How to Create a Checklist for Quick & Easy Self-Editing

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!

WARNING: Simultaneously editing for style, structure,
grammar, & continuity creates risk of brain explosion!


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:

  • Opening
    Do you have a strong introduction or story hook?
  • Ending
    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?
  • Characters
    Are the characters’ actions and thoughts internally consistent? Do the characters–especially the protagonists–progress through a satisfying growth arc?
  • Pacing
    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

Pro Tip: In her fabulous “How to Edit Like a Pro” workshop, Entangled editor Liz Pelletier advises writers to
• Do a full read-through for their first pass edit
• Reformat the manuscript to make it look more like a print book before beginning, to fool the brain into treating the work more like a published book
• Read through the entire manuscript without interruption
• Make a note (in a separate document) of every place where they paused–where they could stop reading.
These steps will help writers to notice big-picture elements such as story pacing and character arcs.

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?
  • Repetition
    Are there passages of dialog, description, or explanation that can be combined?
  • Sources
    If you’re writing nonfiction, do you have multiple sources for each piece of information?
  • Assumptions
    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?
  • Transitions
    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

Pro Tip: It can be difficult to catch spelling, punctuation, and other small errors in your own writing because your brain is so good at correcting what you actually see and replacing it with what it thinks you should see. Try these tips to help you view your writing with fresh eyes–and catch more of those pesky mistakes!

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!

I AM offering a guide to help you start assembling your personal Ultimate Editing Checklist. Please sign up for my email list so I can send you this collection of awesome tools and resources, including the suggestions from this post!
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