Friday, August 12, 2016

A Checklist for Self-Editing Fiction -- by Rachel

Hugo's Les Miserables
Aside from getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers, I read through my finished novel multiple times, looking for specific things I want to improve: plot, theme, character, relationship, language and dialogue. When I’m close to being finished, I go through looking for typos. But that doesn’t give you a clue as to how many times I’ve gone through tweaking this or that. In fact, I spend months reading through my novel a hundred plus times with a metaphorical red pen. By the time I'm done I could recite the book.

It would be impossible to list all of the things I look for in a self-edit, but here are the majors.

Big Picture Edits

In a big picture edit, I read through, looking for ways to improve how the story works together as a whole. 
  • Do I have a unified theme throughout the novel?
  • Is there a single concern that propels the reader along throughout the novel? (In a suspense novel, this might be to find the bad guy. In a literary novel, it might be for the characters to work out a psychological problem.)
  • Are there several defining moments in the story (turning points)? Have I given each of these moments sufficient drama and made them stand out clearly and beautifully?
  • Does each of the major characters have a story arc? Are they portrayed with complexity, heroic qualities, flaws and believability?
  • Is the setting well-visualized and does it have a character of its own?
  • Have I found a general hook that is likely to draw readers in from a simple description of the story?

 This is also where I might delete a couple of scenes because, no matter how wonderful they are, the scenes aren’t relevant to plot or character. I’ll probably add a scene or two as well to strengthen the storyline now that I understand it better.

Chapter by Chapter Edits

In a chapter by chapter edit, I’m combing through each chapter, making sure that individual scenes work the way I want them to.

  • Have I found a way to make the first few lines or pages of the novel evocative of the entire story? Is the beginning likely to draw the reader in?
  • Have I brought the story to a rich conclusion that wraps up the story without being too pat? Will the reader continue thinking of the story when it’s done?
  • Is there a hook at the beginning and ending of each chapter and scene? (This can be something suspenseful, but it can also simply be a downward turn in the hero’s fortunes or the sense that a character is about to do something interesting).

  • Does each scene move the story forward while moving the character further from his or her goal until the end?
  • Is the dialogue concise and does it carry the conflict forward? Does it often leave something between the lines for the reader to discover?
  • Does each scene deepen character and/or relationship in some way, while adding new setbacks?
  • Have I added a few moments of rest in between the tense scenes, while still reminding the reader that there is a danger hanging over the character’s head? (This is where things appear to be going well for a short time to give the reader a breather. Think of the Katniss/Peeta cave scenes in The Hunger Games).
  • Have I cut internal dialogue that tells the reader what is going to happen next, so the following action will be more surprising?

  • Is the writing concise and free of cliché? Have I found original, rich language to convey the exact meaning and emotion I’m looking for?
  •  Is each scene well painted, with a full range of the senses?
  • Does each scene evoke emotion, showing rather than telling? Have I avoided the easy descriptions like crying and shouting for deeper and more authentic emotional descriptions?
  •  Have I kept my word count to what editors in my market are looking for? If not, what can I cut?

Detail Edits

At this final point, I’m no longer looking to improve the story. I’m trying to catch errors or simply shore up the finer details.
  • Do all of my dates, character ages and timelines match up?
  • Do my story details match my research? Do I need to research any other details to make sure they’re accurate?
  • Are my story details consistent throughout? (The hero’s eye color doesn’t change; a west facing window in the beginning doesn’t look out on the rising sun at the end; a minor character doesn’t witness an event and later appear to be in the dark about it).
  • Are grammar, spelling and language usage correct (with the exception of conscious choices made for character voice and authentic dialect)?

 Once I’ve gone through all of this, the novel should be polished and ready to send off. The months of self-editing  has made my novel seem like an effortlessly told story with memorable characters and evocative plot twists. And honestly, for me, it’s the fun part of writing because it’s where the novel starts to shape up into the story I wanted to write all along.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

Dickens' Great Expectations

Austen's Persuasion 


  1. Wow, I love seeing the revisions done by the greats. You always find the neatest stuff.

  2. They're wonderful, aren't they? It reminds me that even when they didn't have a computer to make 300 revisions on the draft, they still needed to go back and back to make changes.


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