If you are in the writing business, you are submitting your work all sorts of interesting places. Perhaps you are sending a story to a contest or a magazine. Maybe you’ve written an article for a local newspaper. For most of us, it’s probably the next blog post. The last thing you want to do is to send your work into the big world and then realize that there is a missing comma in the first paragraph, or your protagonist changes the spelling of his name halfway through the story. This list is geared more towards fiction writing, but the general concepts can be used in any type of writing.
Before you hit send, or publish, there are a few things that you should consider doing before you declare your work done.
- Check your content – This is the big picture. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and an ending. Don’t rob the reader by cheating them out of any of the vital parts. Ask yourself, does this make sense? Check for continuity within your concepts and your timeline.
- Characters – A good character is one that a reader can identify with, they have problems, faults, and challenges to overcome. Main characters must grow somehow through the course of the story. If they don’t change, then what’s the point?
- Setting – This often overlooked element can add a huge amount of depth and history to your piece. Why settle for boring or stereotyped settings when you can add interest and beauty. Double check that within each scene the setting and how the characters react to it is present. I’m not saying to drop a paragraph to describe the landscape, but showing what affects your characters in the setting is a great way to learn more about the character as well.
- Passive voice vs active voice – Search your story for the words “was”, “is”, “are”, and “were.” Many times these verbs are used because the right verb couldn’t be found. He was tired = boring. He sagged in his chair = interesting. It’s okay to have a few of them in there, but chances are, there is something better.
- Adjectives and adverbs – Over use of adjectives and adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Any one can describe something using a handful of adjectives. The tired man sat in the old red chair. Blah. He fell into the armchair, a cloud of dust burst from its cushions. Better. As for adverbs, especially in dialogue tagging, try for better verbs instead, or show some action. “Wow, that’s a lot of dust,” he said, wearily. Ouch. “Wow, that’s a lot of dust,” he coughed. Meh. “Wow, that’s a lot of dust.” He waved the cloud away with one of the throw pillows. You get the idea, I hope.
- Overuse of red flag words or descriptive clauses – We are all guilty of using our favorite little pet descriptions. I often describe motions in turns and nods. If I don’t edit for this my characters are perpetually spinning and bobbing their heads. It gets old. If you describe something in one specific way once, you can’t describe a different thing the same way. Readers will catch this and they will nail you for it. One book I read recently described the outcome of several battles using this same phrase, “They were killed down to the last man.” It was used maybe seven separate times. Please don’t do that. As I edited this post I found the term “Chances are” four times. It’s easy to do, trust me.
- Punctuation and grammar, especially commas– This is the nitty-gritty phase of editing. If you have done all previous steps, you are ready to do a serious check of grammar and punctuation. Make sure your commas are in the right places and you understand the finer points of dialogue punctuation. Make sure that your verbs agree and your sentences don’t run all over the place. Sometimes it’s easier when you combine this step with the next one.
- Read your work out loud – This is possibly the best tool in the writer/editors toolbox. Problems with flow and sentence structure become painfully clear when read aloud. Even better, get someone to read it to you so you can see what they stumble over.
- Have a trusted friend read your stuff – They can catch story problems and point out character issues better and faster than you can because they don’t have the story in their head. They have that beautiful thing called perspective. Use it to your advantage.
- Rinse and repeat – Once you’ve gone through this process once a truck load of issues might surface that need correcting, especially after some critical feedback from your reader. This is when you start again at the top of the list. I’d recommend repeating the cycle at least twice before submitting important pieces of work. Don’t however get stuck in an endless cycle. If you think your work is ready after a few rounds, it probably is!
In the end the goal is the same, to create the best work we can. By following a list like this you can know what to look for in the editing process and what takes priority. Fixing the big issues first saves time and your sanity. It would be silly to spend hours checking grammar and punctuation if you decide later to remove or change an entire chapter. Forcing a friend to read something that hasn’t been checked for basic grammar and punctuation might result in plenty advice and corrections on your grammar but takes the focus away from the overall content, where you really need their help.
I hope this is helpful for my fellow writers as it is for me.
What would you add to this list?
- Basic Grammar Rules and Examples (sofundamental.com)
- Punch-me Punctuation (hfkaner.wordpress.com)
- The Goofproof Guide To The Seven Most Confusing Punctuation Marks (business2community.com)
- Grammar and Creative Writing (eslschoolforenglish.wordpress.com)