Here's a checklist of questions I consider and things I check for as I'm doing a final edit on one of my stories. You may find it useful to construct a similar list for yourself. Also note that you could use this checklist as a basis for any critiques (See How to Cope with Critiquing) you might be doing for other writers.
- Check for protagonist problems
- Check for antagonist problems
- Check minor characters
- Check the conflict
- Evaluate the scenes
- Check flashbacks
- Check the point of view (POV) and your viewpoint characters
- Check the story's pace
- Check the dialogue
- Eliminate Author Intrusions; keep the reader immersed
- Check to see if telling instead of showing–what is most appropriate?
- Can you increase resonance throughout your story?
- Cut words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs, or whole scenes?
- Order of the words, phrases, or independent clauses in sentences optimal?
- Check for active and passive voice
- Check negatives
- Check formatting
- Check grammar and punctuation
- Check spelling
- Check your facts
- How does your story sound when you read it aloud?
- Check for protagonist problems
- What do you like about your main character? Does that happen to be a trait of yours?
- If so, you may not have enough distance from the character. Give him a distinctive trait–different from yours
- If you wouldn't want to spend time a lot of time with your main character, neither will your reader
- Add traits to your character that will make his company more enjoyable.
- Does your main character change in the course of the book? If not revisit how you've developed your main character.
- Is your antagonist morally bad, not just badly behaved? Morally villainous characters are more interesting.
- Does your villain have something that charms or entices people? No villain can attract victims unless he has charm, charisma, power, or wealth.
- Try seeing him through the eyes of someone who loves or cares about him
- The villain will be a more effective adversary if he's been humanized
- Check for verisimilitude. One special characteristic can make the difference between a minor character who's believable and one who's not.
- Is it credible?
- Is conflict minimal or nonexistent? If so, rewrite giving your characters "different scripts" a la Actor's Studio method.
Check the opening. Does it:
- Excite the reader's curiosity about a character or a relationship?
- Introduce the milieu?
- Lend resonance to the story?
Check the first sentence.
- Does it convey and interesting personality or action that the reader wants to know more about?
- Can the first sentence be made more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking, or something that will surprise the reader? If so, do so.
Ensure all scenes work to advance the story or develop the characters
- Determine least memorable scene; eliminate if possible. Then determine least most memorable scene and eliminate that if possible. And so on.
- What are the three most important actions in the story? Is each action motivated in a way that you'd accept if this story were told by someone else?
- Motivation has to be either provoked or foreshadowed ahead of time
- Review any other significant actions; ferret out poor motivation and anything that's a case of "author's convenience"
- Are they essential?
- Do they illuminate the present story in an important way?
Do they feel immediate–as if they're "happening now"?
- Your aim is to get into an immediate scene as soon as possible
- Except for the transition into the flashback, does the flashback use the same tense as you use for the rest of the story?
- Use dialogue if possible, that always seems more immediate to the reader.
- Are the transitions as unobtrusive and smooth as possible?
- Does the first sentence of the flashback grab the reader immediately?
- Is the POV consistent?
- Is the POV powerful enough to involve the reader's emotions? Should the story be written in first person instead of third or third person instead of first?
- Is each viewpoint in a scene consistent?
- Is the viewpoint character the right character? Does he or she grab the reader's emotions?
- Have you avoided telling the reader how a character feels?
- Is there anything in your material that is not likely to be known to someone with your character's background and intelligence?
- Are your descriptions vivid and specific?
- Do the highlighter exercise, highlighting action in one color, description and narration in another. Is the balance right for the type of story you're telling?
- Check for monotony. If parts of the MS seem monotonous, rewrite and vary the length of the sentences.
- Where does the pace drag?
Ways to speed up the pace:
- Use active voice
- Use short sentences and frequent paragraphing
- Flab-cutting–cut words significantly
- Skipping for effect (skipping steps in a detailed sequence of actions)
- Flipping forward past a scene that never appears in the book. In other words, cut a scene if it doesn't destroy the story.
- Is the dialogue sufficiently confrontational?
- Is each character's voice somehow distinct from all other's?
- Check for changes in the level of diction. Is the diction consistent with the character?
- If a character always speaks in complete sentences, fix it so they don't
- If any dialogue runs longer than three sentences, look and see if you can break it up with an interjection from another character or with a thought or with an action . . . or a "gesture
- Are the responses oblique from time to time?
- Is any of the dialogue weak or wrong in comparison to other dialogue exchanges? If so, mark it for cutting or revision.
- Eliminate "said-bookisms" (replacements for "he said", et al.). (See Speech Tags)
- Check all speech tags–eliminate "-ly tagalongs"(adverbs attached to said-books)
- Look for "info dumps"
- Cleverly incorporate the information in small chunks into the dialog. Lace, rather than dump.
- Give a clear picture of how the technology has crept into daily life instead of going into long dissertations.
- Don't lead the reader. Eliminate anything which "tells" the reader how a character feels.
- Eliminate point of view transitions within single paragraphs
- by referring to religious sources?
- by a bold conclusion?
- by invoking a setting that's greatly influenced the life of a person?
- by hyperbole?
- by naming the parts of a book (i.e., chapters, scenes, etc.)?
- by the thoughts and speech of a character?
- by the use of aphorisms?
- Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most stressful moments in a character's life. Your job is to evoke emotions in the reader.
- Do they appear where the reader needs them? If not, add some.
- Do they work?
- Are more than one of the five senses appealed to?
- "Particularity" (detail that individualizes)–is it used everywhere it should be?
- Do they consist of two things which normally don't go together?
- Do they resonate?
- Do they intrigue?
- Do they exercise the reader's imagination?
- Any mixed metaphors? (Kill them off)
Avoid "Grey Fuzzies" (e.g., he was furious)– watch for weak descriptors, such as:
Add other sensory input if it seems reasonable for the character to notice it under the circumstances portrayed
- Eliminate gratuitous description–description for its own sake. Would the viewpoint character see things they way you've described them? Would he describe them just like you did? If not, eliminate or change the description to remain consistent with your viewpoint character
Check for ways to trim verbiage
Look for unnecessary words in your narratives. Often the sentence containing one or more of these can be shortened.
- And (sometimes can combine with other text)
- By (another passive voice indicator)
- Fuzzy adverbs (get more specific)
- His/Her/Its/Their/Your (sometimes can combine with other text)
- Is (usually indicates passive voice)
- Not (use a contraction if appropriate)
- Of (usually using a possessive will shorten the sentence)
- That (usually can be eliminated)
- The (sometimes you don't need it)
- There (usually a "to be" verb follows)
- To (sometimes can be replaced by a gerund)
Look for various "red flag" phrases/words/suffixes.
- -wise words: words that end in “wise” (eliminate)
- As you know (flags an info dump)
- Case (often can be eliminated)
- Certainly (often can be eliminated)
- Character (often can be eliminated)
- Exists (often can be eliminated)
- Factor (often can be eliminated)
- I/he couldn't believe (info dump)
- Like (use as if you need a conjunction)
- Nature (often can be eliminated)
- Purposes (eliminate)
- Said (eliminate adverbs modifying it)
- Somehow (eliminate)
- Somewhat (eliminate)
Kill off "fluff phrases" in narrative (they're okay in dialogue if that's the way your character talks)
- A period of
- As a matter of fact
- As to whether (replace with whether)
- At this point in time
- Check to see if
- Circled around (replace with circled)
- Had a tendency
- He is a man who
- In a very real sense
- In a xxxxx manner (replace with xxxxxx-ly)
- In terms of
- In the foreseeable future
- Kind of (for something like or rather)
- One of the most
- Sort of (for something like or rather)
- That is to say
- The fact is
- The fact that
- The point I'm trying to make
- The reason why (replace with because)
- The truth is
- There is no doubt (replace with doubtless)
- What I mean to say
- Who is, which was (use an appositive)
- Eliminate clumsy or repetitious wording (saying the same thing in two separate sentences, unless really warranted).
- Eliminate making actions in a conversation explicit (e.g. "Let's get out of here," he said, urging her to leave.)
Eliminate obvious redundancies (e.g. repetitive redundancies)
- End result
- Final completion
- Respectful regard
Check for and eliminate unnecessary qualifiers.
- almost (eliminate, in most cases)
- just (eliminate, in most cases)
- sort of (eliminate)
- Cut every nonessential adverb and adjective
Adjectives and adverbs to keep are those that are necessary to–
- stimulate the reader's curiosity and move the story along
- help the reader visualize the precise image you want to project.
- Where you've used two adjectives with one noun, see if you can strengthen the text by eliminating one of them
- Where you've used two adverbs with one verb, see if you can eliminate one.
Use verbals: gerunds, infinitives, and participles wherever possible. (See Verbals)
- Look for situations where two sentences are closely related and the second sentence begins with the word "this" used as a pronoun. Often, the two sentences can be replaced by one using a gerund as the subject.
- Look for unnecessary words in your narratives. Often the sentence containing one or more of these can be shortened.
- Look for variations on the verb "to be" (e.g. is, are, was, etc.) [the word processor’s search function is handy for this]
Where passive is found, does it work? If it doesn't, revise the sentence so that it's in active voice.
- Do you want to stress the object of the action?
- Do you want to indicate a degree of formalness?
- Is it needed for variety?
- Is it needed to slow down the pace?
Where active is used, does it work? If not, revise the sentence so that it's in passive voice.
- Do you want to stress the subject of the action?
- Do you need the more aggressive pacing?
- Is it needed for variety?
- Does each new speaker have a new paragraph?
- Is there a more effective way to paragraph?
- Check bolding and italics to ensure they're marked correctly
- Check for comma splices
- Two spaces after periods? Or does your publisher only want one? Make sure you're consistent throughout your manuscript.
- Go "which" hunting. Make sure "that" isn't more appropriate.
- Combine sentences that are related in meaning
- Check coordinate ideas–make sure they're expressed in parallel form
Here's some of the ones I have problems with:
- Check for logical consistency
- Check for scientific accuracy (SF, Fantasy, Mystery fiction)
- Check for historical accuracy (Historical fiction)
Any part that doesn't sound right or any part you may have stumbled over may be candidates for a rewrite. (If you have Windows 10, you can get Windows Voice Recorder free from their App Store)