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Checklist for Editors

June 7, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 23, 2011

Whether you’re a professional editor or a writer going through your own work, you probably either have a system you use to evaluate each manuscript or wish that you did.

There are so many, many areas to a piece of long fiction, how can you be sure you’ve checked each, weighed the value of each, polished each?

And if you change one area, how do you remind yourself to re-check those other areas that you already looked at?

And. . . where do you even start this checking and polishing, this editing?

It’s likely that you easily catch problems and errors in the areas where you’re strongest as a writer or editor—if you nail character goals and motivation, you might want to start your edit there. Or, you may look to your own problem areas first, assuming you’ll need to spend more time in those areas. So if punctuation is a weak spot, that may be where you begin your edits.

You probably look at big-picture issues first and work toward the fine details. That makes sense since changes in big-picture items will change a lot of the fine details. Yet, if you can’t stand to read a manuscript with typos and weak word choices, don’t feel that you can’t change them as you edit and rewrite. That is, if editing the detail stuff along the way helps you, then do it. But don’t forget to systematically check those details again after you’ve made major changes.

Changes in any area, but especially in large-picture or story-wide issues, will necessitate change throughout the manuscript. Be ready to evaluate the manuscript again after making large-picture changes. Make sure changes—both items added in and items taken out—are carried through the story.

I don’t intend to lay out some standard, absolute path for editing; as writers approach their craft in a manner that works for them, so should editors. Do what works for you and your organizational patterns and for your writers and their projects.

Yet, don’t merely wing it, guessing your way through your edits.

Know the items to look for and know how to address problem areas. Think ahead—anticipate how changes in one element or scene or plot thread will change elements and scenes and plot threads later in the story.

Be flexible. Realize that one story or one writer’s style may require an approach different from any you’ve undertaken before. Don’t lock yourself into an inflexible checklist—be aware that each story has its own needs. You may find a unique dilemma that will require a fix you haven’t tried before.

Stories are similar in makeup, yet no two will require the same edit.

And remember that you may have to work backwards. If you find something that needs attention at the end of the story, you’ll probably have to change multiple areas earlier in the story to bring about that needed change.

Allow yourself to think beyond one-step fixes—you may need to layer your corrections in order to fix or change a problem area. A weak character may need a new personality quirk, may need to lose part of his history, and may need a different character for his best friend.

Be bold in your prescriptions. On the flip side, don’t overlook the simple.

Rely on experience, but be open to the unexpected.

Know the rules, yet allow your writer (and yourself) freedom and flexibility.

______________________________

I’d like to look at areas you’ll want to consider as you edit. Many will be the same kinds of areas writers consider as they create. The emphasis, however, may be a bit different.

Writers must make sure they include fascinating characters and plots that keep a reader’s attention. Editors (and writers who self-edit) will check for fascinating characters and plots as well. They may also consider what additional characters would mean for the story or what a sub-plot could add.

Writers are often concerned with the story in their heads and with getting that story to the page. Editors are often concerned with the elements of the story that are not yet on the page—they look to see what’s missing. Editors also focus on weeding out distractions from the core story—characters who don’t fit, settings that don’t work, dialogue that adds nothing, sub-plots that dilute the main plot, and digressions and rabbit trails and non-productive elements that either neuter the power of the story or actually detract from it.

Editing can be art, but there are standards and practices and even tips and tricks you can bring to your edits to ensure you’ve been complete in your evaluation.

You may have your specialties, as most people do in the tasks that they perform often. But no one wants to overlook other important elements simply because they focus on certain other elements.

Perhaps you tend to focus on the big picture and story-wide issues. Wouldn’t you like tips for checking out the details?

And if you’re a stickler for details, wouldn’t you like a refresher on how to consider the big-picture items?

Let’s consider areas that editors do look at and should look at, and simply put them in lists with a bit of explanation. This way you’ll know areas you’ll want to cover in an edit.

You may find that you take every area mentioned here into account each time you edit. You may find some areas that you’ve never considered. Or, you may find that some areas are not those you think an editor should be concerned with.

I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing what other editors consider important. If you’ve got something to add to this list, please share.

_____________________________

I’m simply going to split the elements into big-picture areas and fine-detail areas. I realize there will be overlap and I’m sure we wouldn’t all arrange the areas in the same way. I’m using this method since I think about story in this manner, with story-wide issues that affect the whole manuscript and fine details that can be edited without necessarily making changes to the full story.

Yet, as I said, there may be overlap. Some fine-detail issues can have great impact on the story as a whole.

Big-picture areas

Plot

 ~  Questions to ask—

Is it interesting and engrossing

Is there enough to sustain the story through the final page

Are there too many sub-plots, not enough sub-plots

Are major plot issues resolved

Is plot introduced in an engaging way

Does the story make sense

Are there hooks; are they logical; are they related to the rest of the plot

Is plot engaging, inevitable, believable

Is the plot full enough or does it feel thin

Is the premise right for the story that’s been written

Has reader expectation been whetted and then satisfied

Is there a focus or is the plot scattered

Does the story start in the right place

 ~  Steps to take/what plot should do—

Weed out coincidence

Maintain forward movement

Include surprises

Move logically from point to point

Resolve plot threads

Root out author intrusion

Whether you consider the opening event or the protagonist’s acceptance of his call to action the inciting incident, make sure you have both

Make sure the ending is sufficient in terms of length and depth for the story

Make sure the ending is inevitable

Make sure the ending doesn’t drag; make it satisfy the reader

Make sure the black moment and climax are strong enough for the story

Use back story sparingly and blend it so it doesn’t stop story momentum

Character

 ~  Questions to ask—

Are lead characters interesting enough for the story

Do lead characters have sufficient motivation to move through the plot

Is the antagonist strong enough, a good complement to the protagonist

Do characters have strengths and weaknesses

Are character goals clear

Are characters well-rounded

Are all featured characters vital to the plot

Is character motivation appropriate for the story that developed from it

 ~  Steps to take/what character should do—

Make sure there are enough characters to carry the plot

Make sure there are no unnecessary characters

Give the main character secondary characters to support him

Give the main character characters strong enough to challenge him

Fit characters to genre and era

Give characters appropriate and sufficient habits, quirks, favorite words, speech patterns, dreams, goals and motivations, and hot buttons that other characters can push

Make characters three-dimensional—include thoughts, actions, and reactions

Setting

 ~  Questions to ask—

Is it conveyed sufficiently

Is it appropriate for the story

Would a different setting work better

Is setting used to advance plot, to create tone, to increase tension

Are readers given a clear sense of place and time for each scene

 ~  Steps to take/what setting should do—

Verify details

Make sure setting details are appropriate to story and scene

Make sure setting doesn’t overwhelm action and plot

Include props that characters can handle and use

Dialogue

 ~  Questions to ask—

Does dialogue advance the story

Is dialogue appropriate to character

Is dialogue appropriate to the scene

Does dialogue increase conflict

 ~  Steps to take/what dialogue should do—

Ensure that characters sound sufficiently different

Make sure it is dialogue and not conversation

Use genre-appropriate dialogue tags

Keep adverbs in dialogue tags to a minimum, unless genre allows them

Scenes

Make sure there are a sufficient number of scenes

Make sure individual scenes satisfy and that they are different in terms of action events, character combinations, dialogue patterns, and type of conflict

Give scenes variety in length, format, depth, and pattern

Use a variety of settings for scenes (or play against variety and stick to only a few settings) 

Make sure scenes are in the best order to cause problems for the character and induce tension in the reader

Point of view

 ~  Questions to ask—

Is it the right POV for the story and for the scene; would another be better

Is POV clear

Is POV maintained within scenes

Should POV change with scenes

Who should be the viewpoint character in each scene

 ~  Steps to take/what point of view should do—

Make sure that viewpoint character doesn’t change within scenes (no head-hopping)

Make sure viewpoint character knows only what he could really know

Use a change in POV or viewpoint character to bring story and character closer to the reader or to hold the reader at a distance when necessary

Pace

 ~  Questions to ask—

Does pace vary

Is the pace of each scene appropriate

Does pace influence tone

Does pace increase/decrease tension

Conflict

 ~  Questions to ask—

Is there sufficient conflict in each scene and between characters

Does conflict escalate

 ~  Steps to take/what conflict should do—

Create tension

Make characters and readers uncomfortable

Increase conflict as the story progresses

Ensure conflict between characters and between protagonist and himself and within the antagonist

Balance

 ~  Steps to take/what balance should do—

Ensure balance between elements; make sure no one element overwhelms

Balance character thoughts, dialogue, and actions with setting and description

Balance sections, scenes, chapters, and acts

Fine-detail areas

Spelling, grammar, and punctuation

Each must be checked; never assume they’re correct.

Maintain consistency in all three

Emotion

Be sure you’ve shown character emotions

Make sure you tapped into reader emotion

Go after more than one emotional event; induce more than one emotion per story

Style

Enhance the writer’s style as long as it serves the story

Make sure the style is cohesive

Fact checking

Check dates, technology and inventions, historical events. Anything that can be verified needs to be verified.

Word choices

Delete unintended repetition

Make sure words are character, era, scene, and genre appropriate

Cut out unnecessary words

Understand how humor affects character, scene, tone, and plot, and use humor when appropriate

Use specific verbs

Remove weak phrasing

Take out clichés and the writer’s pet words

Make every sentence and each word count

Sentence construction

Use variety in construction and in sentence length

Rhythm

Ensure variety in rhythm without producing annoying patterns

Consider giving characters unique sentence constructions

Time

Be sure that the passage of time is both clear and possible.

Make sure readers understand the timing of events and scenes

Clarity

Make sure that each section, bit of dialogue, scene, and chapter is clear

Tone

Ensure the tone achieved is what the writer intended and appropriate for the story

General questions and reminders

Has the writer made the reader care about the character and his dilemma?

Is the story entertaining?

Is there enough story to the story?

Is the story different enough to catch a reader’s attention?

Does the story move fast enough?

Does the story catch either the reader’s mind or heart, perhaps both?

Put the elements to work—make each do double or triple duty. Make dialogue advance plot and reveal character and up the conflict level.

Remember the reader—don’t edit in a vacuum.

Remember the writer—she may have ideas of her own.

 *******

This could go on much longer and in more detail. But I hope it gives you a helpful list of the areas to look at when you edit.

May I suggest that you look closest at those areas that don’t appeal to you or that give you problems? Take time to review the elements of fiction that you’re weakest in. Why not strengthen them, help yourself to be an even stronger editor?

If you’re a writer who’s using this list to self-edit, I suggest you take all the time needed to work your way through your edits. Editing, good editing, doesn’t happen in an instant. Don’t be surprised if you spend as many hours on an edit as you do working on one of your drafts. A good edit deserves the time.

And a good book deserves an outstanding edit.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Editing Tips, For Editors

36 Responses to “Checklist for Editors”

  1. Fantastic!!!! Thanks so much for this list. Definitely adding it to our best posts round-up this week and going to go tweet it right now.

    Thanks again,

    Martina

  2. Martina, I’m glad you found it useful. Thanks for the tweet and for adding it to your recommended reads.

  3. Tari Jewett says:

    I’m printing this and putting this with my manuscript to make sure I don’t miss anything in rewrites!! What a great checklist for writer’s (me) and editors!

  4. Tari, I’m glad you found this helpful. Have fun with the rewrites—I hope you have some good insights as you work through your manuscripts, tweaking and adding great flourishes to your fiction.

  5. Just some quick notes for now . . . because I think your site is terrific in so many ways.
    Fiction is action but it is more than a series of actions. As Aristotle first pointed out, What gives a story unity is not that it is about one person but that it is about one action.
    Since fiction brings us to a felt knowledge, we must experience everything about the story. Since we experience the world primarily through the traditional five senses, those senses must be used as much as possible.
    Not only is the question Does the story start in the right place? most important, but the importance of the first sentence cannot be overemphasized.
    Maybe more later if people want.

  6. This is wonderful! I’ll be using this constantly in both writing and editing. Terrific summary. Thanks.

  7. F. Armstrong, the senses are vital, as you’ve said. They’re the way we understand our world and they’re a key in fiction as well. And we’d do well to add their use into our stories. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  8. Metta says:

    Hi
    This is the best writers website I have come across. all my life I have searched unsuccessfully for a editing checklist. Now I have one, thank to you but there are a couple of points in the plot section I would like to clarify please. What do you mean by enough to sustain the story through to the final page? What do you mean by plot full enough or does it feel thin? Do all the points you mention under the plot section apply to short stories? I will add some of my other questions later. Thank you.
    Metta

  9. Metta, I’m so glad you found information you could use. I like knowing the articles are helpful.

    Enough plot to last to the final page means the plot doesn’t run out before the pages do. We’ve all read books where the story seems padded with lots of nothing, simply to fill a book of a certain length. But a story that’s done—climax reached, bad guy defeated, hero and heroine together, murderer arrested—and then still goes on for a hundred pages means that story doesn’t have enough plot.

    A thin plot is one that’s been stretched to fill the 300 pages between the covers. It might seem that there’s enough story to the story—events and conflict that reach to the final page—but the story isn’t layered, doesn’t have depth. Thin stories may have little character development or no theme woven through events and dialogue. Thin stories may be missing subtext. Thin stories are those that are okay, but not outstanding. They meet the criteria for a satisfying story, but they’re not truly satisfying.

    You know those movies that are only okay but should have been better? They’re thin. And the same thing happens to books. The stories makes sense and come to an ending point. It’s just that the reader is left wanting more.

    As for your question about plot and short stories—yes. But short stories must get to the point much sooner. And you definitely don’t want a lot of sub-plots in short stories. While short stories themselves don’t have to feel tight, they do have to be written tight, if I can say it that way. There’s no room for fluff in short stories. No place for digressions and unnecessary characters.

    The length and depth of a novel can hide characters that don’t carry their own weight. In short stories, anything that doesn’t work for the story or actively works against the story gets noticed.

    I hope that helps.

  10. Pat Bertram says:

    We’re having a discussion on facebook about all the errors that show up in books (one reviewer won’t read a book with more than thirty proofreader errors. Yikes! How low our standards have fallen!) so I’ve been plugging your site since the authors are complaining they don’t have money for a professional editor. You provide all the tools a writer needs (except for good eyes and knowledge of good writing).

  11. Thanks for the plug, Pat.

    While edits are an expense, if a writer is self-pubbing, a good edit is vital. Why not consider it a business expense? Or, consider a good substantive edit as equal to several classes of a writing course. We’d pay for the training in a school—why not get both an edit and training for one price?

  12. Prem Rao says:

    Thanks for a comprehensive list. Sharing your post as I believe writers need to like editing, if they want to get anywhere.

  13. Prem, I’m glad you found it useful. Thanks for sharing it with others.

  14. Metta says:

    Could you please explain what you mean by ‘whether you consider the opening event or the protagonist’s acceptance of his call to action the inciting incident make sure you have both’?
    Thank you

  15. Metta says:

    Could you please explain what you mean by ‘Make sure the ending is sufficient in terms of length and depth for the story’? How long should an end be? What is depth of a story?
    Is resolution and the end the same thing?
    Thank you.

  16. Metta, on your question about the inciting incident—

    Some consider the event of the opening pages, the one that grabs the reader’s attention and gets the story engine turning, to be the inciting incident. Others consider the inciting incident to be the event that convinces the protagonist to pursue whatever it is he’ll be pursuing in the story, that moment at which he decides to jump into the adventure. This second incident typically happens a little deeper in the story than the first one, perhaps in chapter three or so. This is often the event that makes it impossible for the protagonist to go back to his normal ways and normal life.

    I was saying that stories should have both of these moments, no matter what they are called. Something must happen in the very first pages to gain the reader’s attention and shake up the protagonist’s world, and something should happen just a little bit later in the story to set that protagonist on his way.

  17. Metta, on your questions about the end—

    The end is just a general term. It can refer to the final third or so of a novel, it can mean the climax and the events just prior to it, the fallout from the climax, and the resolution. Or it could specifically refer to the resolution alone.

    A complex story filled with multiple story lines needs a climax that’s full enough to satisfy the buildup to it. You wouldn’t want the big moment of a 400-page novel to take only five lines. You also wouldn’t want the resolution of a short story to be twice the length of the events needed to reach that point. Think in terms of balance—you don’t want too little or too much for what has come before.

    Depth has to do with the layers of a story and maybe the importance of the issues covered.

    A novel with one story line—solving the murder of Mr. Jones—is not as deep as a story about Mr. Smith’s 40-year struggle to discover who he is in a world beset by jarring social changes and increasingly brutal wars. You’ll need to spend more time wrapping up Mr. Smith’s story because he was involved with more than one issue and because those issues were more complex than those in Mr. Jones’s story. The explanations might need to be more detailed. The answers to the main character’s problems won’t be explained in a simple line or two.

    I have an article on Resolutions that provides more information on story endings.

  18. Audrey says:

    I appreciate this checklist sooooo much, thank you. I’ve been utilizing it for my very first manuscript but I have to say, the more I edit, the more I tell myself that my story stinks and should be burned. Does anyone else get these ‘jitters’ while editing? Is it a normal reaction due to over-editing or what?

  19. Audrey, you are welcome. And yes, many writers get the jitters about the quality of their work when they’re rewriting and editing. The good news is that it’s usually not as bad as the writer thinks it is. The bad news is that it sometimes is that bad.

    I hope while you edit that you also find passages that sing and characters that stand out and plot threads that link in surprising ways. Discovering the beauty of our writing is a great boost for those days when nothing good seems to get written. I wish you great success with your writing career.

  20. Thank you so much for this checklist. It has helped me to focus, not only on the final edit of my first novel, but on fine tuning the plot and characters for my next novel.
    I have ‘pressed’ this onto my blog linking back to your article. Not sure what I was doing as this is the first time I have done it, but I think it worked!

  21. Wendy, going through an edit in a systematic way not only helps with that manuscript but, as you said, it help with the planning for the next. I’m glad the checklist helped. And thanks for the link. I hope your readers find the info helpful as well.

  22. Corinna says:

    Ms. Hill,
    I can see that this article was written some time ago, but I very much appreciate running upon it today. I am in the throes of developing a freelance career for myself, and this clear, concise list has cleared a good amount of fog. Am I ready to have clients? Is my skill anywhere near sharp enough? How can I promise a client that I’ll do a great job without a portfolio, or a directly relevant education, or the first clue of what I’m doing?
    I can tell you that my answers to those questions are based less on guessing now than they were just moments ago. No, I’m not ready to shout from the rooftops. I have skills, but a few classes are definitely in order. I can’t promise a client the moon right now, but I can start with what I know and look for good people to learn from. I may need to pull back from full bore, and that’s so good to know before the cart passes the horse!
    There have been too many hours of surfing, but this is what I was looking for.

    Thank you,
    Corinna

    • Corinna, I’m glad you found some info you could use. I wish you great success with your career—editing is challenging and fun, and the variety of stories makes it always interesting. One way to get started editing is to just start editing. Edit existing books. Edit for folks in a writers group. Just edit.

      Decide how you’ll approach your suggestions. Try to eliminate your weak areas by studying the craft (both writing and editing). Look at options.

      I’m finishing up a book for writers who intend to self-edit, but I’m certain it will prove helpful for editors as well. Check back in a month or so to see if it’s close to being published.

      • Corinna says:

        Thanks, Beth. Even if I decide that editing will have to be an aside instead of bread and butter, I’m ready to start looking for people who need my service. I appreciate your reply – Merry Christmas!

        Corinna

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