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Unleashing the Internal Editor: A Self-Editing Checklist

  
By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I'm in full-scale editing mode. I'm working on the substantive edits for Rebellious Heart which is releasing next fall of 2013. These are the macro changes (aka rewrites) that my in-house editors ask me to do.

After I'm done with my substantive edits, then I'll gear up to self-edit the first draft of the book I finished during NaNoWriMo.

When it's all said and done, I'll be in editing mode for about two months.

I take the editing process very seriously. I get input from qualified and objective sources that have included: critique partners, beta readers, my agent, and professional editors (not necessarily each of these on every book, but I try to get as much feedback possible).

I believe every writer absolutely must have outside editing from a skilled editor particularly for the big picture issues. When we're immersed deeply into our characters and stories, it's too difficult for us to step back and see the bigger picture. Believe me I've tried to evaluate my manuscript objectively for the bigger problems. And even after months away, I still have a hard time spotting trouble areas. We need skilled feedback to help us with those larger structural problems.

However, I think every writer can learn to be a better self-editor on a smaller scale. Perhaps we can't always see the big problems that are staring us in the face, but we can get better at smoothing out our stories and improving our techniques. In some ways, learning to edit is a little bit like learning to write—we improve if we intentionally practice new things with each book.

I've gotten some requests to share my self-editing checklist, and while I'm happy to make it available, I also want to issue a caution. My checklist several years ago looked slightly different. I was struggling through other issues then. My previous list contained things like:

-Vary sentence structure.
-Make sure each paragraph begins with variety.
-Avoid passive verbs.
-Avoid too many gerunds at the beginning of sentences.
-Delete unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
-Watch for over-using the character's name.
-Use pronouns unless the name is needed for clarification.

I don't have trouble with those kinds of issues any more. I've learned to avoid them (mostly) in my first draft by consciously practicing the techniques for a while until they became second nature. Now I'm on the lookout for other weakness that I have.

I think the key is to be aware of our weaknesses, keep a running list of our trouble areas, and then during editing look for those issues. In other words, every writer's self-editing checklist will look a little different.

So, on that note, please feel free to use mine (even print it out), but then tweak it to fit your specific weaknesses. I go through the following checklist while editing each scene:

Self-Editing Checklist for Each Scene:

o Maximize sensory details; make sure to include the lesser senses at least 1x per scene:

-Touch/Textures
-Smells
-Sounds
-Tastes

o View the scene through POV character:

-Cut out anything the character wouldn't think or see.
-Make sure metaphors/similes are true to character.
-Make sure dialogue stays true to character.
-Include unique qualities/tags of that character.

o Make sure the setting is detailed enough:

-Does it set the mood of the scene?
-Did I weave it throughout the whole scene to keep the reader grounded?

o Spice up the scene with appropriate smiles and metaphors.

-Make them appropriate to the character and scene
-Delete excess and any that are OTT (over the top)

o Check for strong verbs.

-Replace weak verbs with stronger ones.
-Do a search and replace for "pet" verbs.

o Check for accuracy of unclear details.

-Finish research on questionable details (previously marked).
-Make sure to include enough story detail in each scene.

o Trim the excess FAT!

-Repetitious phrases
-Trouble words: that, of (and any other "pet" phrases/words I've adopted)
-Unnecessary internal narration
-Unnecessary explanatory words
-Unnecessary questioning and reflection
-Over-description of emotion
-Using as if; Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)

Happy Editing!!

So, what are your trouble areas? Have you taken the time to evaluate your weaknesses and practice new editing techniques with each book?

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