Once you’ve written your first draft, you’ll need to edit and polish it. This will require several run-throughs of the whole manuscript, and the editing checklist is perfect to use then. There’s too much to think of to keep it straight in your head, so it's good to use a checklist and work your way through it.
The following list is a series of questions for you to answer. Obviously if the answer to any of them is ‘No’, when it should be ‘Yes’, then go back to the novel and make the necessary changes.
The truth is that this process is long and arduous. You may well be sick of the story by the time you’re finished. It is tough, no doubt about it. But it’s part of the process of writing a novel. Hey, if it was easy everybody would be doing it!
There are rewards too: it’s very exciting to see the novel taking shape and improving at each stage of the process.
Editing Checklist for: Story
- Go over your notes in the your first draft and sort them all out, i.e. follow their instructions. This can be quite a big job, but that’s okay.
- Then read through the manuscript again. Don’t do any detailed changes at this stage (if you see any, leave yourself another note). Just get a sense of the overall shape of the story. Does it make sense? Does it flow smoothly? Are there any plot holes? This would be the time to play around with the structure of the novel. The sort of questions you'll be asking is: Is that the right place to introduce Gloria's doubts, or should it be earlier?
- Does the novel open with a gripping first line, one that will compel the reader to keep reading?
- Have you got a compelling dramatic question?
- Does the action start soon enough? Or is there too much exposition and scene-setting?
- Is the theme well-developed?
- Is the back story told elegantly and well, and appropriately (i..e not too much, but all that is needed)?
- Is the pacing good? Does the story move forward consistently? But also, are there enough slower bits to give the reader a rest?
- Does the story have a good story arc: beginning, middle, end?
- Does the story have a satisfying climax? Does it come at the right part of the story, i.e. not too soon?
- Is the story premise original and intriguing? Or is it clichéd? Could you tweak it to make it fresher?
- Have you foreshadowed, and otherwise honoured the sacred contract?
- Does each resolution/mini-climax lead to another problem? In other words, is the reader constantly challenged with new puzzles and questions which she has to keep reading to solve?
- Is there enough conflict?
- Are your dialogue, narrative and description well balanced in terms of how much there is? And are they elegantly intertwined into a seamless whole?
- Does enough happen to keep the reader engaged?
- Is your basic English absolutely perfect?
Editing Checklist for: Plot
- Are the characters serving their own needs, or yours as the writer? Is any of the plot contrived or manipulated? Or does it all flow naturally from the preceeding events and the character's motivation?
- Is there a satifying subplot in place if you have one? Does it mesh well with the main plot? If you don't have one, should you?
- Does your plot fit well with the conventions of your genre without being derivative or clichéd?
Editing Checklist for: Characters
- Are the characters well developed? A good exercise is to put each characters’ dialogue and description in a different colour and read it on its own. How does the character come across?
- Is the main character empathetic? Is s/he proactive enough? Is s/he likeable (s/he doesn’t have to be likeable, but it helps. Make sure that if you want him/her to be likeable, s/he is; have the charater unlikeable only if that’s your plan).
- Is the POV clearly defined. No head-hopping unless you're deliberately doing that?
- Does the protagonist have a well-defined external goal?
- Does the protagonist have a well-defined internal goal which will lead to the character arc? (This doesn’t have to be flagged; it can be subtle. But it must be there.)
- Does the protagonist have a smooth, satisfying and well-defined character arc? Can you spot the moments when that character growth happens?
- Are the antagonist and other secondary characters well-developed and fully drawn?
- Is the crucible strong enough to keep the protagonist’s motivation high? Are the stakes high?
- Are the characters following their own needs, or yours?
- Is the protagonist constantly challenged and growing?
Editing Checklist for: Dialogue
- Is the dialogue believable and credible?
- Does the dialogue serve the story in every case? (Or is it waffling on pointlessly?)
- Do the characters sound distinctive? Do they each have their own voice?
- Have you the right balance of appropriate tags and narrative anchoring the dialogue? Have you avoided talking heads syndrome? (i.e., loads of dialogue with no tags or description).
Autocrit can help you edit your dialogue, checking for dialogue tags and too many adverbs.
Editing Checklist for: Writing Style
- Do a search for the words ‘is’ and ‘was’, and root out all possible passive voice.
- Do a search for clichés. You can use this excellent tool to root them out. Rewrite them with fresh and original metaphors, especially in narrative. You can get away with more clichés in dialogue.
- Do a search for ‘ly’ and root out as many adverbs as possible. Use stronger verbs instead.
- Have you avoided repeating significant words in your story? Check out www.dictionary.com for their thesaurus facility. But don’t use hugely contrived words; it’s better to repeat than to do that.
- Read through for adjectives and see if you can use a stronger noun instead.
- Go through every single sentence - could it be better phrased? The first draft is all about what you say, not how you say it. But this stage is very much about how it is said. Say it the best way possible. This bit can be really, really fun as you bring all your writing skill to bear.
- Go through the manuscript and try to trim each paragraph by 10%. This is a very powerful exercise as it forces you to tighten up your writing. If you simply can’t get down that much, then it proves that each word in that paragraph has earned its place there, and it gets to stay. Otherwise - out!
- Are the grammar and punctuation correct? I will be doing a section on this as soon as possible. But even before that, you need to have it right!
- Are any sentences overlong and clunky? Would they be better off broken into two or more sentences?
- Read the story aloud and change any awkward-sounding bits. If it’s difficult to say, it’s difficult to read the sense of it.
Writer's Digest offers over 1300 tutorial videos. You can buy individual lessons, or access them all on subscription.
Here are some of the videos they have on editing: