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You’ve finally typed “The End” on your short story, essay, or book—hooray! But don’t rush into sending submissions just yet. At Writer’s Relief, we know you should thoroughly edit your work before making submissions to literary journals or literary agents. Many writers find the self-editing phase daunting, but if you break your edits down into two main phases, it will be easier to clean up your manuscript and make it look professional. Here’s an editing checklist that will guide you through the process.
A Comprehensive Editing Checklist For Writers
Phase One: Editing for Content
Content edits are addressed by asking yourself bigger scale, developmental questions which will affect the strength of your work as a whole.
Are the characters’ motivations clear? Finding the “why?” that drives your character is crucial to making them seem three-dimensional. Determine what your characters want and how they attempt to achieve those goals.
Are the characters’ voices distinct? Every character should have a unique, clear voice. From the cadence of each individual’s speech to the vocabulary used, the way each character talks will make them stand out. This is especially important for multi-POV works!
Do the characters have clear arcs of growth? No matter how clear and unique your characters are, they’ll fall flat if they don’t learn and grow over the course of the story. As you’re working on your character development, think about what changes occur between when the characters start out and the end of the story—and make sure it’s clear how they get there!
Is the setting fully developed? The time and place in which your story is set can function as its own character. Make sure your descriptions are rich and visceral, grounding your characters and helping your writing come alive for readers.
Is the world-building airtight? Especially if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you need to create a world convincing enough to engage your audience.
Do emotional scenes resonate? While you want to give emotional scenes the gravity they deserve, you also don’t want to drive your story too far into the territory of melodrama. Writing emotional scenes is a tricky balance, but one that’s crucial to strike before considering your story “finished.”
Are you “showing” rather than “telling”? “Show, don’t tell” can make the difference between a story that captures your readers’ interest and one that makes their eyes glaze over. A story that simply “tells” what is happening isn’t likely to hold a reader’s attention. Focus on presenting details about your characters and settings in ways that engage the reader. As novelist Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Phase Two: Polishing Your Work
The polishing stage is when you’ll work on line edits and answer questions about grammar and style details.
Is the word count right for the genre? Many writers tend to overwrite in their first drafts, then tighten the text when editing. If you need to make cuts, hone in on the action driving your story forward. For example, if you have several paragraphs of long, stagnant introduction before the action begins—get out your red pen and start deleting.
Are the characters’ names too similar? If you have multiple characters whose names rhyme or start with the same letter, your readers may get confused and be unable to tell them apart. If you need to rename characters, now’s the time to do it!
Are there too many run-on sentences? While run-on sentences can be useful for internal monologues, make sure they’re not too convoluted—and that you’re not overusing them.
Are the paragraphs long and confusing? It’s important to keep your sentences tight, but remember to look at the forest, not just the trees. If your sentences are short and palatable but your paragraphs are long and rambling, your story will be too cumbersome to enjoy.
Is the language repetitive? Expressing the same idea multiple times simply increases your word count unnecessarily, and repeating yourself is a surefire way to bore readers. Keep an eye out for repetitive writing—you probably only need to make a point once to drive it home for your audience.
Are there too many clichés? While regional colloquialisms can lend color to a character’s vocabulary, make sure you don’t overuse clichés. An overabundance of clichés, especially in your narrative or your characters’ internal monologues, can distract readers during emotional scenes and reveals.
Are there any typos? Turn on your word processing program’s spell-check function and review anything it flags. Even a great typist makes a few errors. Reading your manuscript aloud to yourself is another good way to catch typos and identify any awkward phrases or sentences that need attention. You should also consider having someone else proofread your work. Ask a grammar-savvy friend, another writer, or hire a professional proofreader (psst—we’ve got you covered!).
Is the manuscript properly formatted? Make sure your work is formatted to publishing industry standards—this makes it much easier for editors and agents to read. You want your manuscript to look clean and professional so the reader can focus on the story, not on your wonky margins.
Along with using this checklist, remember that reading more stories in your genre is a smart—and fun!—way to pick up self-editing tips. Once your manuscript is in tip-top shape, you can feel confident making your submissions to literary agents and editors.
Question: What do you think is the most important editing step?