Revising and Self-Editing: My Personal Checklist
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
Get some snacks, guys. It's another long one.
Quite a while ago I asked for ideas for blog posts on my Instagram. And I got some really excellent suggestions, which made picking one to do first all the harder! But it's Camp NaNo time, and right now I'm in the middle of prepping Tellus for publication . . . Which means that I'm doing a lot of revising, a lot of editing, and I know I'm not the only one.
Now, I love revising. It's my absolute favorite part of the writing process, aside from the daydreaming and story/world/character building.
On the flip side, if you're anything like me, the tedious line edits (and copy edits) are the worst. I become a cranky scrooge when I'm picking apart the technical side of language, and I actually usually tell my hubs to just throw food at me and run because it's so bad. xD Now, part of the stress is that I'm doubting myself, my work, and my ability to improve all of it. The other part is feeling like I don't really know what I'm doing when it comes to the complex, ever-evolving beast that is the English language.
I'm no expert. In fact, quite the opposite, and I would have to dedicate far more hours than I even have to studying the newest editions of the Chicago Manual of Style to keep up. I'm definitely still learning the grammatical nuances of fiction editing. And I constantly miss things. But I've taken pretty decent notes on things to nitpick and look for, so that moving forward I can try to do better. So I'm going to share my notes with you! :D If I've ever beta read for you, you've probably already seen the shorthand but well. Here we go. Little things I've picked up from my own editors or personal research. I hope they help! And erm. This is definitely a long one, guys. Sorryyyy.
**Quick note: This is only meant to help you polish up your manuscript a bit on your own, before agent submissions or your professional editor, depending on your publication path. Also, some "rules" can be broken in fiction editing. Definitely get a professional's opinion, but also keep in mind some things are flexible in regard to your personal style. :3 And take everything with a grain of salt! Just because I do something, or don't do something, doesn't mean you have to. There is no "right" way to do your thing. :D
I write in layers, kind of like I'm baking a cake.
I didn't always—in fact, Imber was eight drafts in before I felt comfortable publishing her, and I still revised her at least three more times after that. xD But I quickly realized that the way I was doing things was NOT working for me.
The first thing I did when I wanted to improve my writing process? I stopped editing as I write. Honestly, that's purely writer preference, but I spent several months on one chapter of Imber because I couldn't seem to leave it alone. I tweaked and poked, prodded and adjusted . . . And honestly? I ended up completely revising it all later. So now, I don't even let myself read over previous words while I'm drafting. Step one, complete.
Step two was learning more about my process. I learned a lot about how I write co-authoring GCS, but more still while revising Tellus. My schedule for the latter looks something like this:
• First draft — the skeleton, the framework, the A-to-B-to-C.
• First revisions — filling out the world, adding details, fleshing out short-handed scenes, and turning the placeholders into actual scenes. Looking for inconsistencies and repetitions.
• Second revisions — applying beta feedback, more polishing, more fleshing out. Adding detail. Adding emotion. Fixing any remaining inconsistencies. Killing chop words. General polishing.
• Third revision — applying second round beta feedback, final polishing, tweaking. Last consistency checks.
• Off to the editor! Then line edits!
• Copy edits.
• Proofreading; myself and one or two other people.
• Apply any changes. Done.
Why do I mention this? Because I have a ton of editing notes for you guys and much fewer when it comes to revisions in general. What I can suggest? Find what works for you. When I was writing Imber, I spent so much time nit-picking one specific thing that I lost focus on everything else I could be working on. So I'd add more description, but the emotions would fall flat. And on. When I took my time, and focused on the bigger picture, my revision process got much better. As for other stuff . . .
• Don't be afraid to take notes.
Keep a notebook next to you, or open a notes app on your phone, and poke in those stray things that need fixed. Figure out a plot-hole in chapter twenty while you're in chapter five? Jot it down. I use google docs (which allows you to leave notes as you go) and I still find this method much easier, and faster, than scrolling around looking for those big picture things. (at least while revising)
• Cut filler scenes and characters.
This is the time when you look for those scenes that don't advance your plot or character relationships, as well as unnecessary characters in general. Are they contributing? No? They've gotta go. I know for an underwriter like me it can be really intimidating to cut a huge scene, or even a whole chapter, but you'll make up that word count elsewhere.
Look for goal, motivation, and conflict; if they're absent, and can't be added, it's probably filler.
Also, some filler characters can be necessary—passersby with vague interactions in a city, etc. (Don't build your world for your character, build your world and add your character) But a reoccurring character with no purpose should probably go.
• The best revision advice I ever read?
Rewrite your entire manuscript. Word for word. At least once, I would suggest at least twice. When you edit line-to-line, you'll catch a ton of issues. But, for me anyway, I found a lot more when I was retyping each and every word. I noticed repetitions and plot holes that I never caught working in the lines. Awkward phrasing and dialogue stood out to me more.
Again, this might not work for you. But, give it a shot! It literally changed my writing life. I fully rewrite my manuscript every time I do a revision pass, and it's definitely worth the extra effort.
Alright . . . let's get into the editing bits.
I beta read a lot. Usually enough that if I'm not actively working on my own projects, I'm reading someone else's. Courtesy of this, I've learned a lot about some of the issues with technical editing and formatting that seem to trip writers up regularly—and I'm going to try and hit all the ones I can remember. Things like dialogue punctuation and chop words. The use of adverbs and the abuse of adverbs. Punctuation, especially in regards to dashes, colons, and semi-colons.
But before I get into any of the nitty-gritty, I have some basic rules for you. This list sits next to my computer at all times while I'm editing and revising, as well as index cards filled with my over-used words and phrases, lists of chop-words, and general habits I have when writing that need to be polished out. Some of this stuff may seem simple—or even maybe a bit excessive—but I can't even begin to tell you how much more polished my manuscripts sound after I go through all of these editing steps.
Things to keep in mind . . .
Some of these you may have heard before, several on repeat. There's exceptions to all of them, especially in regards to style, but let's dig in.
• Active > Passive
I know you've all heard this. Kill the passive voice! But here's the thing, even passive voice has its place in writing. Without it, you'd have to slog through pages of a character describing their every action, instead of having that brief passive paragraph that sums up that lengthy stroll through the gardens. But, as with anything, it can be overused and it can definitely slide into present-tense scenarios. Sliding into passive voice is definitely one of my biggest struggles as someone whose current WIPs are both first person.
When you're picking apart your manuscript, check for usage of the word "was". Often, it's a quick way to spot your passive voice so you can decide if it's appropriate or not. :D Often, it's as easy to fix as moving the pronoun around.
• Don't be vague -> use "a number" versus "a crowd".
• Beware repetition.
The general rules I tend to follow are:
—Don't start two "stacked" paragraphs with the same word.
—Don't start a chapter with the same word as the one previous.
—Vary your sentence starters; same as above, if it's one after another don't use the same word. This one I break on occasion, but most of the time you can find another way to phrase it, and the sentence variety makes a huge difference.
—If you've used a word within the same paragraph try to add variety, unless the word is being reused to emphasize a point.
Don't assume your readers are stupid, don't break everything down into super laymen terms. The more wiggle room you give them, the more of their own imagination they can put into the story. BUT. Make sure that when you're making a point, it's clear. When you're building your world, make sure your beta readers understand the major, important components. Plot points should maybe hold some mystery, but they themselves shouldn't be impossible to find.
And please don't reach for that thesaurus too quickly. As much as big, eloquent words sound fun and ritzy, if you had to look it up to know the meaning, more than likely so will your reader. That's a super quick way to break a reader's focus and immersion. Sometimes less is more. :D
• Show with dialogue whenever you can.
Self explanatory right? But even I'm guilty of passing over a scene that could be filled with dialogue and simply explaining what was said instead.
• Beware word redundancies.
I'm an "eye" gal, did you know? Yes, I mean in real life, but I also mean in my writing. There are eyes for DAYS. It's one of the words I have to most edit out in later drafts, along with whatever word caught my eye ( ;) ) for that project. For Imber, it was "traced". For DtD I want to say it was "flicked". I latch onto words, actions, and phrases and I repeat them over, and over, and over. Don't be me, guys. Find your crutch words. Cut them wayyyy down.
--A tip for this; while reading other books, write down things you like. It could be a way of describing a facial expression, or an emotion, or a dialogue tag. Write them all down. And when you're editing, refer to the list either as a guideline, or a reference.
• New subject? New paragraph.
• Beware chunk description.
Have you ever opened a book and it's just a wall of text? Yeah, no bueno. I don't know a single reader, myself included, who enjoys sitting through a solid page of nothing but description. So break it up! Scatter it throughout. Don't list your character's features. Sprinkle them in. As long as you give readers the foundation of a character's appearance within, say, two pages, they'll get the idea and won't be frustrated waiting to get a clear picture. This also leads to the next item:
• Create more "white space".
Seriously though. When you look at a page with no dialogue, the big paragraphs seem intimidating to our brains. But when there's dialogue, the pages are broken up with bare gaps of white page space. And somehow, it feels less intimidating. I also find that, especially in first person where monologue happens sometimes, "single-line paragraphs" can be super effective in not only creating white space but also punch. Same for single-word sentences.
• Flip sentences where possible.
Sometimes varying up your sentences is as easy as flipping sentences that start with pronouns. This also helps avoid having paragraph's of sentences starting with "I, me, he, she" etc.
Show, don't tell.
I know. You've heard this at least a million times. It's the one piece of advice you'll get over and over again, solicited or not. I definitely think this is a style preference to each author, and I also think each has their place. The rule I like most, purely by personal preference, is "show emotion, tell feeling", that I actually saw on Pinterest:
But, more specifically . . .
Poses, expressions, etc! Instead of saying "he looked angry" say "his brows pulled together, a muscle flicking in his jaw". Instead of "he stood to the side" say "he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the door frame".
Build that picture. Sparing a single sentence to explain what a character is doing can be super helpful when you're juggling big scenes. Now, I'm guilty of telling too. But we can all work to improve it! :D
• Add emotion.
I'm an emotional reader—if I'm not connecting to the characters, or I'm being told to care about them, I probably won't. Show me why the death of their sister destroyed them. Build their memories, their story. Make your readers feel the loss, not just your characters.
• Emulate the feelings.
Instead of giving me long, flowing sentences explaining the panic, make the sentences feel like your characters is telling the story while panicked. (this is particularly effective for first person and present tense) Clip the sentences. Only use longer ones when your character "catches their breath".
This is the same for combat. Imagine your character is trying to tell this story while in battle. Combat is short. Fast. Most fights last minutes at longest. Your character isn't going to have time to give you elegant prose about the sweep of their sword. They're going to tell you their blade met steel. That crimson splattered across their armor, or that their limbs shook in fear as their foe pressed an advantage and got the upper hand.
Make the very structure of your words tell part of your story.
• Every action has a consequence.
I know, we're all familiar with the character releasing a breath they didn't know they were holding. Have you ever held your breath for any lengthy amount of time? That action doesn't come without consequence. Sure it could be minor—head spinning a bit, chest tight and achy. Or it could be more severe—like a full blackout. Your character is going to notice, and adding those small details add so much to your story. And, done right, can really make your reader feel the scene instead of simply reading it.
Alright. Let's get into the less fun stuff. (to me xD )
I'm going to do a couple different sections for this. General stuff, adverbs, dialogue /punctuation, and general punctuation. This is the stuff I struggle the hardest with, and I'm going to send you guys to some great resources too. Keep in mind that all of this changes, it can be subjective based off your editor, and if you want to be the most up-to-date I highly encourage you to check out The Chicago Manual of Style.
• General Goodies •
So a lot of these are things my editor has told me to look out for. Things that can flag a manuscript as amateur, or that can really effect the flow of your writing. As always, take it in with a grain of salt, but maybe they'll help. :D
I've seen ellipses formatted as "words..." "words ... " "words ..." and it honestly seems like most people are absolutely confused about how to use them. I certainly was, and still to this day I struggle to break my old habit of bunching them together. But according to TCMoS the correct formatting is a space before, after, and in between each dot. "words . . . more words"
Naturally when I was told to change this habit (that I'd had instilled for ages) I was hesitant, but I pulled open my nearest book and sure enough, there they were—those triple spaced ellipses. (and if you look toward the bottom I made sure to find a page with dialogue ellipses xD )
So there's that. xD -Quick note: This is also probably a good place to mention, if you're not sure, grab a big name book, published in the last year, and see if you can spot the answer to your question quickly. Their editors keep up to date and have the resources and time to do so. Even if you're going to traditionally publish it's always good to learn how to clean up your manuscript as much as you can yourself.
• Telling Phrases
A quick way to spot if you're telling is if you're using certain phrases. "I felt", "I watched", "I hated", "He felt", "She saw", "There was". Nix them as often as humanly possible. These are usually pretty easy to clean up, and you can just use your search function to seek them out.
• Chop Words
There are so many words that editors consider filler words, and I have a list for you guys. :D You don't have to eliminate these from your manuscript entirely, nothing so dramatic, (and trust me, I get really chop happy with a couple of these xD) but more often than not you'll find that these words can easily be replaced, if not entirely chopped. (I find that "just", for instance, can be deleted 9 times out of 10) Some of the words also fall into that vague, or non-specific, area that can detract from the fleshy goodness of your story. (I'm super nitpicky about the word "it"--If I can get cut "it" I will ;) I have been known to go overboard on that one though xD )
--Look for words like: some, just, very, they, them, their, it, those, something, somehow, somewhere, gone, gotten
• Who or that?
Another struggle for me—I like to swap these two. Easy peesy though: people are who/whom and things/places are that. :D
• Typographical Emphasis
In my trilogy, Nat refers to her mother as Mother. It's my way of differentiating that I'm specifically talking about her mother, so it's capitalized. When you're editing, make sure that any words you stylize—with caps, italics, bold, etc.—stay consistent. If you stylized it once, make sure it's the same all the way throughout.
• Adverbs •
Some writers love them, some writers hate them. I think just about everything is good in moderation, but unique writing styles are set apart by those rules the writer chooses to break.
So! First and foremost, I've heard a lot of "cut -ly words" in writing and editing advice. This isn't necessarily true. Not all -ly words are adverbs!
When I'm editing I tend to highlight ALL -ly words for my own sanity, but search finds them indiscriminately. Then, I go through them case-by-case to delete, leave, or change.
I think the biggest reason adverbs are hated is because they're "telling language", and sometimes considered lazy writing. But as I said before, telling can aid the pacing of the scene. Just make sure you're really evaluating each one. An adverb might be the strongest choice for that situation.
But, there are good and bad adverbs. How do you know the difference? Well, part of that is style choice.
I found this post the other day when I was seeking advice on dealing with my own adverb-addiction ;) And actually, it's really solid advice. If it's contributing to the sentence, keep it! If it's just reiterating an existing word or phrase, nix it.
Adverbs aren't all bad. I know that writerly opinions on this go back and forth, but I truly think that everything can be good in moderation.
Plus, adverbs can help with those pesky "very" phrases. "Very fast" could be "quickly", for instance, which can tighten up your writing. :3
• Dialogue •
Alright. THIS. Dialogue formatting was my number one struggle as a writer with my first book, and I've noticed more and more that I'm not the only one. Which is a relief! And means maybe I'm not the only one who needs help. Even still, I refer to several different pages and graphics while writing and editing, and I'm going to share all the things with you guys! :D
• Dialogue Tags
It is SO easy to get caught up in fancy dialogue tags. Now, I know a lot of writers say not to use them, or to use them super sparingly. Personally, like adverbs, I think they're a great tool for quickly portraying a tone. But consider the fact that most readers will zip right past "said". When you're reading, you don't get hung up if you see "said", you unconsciously process it and move on. Blending actions (or emotions, or expressions) with "said" can be a great way to vary your dialogue—and still leave you space for dialogue tags when you need them.
So, when you're editing, look for tags that you repeat too often. Look for spots that you could flesh out, showing instead of using a tag. Keep an eye out for areas where you're using "said" a lot.
Honestly, I'm the worst at this. I'm always mixing up comma's and periods, or separating dialogue from actions. But dialogue formatting is really important to the clarity of your scenes, and punctuation can make the difference between a character "screaming and then speaking" or "screaming the line they're speaking".
Now, I use this site as a reference and since it covers just about everything, I'm just going to send you there: Dialogue Punctuation.
But, this quick reference actually covers most of it without you having to read another article. Because honestly, this is the thing I can help you all the least with, but I still want you to have the resources to manage it yourself. :3
• General Punctuation •
Alright guys, home stretch. A few quick notes on punctuation that I see frequent questions about, and we're done! :D (The examples I'm using are from the dialogue chart on the right. Click to see the full thing, cause I won't cover all of it :D )
• Exclamation points
There's some indecision in the writing community about whether or not exclamation points should even be used in fiction writing. A lot of people consider them lazy, a scapegoat for showing the emotion a better way. Alternately, many consider them an excellent way to showcase heightened emotion. Personally, I avoid them at all costs, because I don't like them. BUT. That doesn't mean I don't still use them, or that I think they're lazy. I think they have their place, but I will try to find ways around them if possible. Using them is totally a style choice, and personally, if you enjoy them, do your thing. :D Just note, some editors may say to chop them.
• Semicolons and Colons
These two get misused a lot, and I'm super guilty of it. xD
; - connects independent clauses
-- John was hurt; he knew she only said it to upset him.
: - 1. after a word introducing a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series.
2. after the salutation of a business letter
3. to separate hours/minutes/seconds in numerical time
Hyphen (-) a short dash between the parts of a compound word or name or between syllables.
-- Mrs. Smith-Reynolds
Endash (-) used to connect numbers or to connect elements of a compound adjective
-- Princeton–New York trains
Emdash (—) twice as long as the endash, has more complicated grammatical use.
1. Indicates a break in thought or sentence structure.
2. Introduce a phrase added for emphasis, definition, or explanation.
3. Separate two clauses.
-- We only wanted to get two birds—but the clerk talked us into four pregnant parakeets.
• This post, a screenshot collection from a Twitter thread. The OP is an editor, and she lists some of the common mistakes she sees in manuscripts sent in on submission.
• My Writing Pinterest Board. This is an ever-growing pin board of writing stuff, and I've organized hundreds of pins on every topic imaginable. I even have an entire section related just to replacer words. :D (Instead of . . .) (Worldbuilding has a board all its own, and I have a separate blog post on that here.)
Alright, guys, we're done. I'm sorry.
I'm not sorry. :P
Here's the thing . . .
Yes, this is really the checklist I use to edit my own work. Yes, these are the things I check before I send my manuscript to my editor. But I didn't do this for Imber, and I learned a hard lesson. Don't be me!
My editor told me recently that I have one of the cleanest manuscripts she's dealt with. (In reference to Imber) Even with all the many flaws I had. You want your manuscript to sparkle. I want our manuscripts to sparkle. If you're indie, so much more falls on you. If you're trad, you want potential agents to see the work you're willing to put in.
But no matter how you publish, you can't expect anyone to care about your work as much as you. Learning how to self-edit is an invaluable skill, one that's worth investing your time and energy into. Even the best editors in the world miss things. Invest in yourself.
Your name is going to go on this.
This is your dream, right?
You gotta work for it.
You gotta fight for it.