Green-light editing: What makes publication-quality text?


Publication-quality text is what agents, editors, and readers are looking for — and they can tell whether you have it in the first paragraph, or even the first sentence.

If you edit enough manuscripts, you quickly get a notion of what feels like “publication-quality” text. The language has a delicious feel. It’s polished and of high quality. It’s a pleasure to place trust in the author and suspend disbelief. It rates on par with text you’d see in a bookstore, magazine, or newspaper.

Publication-quality text is what agents, editors, and readers are looking for — and they can tell whether you have it in the first paragraph, or even the first sentence.

But what is it exactly? What makes some written work seem publication ready and others not?

Ready for the press

When something is ready for the press, it can be felt in the bones, but can it be described? Can you learn the rules for writing publication-quality text?

The best way to get a sense of publication-quality text is to read a lot of draft material alongside published text you really admire. Then the gap grows easier to discern.

As you continue to look critically at a range of writing, identifiable reasons will emerge. These can include the presence of a strong voice, the way in which vocabulary is used, the use of concrete nouns and strong verbs, and a host of other attributes that are either there or are obviously missing.

“Green-lighting” text

One interesting way to learn what makes text press-ready is to green-light edit. In this process, use a pen or work on a computer to highlight all publication-quality text in green. The color is arbitrary, but green has the connotation of “Go!”

Look at what proportion of the text is green-lighted. Now, look at what’s left. How do the two relate? Can you find patterns distinguishing the green text from the plain text? What’s missing that the green-lighted text has?

While it’s difficult to identify all the reasons why a manuscript is subpar, the best type of text to use in comparison is something that’s already published and appeals to you as well-written. Once marked up, most of this text will be green, so you’ll have a strong benchmark to work against.

Scanning the un-highlighted bits of text in your own work reveals what is left to do. In these places, the spell was broken. The question now is, “Why?”

Many such passages can be dropped without impacting the text — deletion just makes the piece tighter and easier to read.

In other cases, the text is too terse or confusing and needs detail or clarification. Often, subpar text, if important, hasn’t been sufficiently imagined. It’s incomplete, especially in comparison to the rest of the text.

Often such substandard text is shorthand or a note to the author and needs to be expanded. Perhaps it’s an abstraction of what should be made concrete, a broad brushstroke of an idea — a bird that still needs feathers to fly.

Sometimes, the substance is off — perhaps an inconsistency of logic is introduced, or an anachronism, or a character acts out of character. Some such passages are “tells” that need to be “shows.”

Sometimes, the construction is fine, it just doesn’t match the rest of the narrative in a unified way. If text jars for any negative reason, it causes disunity and must be re-examined.

Going green

Interpreting this green-light map of any draft text can be a terrific learning experience.

Ideally, you should ask multiple people to green-light edit your work — including a knowledgeable editor. As a writer, you can review your own text, but what you consider publication-quality text might not align with an editor’s expectations.

Often, patterns will emerge from the process of green-lighting that inform both editor and writer, alike.

Every writer has a quiver full of strengths, as well as his/her unique weaknesses, which means our work can fall short of “press-ready” style in predictable ways. Pushing the totality of text over the threshold into publication quality should always be the goal.

The bigger trick is getting to publication quality from the start. It’s not an easy task and the ability to do so is often what separates experienced from inexperienced writers and spotlights those with natural talent.

Publication-quality text is about great substance. The reader focuses on the content, not the mechanics of the language.

Once you regularly reach green-light quality at the sentence level, you can focus on storytelling, with all its plot twists, high emotion, and multi-dimensional characters.

Your path to self-publishing


  1. Editors seem to want it both ways. A difficult mss is rejected. When that is what they are there for! But apparently not. When the story is good I mean. Conversely any well written mss arrives and what happens? It is sanitized. Under all the pretenses the article highlights. Editors-at the behest of convinced publishers then homogenize the mss to the point of an anodyne lack of individuality. Because editing is subjective. They behave as if they are the superior didactic types from a third year comprehension exercise.
    I know because I used to be a publisher on the internet. {no longer extant}. All the mss’s coming to my attention had nothing wrong with them. My motto was: if it is readable it is publishable. Now agents try to ‘read’ what publishers ‘claim’ the pubic ‘wants’. This is idiotic. Because I am also a retired sociologist. The public wants great books. Not ideologically tarnished mangled writing that satisfies social media influencers at one end and the autodidact who unable to write destroys what they insist they know -grammatically- to be better. Content has evaporated for superficiality. As long as the expected window dressing is correct. Be it author, subject, content or better a lack of anything original thereof. Someone might get offended. Object to originality, creativity and even best dangerous ideas. Which of course are deemed too offensive so that they are deemed subversive. ‘Welcome to the self police parade. Welcome to the neo golden age.’ -Hawkwind -Space Ritual.


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