An Editing Checklist

Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character
or advance the action.
    - Kurt Vonnegut

Yesterday I started re-editing my novel after putting it away for six months. It was good to put it aside to gain “distance” from it, but the real benefit was what I learned from all the projects I did in the interim, especially EPIC FANTASY 0.9b. Lack of confidence can be a big problem for new writers; we revise and revise, but always wonder if the changes we’ve made are actually making our stories worse instead of better, sometimes even to the point of going around in circles. But compared to six months ago, I feel much more capable of looking at my own writing and deciding on absolute terms whether it’s where I want it to be, and if not, what it will take to get there. It feels great to bring that knowledge to bear on improving this novel, because I’ve found that even after all this time, I still love its characters and plot just as much as I did when I was writing them. I’m excited to make it as perfect as it possibly can be so that I can share it with others.

In that spirit, the following is my personal editing checklist, which I compiled over the past six months from various sources (mainly craft books, corrections from professional editors and my own experiences). Of course, my list may not fit you perfectly; everyone has their own peculiar set of problems to deal with. But I’ve tried to make it general and included some common issues that I don’t personally struggle with that often. In any case, hopefully someone out there will find it useful.

  • First of all, before you start a major revision, take a few days to do some macro-editing:
    • Think about the theme and plot of your novel and how they may have drifted from what you originally intended. Odds are, your characters taught you some things about themselves as you went along, and you prefer the “new” versions of them to the ones you originally started with. In this case, you need to go back to the beginning and change it to “match” the end. Add notes in any scene where a character is present to remind yourself later. The same goes for underlying themes, or plot threads which seemed promising in the beginning but eventually led nowhere.
    • Think about the central “question” of the novel, and how it changed from what you originally envisioned. Ideally, your reader becomes aware of the question on the first page (or the first chapter), and the novel ends when the question is resolved. If you have any cruft before or after, trim them now before you start micro-editing.
  • I’m far from the first person to suggest this, but when doing a major revision, I like to open a fresh Word document (or Scrivener or whatever), and re-type the entire novel from scratch. No copying and pasting allowed. It takes longer, but it also means you won’t be able to “cheat” and let your eyes skip past anything. Every word will need to be weighed and considered if it’s going to make it into your final draft. Incidentally, the Windows 7 “snap” window-tiling feature is great for this.
  • Start by looking at each paragraph as a whole. For paragraphs without dialogue:
    • Firstly, look at the “Vonnegut Rule” quoted at the top of this post. Actually, he had eight rules, but that one just happens to be most applicable to the process at hand. But despite the way it’s phrased in terms of sentences, the Vonnegut Rule can be applied to entire paragraphs as well. Before you start editing a paragraph, ask yourself, “does anything in this paragraph contribute to my characters or plot?” If not, cut it. Make sure you delete the entire thing before you waste time trying to make it better.
    • Check the length of the paragraph. If it’s more than a third of a page, ask yourself if there’s a good reason for that. Maybe some sentences can be cut, or maybe it needs to be split in the middle. It’s not that longer paragraphs are necessarily a problem, but you should be suspicious once they get over a certain length. Also, that “target” length becomes shorter during an action scene or any time you want to build tension.
    • Even if your paragraph isn’t too long, go through each sentence individually and apply the Vonnegut rule. Cut, cut, cut, before you waste time trying to edit them. It’s important to remember that Vonnegut’s “ninth” rule was that all of the rules can sometimes be broken. In a novel-length work, you have some leeway to meander and indulge yourself in digression, once the story is already underway. But if a sentence is convoluted and will require work to fix, then it’s not worth saving unless it moves the story forward.
    • Repetition: Is this sentence saying the same thing as the one before it, just in a slightly different way? Cut. Are you repeating some revelation or character trait that you already went over earlier in the novel? Cut.
    • Adverbs: Cut ’em. All of them. OK fine, maybe leave in 3% of them. But make sure you feel guilty about it.
    • Adjectives: Cut down to bare minimum. There’s no absolute standard for what this means, but if you’re wondering whether or not you need it, you probably don’t.
    • Any other “extra” words: Watch out for little words and phrases that seem to accumulate on sentences like bugs on a windshield. “And so,” “just then,” etc.
    • Passive voice: Always cut.
    • Any other use of “to be“: Consider substituting a stronger verb unless you have a good reason not to.
    • Overuse of “as” or participle phrases: For some reason, writers love to describe people doing two things at once, either by saying “Rolling down the hill, he clutched the locket tightly,” or “He clutched the locket tightly as he rolled down the hill.” Too much of this is tiresome. Save it for places where you really need it.
    • Poetic phrases and “ten dollar words”: Cut.
    • Clichés: Cut.
    • Exclamation points: No.
    • Showing vs. Telling: Too much has been said about this, but here goes: Focus on writing scenes. Telling can be good if it delivers the reader past the boring parts quickly, but don’t interrupt a scene in progress to tell them things. Resist the urge to tell a reader what to think about something. Let them draw their own conclusions. If you don’t think they’re going to draw the right one, improve your dialogue or descriptions.
    • Long sentences: Get suspicious when a sentence contains more than two commas. Sometimes long sentences flow well, are easy to follow and improve the text. Often not.
    • Generic phrases: Be on the look out for “generic” words that can be made less boring. For example: “a group of birds flew overhead” -> “a flock of sparrows flew overhead.” Similarly for verbs: “the knife slid through his skin” -> “the knife punctured his skin.”
    • Convoluted sentences: “Much to his dismay, while that was happening, someone was running toward him: it was Martha.” For every sentence, identify the subject, verb and (if applicable) object. Consider moving them to the beginning of the sentence in that order and cutting the rest. “Martha ran toward him.”
  • For dialogue:
    • Vonnegut rule applies here too, although not in the exact same way. Just because your characters want to babble on about irrelevant topics or repeat themselves, doesn’t mean the audience wants to read about it. Be tasteful.
    • Long speeches/The John Galt Rule: If a character is giving a long monologue, there better be a good reason, not to mention the content needs to be something the reader is interested in. Back and forth conversations are good.
    • Showing and telling again: Theoretically, you have more leeway to tell the reader things in dialogue than you would otherwise. But remember: characters shouldn’t always say exactly what’s on their mind. People can be emotional or oblique. Don’t have a character explain something that another character already knows for the benefit of the reader.
    • Extra words or phrases: Can add flavor up to a point, but no one wants to read endless amounts of “uhm,” “ah,” “you know,” “well,” “so,” etc. Tighten things up.
    • Inappropriate vocabulary/speech rhythms: Your country bumpkin character shouldn’t use a word like “synthesize.” Make sure each character’s dialogue reflects their personality and background.
    • Literal accents: Freakin’ apostrophies’s an’ stoopid alt’nit spellinz iz diff’cult to read. Keep accents subtle. Simple choices of words and speech patterns go a long way.
    • Dialogue tags:
      • Almost always use “said.” “Yelled,” “asked,” or “whispered,” etc. are OK, but don’t overdo it.
      • Don’t switch back and forth between “Martha said” and “said Martha.” “Said Matha” is more archaic, which fits better in some genres (fantasy, historical fiction) but sounds awkward in others.
      • Unnecessary/excessive tagging. If two people are speaking, its often better just to let the conversation flow naturally than to interrupt constantly with tags.
      • Punctuation: fix your commas and periods. Don’t capitalize the tag after a question mark or exclamation point (unless it’s a proper noun, of course).
    • Beats (actions):
      • Watch out for beats that interrupt the flow of a conversation or release desired tension. A character in the midst of a heated argument is unlikely to pause to slowly sip a cup of coffee.
      • Generic actions: Don’t tell us about characters doing boring/everyday things between their dialogue, e.g. scratching themselves, crossing their legs, shuffling papers, etc. Use interesting beats that reveal something about the character.
    • Ellipses (…) are for long pauses or trailing off. Em-dashes (—) are for parenthetical statements or abruptly being cut off. They can also sometimes behave similarly to a comma or semi-colon. Don’t use hyphens for dashes. Consider using an interstitial dialogue tag to create a pause instead of an ellipsis.
  • Last but not least: Read everything out loud. Act out the dialogue (make sure no one is surreptitiously recording you). If it sounds odd, consider cutting it (Vonnegut rule), simplifying (subject-verb-object), or tightening (cut dialogue down to bare minimum).

Have anything to add? Comment!

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One thought on “An Editing Checklist

  1. This is very thorough. I like to imagine the reader actually reading my writing while I edit. It’s a little trick that helps me get over myself and see what’s too long or too convoluted or unclear.

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