be reminded of all the processes involved and the smart choices you should be making in crafting a published work.

We have created a list that you can use as a guide and reminder as you get closer and closer to the finish line.

The First Draft: A No-Holds-Barred Affair

A first draft is not supposed to be perfect, or even good. It’s not something you finish and then publish. Rather, it’s the part of your journey toward being a published author where you can unleash your inner Jackson Pollock and just drip, fling, and splash words onto the page, without caring about what the readers think. Because at this point, there will be no reader. It’s just you and your words, your vision, your story, your ideas.

Your job at the first-draft stage is to write anything and everything. If you’re writing a novel, your first draft may not have all the characters of your story yet, or some of them may not have fully taken shape. Your plot may be convoluted, or the opposite—uneventful, lacking in action that propel the story forward and facilitate character development. The narrative may be spotty and your premise may start to feel ridiculous by chapter 7. And all of that would be normal. That’s what revisions are for. But first you have to have a first draft.

Take note of what these famous writers have to say about first drafts:

Shannon Hale, award-winning young adult fantasy author | I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later, I can build castles. 

Daniel Pink, New York Times best-selling author | Most times, I’ll just sit there, suffer, write shitty sentences, and hope I can make the next draft less putrid.

Neil Gaiman, award-winning novelist, graphic novelist, and short story writer | One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed … For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.

Isn’t it reassuring to know that the books that you marvel at for their complexity or their clever structure or their compelling characters once required draft after draft before becoming the masterpieces that they are?

The Title: Those All-Too-Important Words

Even before you start writing, you may already have a title, or you may already be brainstorming it. Conversely, you may go through the whole writing and revision process without having decided on a title. Whatever the case, make sure come up with a title that is memorable, unique, and searchable.

A memorable title can be clever and funny, evocative and provocative, mysterious, brief and punchy, and so on. Try to keep it at a reasonable length—or if it’s long, make sure that the short form will still interesting and memorable.

To come up with a unique title, make it specific to your personal experiences or to the circumstances in your novel. Book titles are not copyrighted, so it’s possible for two books, or even more, to have similar titles. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s still better to avoid such a scenario.

Lastly, consider whether your book title is searchable. Let the search engines work for you, so see what they turn up when you type in a keyword that you want to include in your book title or keywords that refer to your subject matter and/or themes. Ideally, your title should rank, and it should include terms and phrases that are commonly searched in association with your topic/themes.

Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson and author of Mind Your Mindset: The Science That Shows Success Starts with Your Thinking, has come up with the acronym PINC (promise, intrigue, need, content) to help authors come up with a great title for their books:

Make a promise. Let readers know what they can expect from reading your book.

Create intrigue. Engage your readers so they will want to give your book a closer look.

Identify a need: Look out for any commonly shared problem and promise a solution.

State the content: State what your book is about in a straightforward manner.

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you can have a catchy, clever, intriguing title anchored by a descriptive/explanatory subtitle, just as the title of Michael Hyatt’s book shows. Other nonfiction title and subtitle examples include Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Donald Miller), Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (Clarissa Pinkola Estés), and Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell).

Here are other examples of titles that stand out:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

A Room Swept White (Sophie Hannah)

East of Eden (John Steinbeck)

The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger)

How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie)

Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)

Revisions: As Many as It Takes

“Revision is the heart of writing,” says award-winning young adult fiction author Patricia Reilly Giff. Many authors do more revisions than actual writing. They may revise their manuscript as many as three to five times—maybe even more than that.

Before revising your first draft, take a break between finishing the draft and starting your revisions. Take as long as six weeks, where you absolutely leave your draft alone and instead go and do something unrelated to your book.

The second draft is your first opportunity to quiet your doubts. Take note of everything that’s not working and revise accordingly. You may also start to notice the grammatical errors, missing punctuation, and the like. However, it’s best not to get distracted by these issues at this point.

Your priority should be to evaluate the overarching elements of writing: Does your text have a consistent tone, and does it help create the impact you intended? Which character needs further development or a more interesting or resonant arc? Are your themes fully explored? Which parts can you take out to tighten your narrative? How about the beginning and the end? Is the opening hook strong enough? Is the ending/conclusion logical, impactful, or out of left field (and perfect for the story)?

You can then revisit these points in your third draft, where you will determine whether that’s the final draft or a fourth draft is necessary.

Editing: That’s What Pros Are For

During the revision process, you can hire an editor. If you read the acknowledgment pages of most best-sellers, you’ll find mention of an editor. That’s because at some point during revisions, the smartest thing you can do is get someone whose main focus will be your sentences and paragraphs, your punctuation and spelling, and making sure that your overall manuscript is stylistically consistent, preferably adhering (for the most part), to a widely used style guide in the publishing industry, like The Chicago Manual of Style, The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, or The New Oxford Style Manual. Editing for publication is a step you shouldn’t miss.

Depending on a number of factors, some authors, may even hire an editor for more substantive editing earlier in the revision process.

Generally, the levels of book editing are as follows:

Substantive or content editing. This is ideal if your draft requires serious attention. Issues can include lack of overall coherence, problematic treatment of character dialogue, missing information and inaccuracies, believability problems, and the like.

Line editing. Line editing is best for manuscripts that need clarity and consistency at the sentence and paragraph level. The focus here are syntax, style consistency, coherence and grammatical accuracy.

Copyediting. This involves minor edits to fix isolated issues with sentence structure, word usage, narrative flow, and tone and style.

Proofreading. This is the most basic and doesn’t go beyond spelling, grammar, punctuation, and simple fact-checking and checking for consistency (e.g., names of characters throughout a story). Ideally, proofreading should be done only as the final check before your book moves on to layout and design.

Feedback: What Your Beta Readers Are Saying

After the second or third draft, it may be time to get some feedback. If you belong to a reading group or book club, even better. It’s no secret that after all the time you have spent writing and revising your manuscript, you are too close to see details that an impartial reader would spot.

So enlist the help of colleagues and friends and take note of how they relate to your book, which parts they love and which aspects failed to make an impact. Listen to every suggestion, even those that may sound crazy or impractical at first. You never know which one could help you arrive at a brilliant idea that will transform your manuscript into its best version yet.

Covers and Formatting: Marketability, Readability, and Accessibility by Design

Book design

Your book’s design will play a significant role in marketing your book and your readers’ reading experience, so unless you have experience with design, especially book design, it’s best to invest in the work of a professional.

The design work is divided into two: cover design and interior design.

Cover design involves front cover and back cover, as well as trim size, colors, and spine.

Front cover. You still can’t judge a book by its cover, but a book’s cover, together with your book’s title, nonetheless determines readers’ first impression. Remember two things in mind when it comes to book covers: Be unique and at the same time consistent with established design preferences within your genre.

Back cover. The common elements included in the back cover are book review excerpts, book description, author bio, and the barcode.

Colors. This includes font color, the overall color palette in the cover, including those in the image or artwork used.

Trim size. This is your printed book’s height and width. For most US books, the trim size is 6" x 9" (152.4 x 228.6 mm). Books of more than 6.12 inches (155.5 mm) or more than 9 inches (228.6 mm) in height are considered large trim sizes.

Spine. Book spines often contain the title, author’s name, and publisher logo. One of the most important things to consider here is how visible your book will be on the shelves, so your choices in color and font for your front cover should translate well to your book spine since these elements need to be consistent.

Do your research on cover design for books in your genre, taking note of what works and what doesn’t. Then communicate with your designer to make sure you don’t waste time choosing and discarding a huge number of elements. Remember, your book cover should make your book stand out—in all the right ways.

Interior design 

This aspect of book design is focused on creating a professionally published book. In typesetting (i.e., book formatting), rules—or established industry practices—for word breaks (hyphenation), widows (last words or short last lines of paragraphs falling at the top of a page or column), orphans (first lines of paragraphs set as last lines of a page or column), and various other elements within a book must be observed to ensure easy readability.

Layout and formatting

Proper formatting is a vital aspect of preparing your book for publication.

Here’s how layout and formatting benefits you:

Readability: It allows readers to easily navigate your book.

Professionalism: It shows that you are invested in the quality of your book, and this will help get readers, reviewers, and publishers to notice you.

Aesthetics: It adds to your book’s visual appeal.

Author identity / branding: It helps establish your own distinct style so that readers will easily recognize your books over time.

Consistency: It gives readers a cohesive reading experience.

Alignment with publishing standards: It helps you meet the technical requirements of various publishing platforms.

Accessibility: It makes your book inclusive of readers with disabilities.

Publication: Why Not Self-Publish Instead?

Self-publishing is steadily becoming the go-to option for many authors, especially first-timers.

Here are four reasons why:

Higher margins. You can earn more from your book sales because you trade publishers and literary agents are no longer part of the equation.

Guarantee of publication. Without literary agents or publishers, who can hinder the publication any book that they deem unworthy to be published, you are guaranteed an opportunity to publish your work and let the readers decide.

Author control. You have full control over the publishing process, and you own your work.

Access to quality resources. You have access to innovations in publishing technology—from book design to printing to distribution—that are available to authors who are published by traditional publishers.

As a self-published author, you will have plenty of options when it comes to publishing services, marketing tools and strategies, distribution channels, fanbase/community building, and so on.

The journey from manuscript to published masterpiece will have its ups and downs. You can get frustrated, but you can’t get defeated. Not by writer’s block, personal setback, financial concerns, etc. You owe it to yourself to finish what you’ve started. You owe it to your readers to give them a book that could have an impact on their lives. So get on with it.

Become a Self-Published Author in 3 Simple Steps

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Become a Self-Published Author in 3 Simple Steps
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