If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably have a packing checklist–a master list of clothing, toiletries, computer equipment, electronics, etc, that you need to remember to pack. A packing list prevents mistakes by helping you remember all those miscellaneous items you need to collect every time you head out of town. A packing list also saves you time because you don’t have to start from scratch every time you pack.
As a writer, an editing checklist serves essentially the same function.
- It helps you track those easy-to-miss details so you don’t make errors of omission.
- It’s a cumulative document, taking advantage of your experience over the long haul.
- It helps you to break down a potentially overwhelming task (editing a manuscript) into a series of manageable steps.
In other words, an editing checklist helps you complete your work more effectively, in less time, via a defined process.
It marks you as a professional!
Step 1: Define Your “Buckets”
So what goes on your editing checklist?
When I create or update my packing checklist, I start by creating broad categories of items. If I’m going camping, those categories might include clothing, rain gear, and cooking supplies; for a writing conference, I’m more likely to include categories such as writing supplies, electronics, and dress clothes.
I flesh out the list by tackling one bucket at a time. Each category acts as a mental “bucket” that helps me generate the more detailed list of items I need to remember.
Similarly, the easiest way to start creating your editing checklist is to divide editing tasks into broad categories. Buckets can be as simple as
- First Pass edits
- Second Pass edits
- Third Pass edits
(We’ll talk about what goes into each of these buckets in a minute.)
The point here is that it’s important to divvy up your editing work so you aren’t trying to look at everything at once. That’s because there are a limited number of problems your mind can tackle at one time. If you try to edit writing style, grammar, story structure, and continuity in a single reading, your brain will probably explode. Do NOT try this at home!
Please, for the sake of writers and editors everywhere, focus on one aspect of an edit at a time! <grin>
Step 2: Define What Goes In the “First-Pass” Edit
I find it helpful to organize the specific steps of my edit from most general to most specific–from big-picture tasks, like editing overall story structure, to detail tasks, like editing for grammar and style. That’s because it’s most efficient to work on “big picture” edits before tackling details like spelling and sentence structure.
It’s easy to get sucked into details like word choice and phrasing when working on an edit–but if you’re line editing a passage that will get cut, you’re wasting your time. Hash out the big picture structure of a piece before spending time on detail work.
First-Pass Edit Topics
The specific items you’ll want to look for in a first-pass edit will depend somewhat on what you’re writing–fiction versus nonfiction, short versus long, etc. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Do you have a strong introduction or story hook?
Is the ending emotionally satisfying? Does it wrap up all the main story threads?
- Narrative thread
Does the piece have a logical flow? Does the plot have a satisfying “shape,” based on the level of tension and conflict?
Are the characters’ actions and thoughts internally consistent? Do the characters–especially the protagonists–progress through a satisfying growth arc?
Are there lulls in the action? Points where you need to spend more time?
Don’t edit only what’s on the page–look for what’s missing.” –Liz Pelletier
Step 3: Define What Goes In the “Second-Pass” Edit
Once you’ve finished correcting those big picture problems with story structure, character arcs, and so on, you’re ready to go over the manuscript in slightly more detail. The second pass edit isn’t yet the time or place for a line edit, though. The second pass edit is where you’ll make sure that the separate elements of your story or book fit together seamlessly. Here are some possible items for your second-pass editing checklist:
- Section lengths
Are any sections of the manuscript too long or too short? Are you giving unintended emphasis to one portion of your story as a result?
Are there passages of dialog, description, or explanation that can be combined?
If you’re writing nonfiction, do you have multiple sources for each piece of information?
Are you making any assumptions about the reader’s knowledge? If this is a sequel, is there anything a new reader will need to know to enjoy the book?
Have you included clear transitions from section to section (for nonfiction), or scene to scene (for fiction)? Does each section or scene begin by orienting the reader to time, place, narrator, and other essential information?
Step 4: Define the “Third-Pass” Edit
This is where you finally get to make all those nit-picky changes you’ve been dying to make. The third pass edit includes a thorough copy edit, where you correct errors in spelling, punctuation, and word usage. It’s also where you take a closer look at your writing style–making changes that don’t necessarily correct something that’s wrong, but instead help the sentences to flow more smoothly.
Here are a few suggestions for your third-pass checklist:
- Vary sentence length and structure
- Grammar and punctuation
- Correct word usage
- Eliminate weak words such as really, very, and like
- Replace adverbs with strong verbs
- Eliminate unnecessary words
- Eliminate inappropriate use of passive voice
- Spell check your document
The Ultimate Editing Checklist
Just as no two travelers’ packing checklists will be identical, your editing checklist will be highly personal. If you’re the type of person who corrects spelling, punctuation, and writing style automatically, you might be able to lump them in with other to-do’s on your editing checklist.
Or maybe the idea of tackling everything I listed for your “first pass” edit makes your eyes cross…in which case, you’ll want to move some of those items to a separate manuscript run-through.
The key is to make sure that you find your personal editing sweet spot, where you’ve got just enough on your checklist to hold your attention as you work through the document–but not so much that you feel overwhelmed.
That’s why–in my opinion–the best editing checklist is one that you’ve worked with over time and adapted to your particular needs as a writer. That’s also why I’m not offering you a one-size-fits-all editing checklist solution. You can find editing checklists all over the Internet that will provide you with ideas of what to look for when you’re polishing a manuscript–but unless you tailor those checklists to your specific needs, you only have a tool.
The Ultimate Editing Checklist represents a process–YOUR process for creating your best writing, in the most effective and time-efficient way possible. It might take some time and effort to create, but believe me: it will be worth it!