Unleashing the Internal Editor: A Self-Editing Checklist

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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:


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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  1. I especially like your notes about rhythm - achieved by varying sentence length and structure - and senses. One of my favourite things about editing is tuning sentence length and structure (and paragraph length and structure) into something ALMOST musical. And adding sensory details is the best way I know to make a scene come alive - to make the reader hear / smell / taste what the characters are experiencing. Thank you for sharing! : )

  2. This is an EXCELLENT post. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I always love checklists like this. Keeps me thinking about the weaknesses that slip into anybody's writing, but that can be easily be fixed the writer, herself.

    It's the substantive edits that scare me! Now that I am diving into the self-publishing arena, it's the substantive edits that are tricky for the do-it-yourselfer. Big picture story edits can be super expensive, unfortunately. A writer can't afford to ignore these edits, but a writer just starting down this path will struggle to afford this type of editor.

    While I take professional editing very seriously and hired a line editor after several critique partners and beta reads. In the future, I will shell out the $$ for a professional substantive edit before I hire a line and copy editor.

    Merry Christmas, Jody!!

    1. I can imagine the substantive edits would be VERY challenging with self-publishing. I think you could probably get the "big picture" edit from other published YA writers, Heather, particularly if you can find a few authors who've been writing a while and whose stories you really like. You could specifically ask them to read for the big picture edits, like character development/likeability, plot holes, lags, internal arc issues, overall strengths and weaknesses. Then you could compare what everyone has to say. Obviously the big picture edits are the most subjective and are why you really need to get them from someone who knows your target audience. Just my two cents! :-)

    2. I just self-published my first book, and it seems I did it exactly opposite from you. I hired a substantive editor, but took care of the line edits myself. The editor I got was great, and well worth it. I can give you her information if you'd like. As for the line editing, having my kindle read it to me as I read along was a great way to pick up those pesky skipped words and poor sentence structure. Slowing down to keep pace with the robot voice helped a lot.

  4. Another excellent post, this one packed with valuable information! Thanks for sharing the knowledge and expertise you have developed! I'll definitely be keeping this post for future use!

  5. I have a problem with what I call "loose threads" that I introduce and then forget to bring to closure as I move on in the story. More often than not, they're ruminations or reactions by the main character that you would expect to revisit throughout the story, but because they're not plot driven, they just hang there.

  6. Nice list. :-)
    One thing I do when I'm drafting and during my big picture edits is I keep a text file of things I notice but I don't need to stop and fix right then. For instance, if I'm drafting and I find I've been repeating a word several times I'll make a note of it in my Editing Notes file and then keep right on using it if it helps me stay in voice or whatever. Or if I notice a secondary character is flat I'll make a note to fix it later instead of breaking my flow. Track changes or footnotes could also be used for similar purposes.

    1. I do something similar, Wendy! I highlight things in yellow that need further detail, and put many balloons in the margins of things I need to come back and address. Then I also keep a running list of things specific to the book that I need to come back and address during editing. Great minds think alike! :-)

  7. Perfect timing! I'm about to edit this year's NaNoWriMo "novel" and have struggled with finding an editing system that works for me. I love a good checklist :-) Thanks!

  8. I'll admit, my biggest trouble area is in description of movement. I've had a few things I've brought to my critique groups that make perfect sense to me but my critique group can't figure out the motion the character is making.

    I really can't seem to figure it out either, that's why we need beta readers and editors. When it's pointed out to me I can usually make it stronger and easier to imagine.

  9. Great tips. I have so much to learn! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thanks for posting this Jody! A prime example of 'ask and you shall receive' I asked and you posted. :-)

    I'm finishing the first draft of my WIP and so these tips will be immensely helpful.

    1. Thanks for asking, Jenni! After all, it is the season to give. ;-)

      Wishing you all the best with those edits!

  11. Thank you for all the advice! It's very helpful. Including more sensory details has always been something I've struggled with, particularly in the first and second drafts. I've been looking over my earlier drafts and realized that it sometimes sounds like the characters are talking in empty rooms, because I focused more on dialogue than on the details of their surroundings.

  12. Great tips, and I appreciate your note that each writer has different things to look for. I found the book "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" by Browne and King to be extremely helpful- each chapter ends with suggestions for checklist elements.

  13. Great list Jody, very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I've not done a great deal of editing before, so I need all the advice I can get, particularly as in the new year I'm going to start editing this year's NaNoWriMo novel! I have a feeling that one of my weaknesses is that I don't include enough description of setting etc, and especially sensory details.

  15. Long sentences! But I'm working on it.

  16. Great blog post and I love all the tips from everyone else. My addition is to read aloud to others. There is nowhere to hide! I go into school libraries and give lunchtime readings. Kids just walk out if they aren't interested. Kids raise their hands when they don't understand and they give fabulous feedback. For my grown up work I use family and friends. I've also learnt that my worst critics are my best critics. I just have to harden up.

    1. Great ideas!I've heard others say that you can catch quite a few of your own mistakes by reading it aloud. I haven't done that yet (mostly due to time constraints). And yes, we do need to develop thick skin when we give our work to others to beta read. Expect more criticism than praise because the first is more helpful.

  17. Lots of Good information in your post,
    I favorited your blog post
    so I can visit again in the future, Thanks.

  18. Hi Jody,
    I found your blog through Query Tracker.
    Your self-editing tips were most helpful.
    I look forward to following your blog.
    Happy New Year!
    Tracy :)

    1. Glad you found my blog, Tracy! And I'm delighted to hear that the self-editing tips were helpful!

      Happy New Year to you too!


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