It’s worth emphasizing that manuscript mechanics are placed last on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist because, though they’re the things our critique partners often spend the most time on, they’re the least important element of fiction. If you get everything else right, a copyeditor can fix the mechanics. But if anything else is wrong, the acquisition editor isn’t going to buy your manuscript to assign it to a copyeditor. And although Amazon reviewers can be brutal when they find typos in a self-published book, they will be far more brutal if your characters lack motivation or there are giant holes in your plot.
Which isn’t to say mastering mechanics isn’t important; only that these items can be outsourced if need be. Focus on character and plot and voice first; if you have those, someone else can help you with mechanics.
“In some cases (such as punctuation or spelling) your best strategy may be to outsource to somebody who’s good at it. I’ve met very good writers who just couldn’t spell or just couldn’t master the comma. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t try to be. Far better to spend your valuable time learning to be the best you can be on your strong points.”—Randy Ingermanson, “The Snowflake Guy,” on his Advanced Fiction Writing Blog
For years I focused on mechanics, and that set me up for a great career as a copyeditor. It did not make me a better novelist. I spent several more years working with a book doctor, a mentor, and a critique group before my manuscript was in salable condition.
Mechanics encompasses all the niggling details in the manuscript: grammar, punctuation, format, and the like. The reason these are left to last is that any editing of the other elements would also require re-editing the mechanics. It doesn’t help that the dialog is spelled correctly if you wind up rewriting it all.
However, having worked through all the other Elements of Fiction, when you’re down to your last editing pass (or two), mechanics become very important. That’s because all other things being equal—Character, Plot, Dialog, and all the rest—a manuscript that’s rife with errors or in the wrong format is more likely to be rejected than one that’s not. You don’t want your manuscript to be the one-legged Tarzan.
So get both your manuscript’s legs under it by paying close attention to the mechanics before submitting, whether you’re submitting to a traditional publisher or to Kindle for publication. It’s a good idea to make a copyediting pass for punctuation, usage, grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and formatting, and then a final proofreading pass to catch anything you may have missed during the first pass.
Next, we’ll look at each of the mechanical elements in turn.