My Entire Editing Process In One Checklist

August 25, 2015

Editing can be overwhelming. There are plot holes, undeveloped characters, stilted lines of dialog, grammar slips, and a host of so many other annoying things to worry about that it’s easy to stare at a draft and say, “Where do I even begin?”

clipart image of man drawing on giant checklist


I faced the same problem until one of my professors suggested integrating checklists into the editing process. Why had I never thought of that before?! No more juggling fifty knives at once! No more awkward workshop moments where I say, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to change that.” And more importantly, no more fear over whether I’ve done everything I could for a manuscript.

I’m a believer in the power of lists. While every writer has a different process, I thought I would share what I do in the hope that I might inspire someone. My editing checklist is constantly evolving, but here’s what it looks like right now (I must warn you, it’s ugly; I couldn’t fix the spacing in the transition from Word, so I had to get creative):

I. Let the manuscript cool

II. Read through the entire piece without touching it

III. Structure

A. Theme

1. What is this piece about?

2. What’s at stake? Why does this piece desire the reader?

3. Does everything tie together at the end?

B. Plot

1. Map the plot; consider five major plot points as road signs

a. Setup

i. Are all main characters present?

ii. Make sure you introduce the problem

b. Conflict

i. Inciting incident

ii. Character arc

iii. What’s at stake?

c. Resolution

i. Problem boils over into climax

ii. Denouement

2. Map subplots

3. Patch holes

4. Remove excess

C. Character

1. Highlight character names

a. Does a character disappear anywhere? Is he/she supposed to?

2. Catalog traits and background information

a. What are the characters’ motivations?

b. If you are a character (such as in memoir), make sure to catalog yourself

c. Sprinkle information throughout the manuscript

D. Imagery and Setting

1. Consider the mood of the scene

2. Consider details unique to time and location

3. Put the reader in the moment

a. Sight

b. Sound

c. Touch

d. Smell

e. Taste

f. Movement

4. Play “hide and seek” to unpack more details; repeat step 3 as appropriate

E. Dialogue

1. Does it sound real? Does it flow naturally?

2. Do the characters sound different from each other?

3. Do any lines make you cringe? If so, are they supposed to?

IV. Sentence level

A. Order sentences within the paragraph; order paragraphs within the page

B. Check point of view and tense

C. Check passive voice

D. Check filter words (saw, heard, seemed, etc.)

E. Where is the action in the sentence? Make sure it’s in a verb and not a noun

1. Replace “to be” verbs and adverbs with active verbs wherever appropriate

F. Evaluate necessity of adjectives

1. Check noun-adjective pairings for redundancy

G. Formatting (spacing, ellipses, italics, etc.)

H. Read out loud for sound and rhythm. Repeat steps A through H as necessary

V. Let the manuscript cool

VI. Read through the entire piece without touching it

VII. Repeat steps III through VII as necessary

I’ll devote an entire draft to a single list item, such as plot and theme, while I may tackle other items, like imagery, in the same draft as, say, dialogue. Note that I’ve left sentence-level editing until the end. When I’m reviewing early drafts of my own work or someone else’s, I have to fight the urge to critique things like grammar and sentence structure. I wouldn’t paint my kitchen wall if I was demolishing it to remodel. The same principle applies to editing: I don’t want to put the effort into polishing individual lines–my own or my critique partners’–when those lines may not even make it into the next draft. But after I’ve got those nice new cabinets, granite counter tops, and the shiny kitchen sink, a little bit of spot cleaning will make the project sparkle.

With some exceptions, step VI is when I’ll finally show a piece to my writing groups, since it’s the point where I’ve done about as much as I can on my own. By waiting until I’m through the list, I can get the most out of my critique partners’ advice without wasting their feedback on things I could have corrected myself. In a way, everyone wins!

This list might look long and complicated, but without it, I believe the editing process takes a lot longer. Of course, since every manuscript is different, I may follow some things on the list differently every time I go through it. But the idea is just to have something that keeps track of where I am so I don’t have to worry about anything falling through the cracks. With that kind of peace of mind, I can focus on the art of my craft rather than get distracted by the moving parts.


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