Whether you’re pursuing traditional or self-publishing, self-editing is one of the most crucial skills any writer can possess. It’s not an exaggeration to say that novels are made or broken by the revision process.
But it’s very difficult to see your work objectively, and novels are wondrously complex. I find it helpful to be systematic and ask myself very specific questions to isolate potential problems.
Use this revision checklist to identify areas where your book needs additional editing!
- Do I know my novel’s perspective? Is it completely consistent? Do I really understand the difference between third person omniscient, third person limited, and head jumping/hopping? Really really?
- Do I have a plot?
- Does my protagonist(s) want something? Are the stakes clear to the reader?
- Is change underway in my setting that impacts the characters?
- Do my characters face obstacles of increasing intensity?
- Does my protagonist(s) emerge changed?
Structure and organization
- Are my characters actively going after things they want in every single scene? Even if they’re shy or adrift/depressed/aimless?
- Does my main plot arc initiate close enough to the beginning that I won’t lose the reader? Should I include a mini-quest before the main plot kicks off to keep the protagonist active?
- Are my chapters well-organized? Do they reach a definitive moment of punctuation or do they fizzle out?
- Does my protagonist(s) alternate between up and down moments, with the most intense towards the end?
- Is the pacing correct for my genre? Is it consistent?
- Are momentous events given the weight they deserve? Am I being conscious about what is dramatized and what happens off the page?
- If I can take out a chapter and the plot will still make sense, is that chapter really necessary? Should some events be folded in with others?
- Does my book come to a satisfying climax? Does the ending feel rushed?
Characters and relationships
- Do I have enough conflict?
- Does the reader see the best and worst characteristics of my main characters? Are their strengths balanced by weaknesses? Am I being too easy on them?
- Is my protagonist(s) engaging or am I risking “losing” the reader with actions that are beyond the pale?
- Do my characters have specific hopes and dreams?
- Do the relationships between my characters change and become more complicated as the book goes on?
- Do conflicts between characters end in the same muddled place or are conflicts allowed to linger? Are there ups and downs? Do the characters have to work hard to achieve resolutions?
- Do my characters have backstories and histories? Do these impact the plot? Do I really need them on the page?
- Do any of my characters feel flat? Do they need to be spiced up?
- Are the adults running away with my children’s novel?
Craft and prose
- Am I over-relying on dialogue? Do the conversations have a point? Are my protagonist(s) motivations and thought processes clear from the narrative voice?
- Am I providing adequate physical description to immerse the reader in the setting? Am I describing new characters and settings when they’re first introduced? Is it clear how characters are moving from Point A to Point B?
- Am I orienting the reader at the start of new scenes?
- Am I giving the reader sufficient context to understand what’s happening? Am I bogging things down with aimless info-dumps?
- Are my mysteries chosen judiciously or am I being so vague I’m going to confuse the reader?
- Are my gestures specific and individualized? Am I including aimless stage direction?
- Do I know my writing tics? Is my voice consistent?
- Is my prose belabored with excessive words or explanations that are already apparent from context? Am I over-explaining “default” objects?
- Am I using active verbs and clearing out the clutter in my prose?
- Is my novel formatted correctly?
- If I’m pursuing traditional publishing, does the first installment in a series come to a completely satisfying conclusion that does not depend on a sequel?
- Do I know my genre?
- Is my word count appropriate for my genre?
- Is my novel’s title evocative and genre-appropriate?
All of this is easier said than done! It’s so difficult to see what is and isn’t on the page, which is why seeking feedback is important. But the farther you can get self-editing on your own, the more you’ll get out of the editing process.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
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Art: Poor Artist’s Cupboard by Charles Bird King
Thanks Nathan! I'll be printing this list out and pasting it to my writing desk 🙂
ryan field says
"It has a romantic subplot and I'm so afraid of it sounding like a romance novel that I'm really shying away from anything that resembles deep emotion. But my test readers have told me the story feels flat, so I have to grit my teeth and do it."
It's hard, but you can add emotion and romance without having it sound like a romance novel. It sounds like less is more in this case, so keep it simple. But get the point across that the emotion and the love is there. If your readers are all saying this, and it's consistent, listen to them. And listen to your own instincts.
Does anyone STOP reading a book bc it doesn't have curse words in it? Yet there are some who put a book down for that reason, myself included. I'm fine if everybody else wants to throw it around, I just don't, partly bc when I read it, I think it more, and then it comes out of my mouth, and I don't want my kids repeating.
I can't have my character saying "oh crud" like I do, so I say "He swore" or something like that. "Heck" "Dang" and "Sugar" just aren't the same.LOL
And about pet words- I searched my MS for 'just' last week, and cut 250 instances, leaving me with about 30 places where it changes the meaning of the sentence. It was pretty dang amusing.
Perfect list, an invaluable source for aspiring writers. But I find that the problem isn't always intending to do these things, it is knowing whether I've achieved them or not.
If you're a fantasy writer and want to avoid cliches – read Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. It is at once the most terrifying and wonderful book you'll ever read. Try it – but don't say I didn't warn you!
cynthia newberry martin says
Have you put it aside for a couple of weeks, a month, or more and then reread?
Cynthia – is that directed at me?
Yes. I put it down and I re-read and I see new things. But for instance I read lots of 'how to' books and decided to work on my 'show not tell'. I thought I'd worked it out. I gave it to a friend and she said, "No because…" and I agreed. So the point remains that while I might know what I need to do, I don't necessarily know how to achieve it and more importantly whether I have achieved it.
I know the answer is to have that reader – but she is as unpublished as I am – we are both guessing!
I'm not trying to deny that this is a fantastic list, it is, and the fact that it has come from someone current within the industry makes it gold dust. I've printed it out – let the guessing begin!
amber polo says
If I didn't think m current WIP was done after every edit, I wouldn't have an excuse to celebrate.
Miss Mabel says
Don't forget–is it the right length for your genre!
A day late, as usual, but I wanted to add my thanks for the excellent advice in convenient format. I'm trying to get a contemporary novel ready to submit, so everything in the list and the discussion will come in handy.
word: flogwayo. An uncommon sexual practice, no doubt.
Elizabeth Barrette says
Are your protagonist's powers or virtues sufficiently balanced by weaknesses or vices?
Have you fact-checked historical, scientific, or other nonfictional points?
Have you removed or modified genre-specific cliches (dead lesbian, whole-planet weather, etc.) from the story?
Thanks Nathan, just what I needed today!
This kind of checklists kill literature… You end up with books that all read like they were written by the same computer…
Real literature, books that change your life, ignore plots, ignore tension.. They tell a story, first of all and above all. they lift the curtain on a part of the condition humaine. Constructed books, like you present here, just don't do that. they can't.
(Do you think Reve wrote that way? Or Kundera? Dostojevski?)
(pardon my english, I'm dutch)
Nathan Bransford says
There are an infinite number ways to bake a cake, but you still need some essential ingredients and you still go about it essentially the same way.
E. Hartshorn says
I'm just diving into a serious revision . . . just what I needed, more things to keep track of!
Something I picked up from reading Fire in Fiction: Have you honed the first and last lines of every scene? Will they draw the reader onward? (Clearly, the last line of the book should draw the reader on to read your next book.)
Michelle Madow says
I can definitely combine characters. Thanks for posting this!
Great checklist. I combined my MC's two best buds into one, creating a much more interesting best friend. I, fortunately, did this before I was finished with the novel. I'm still not finished, but am so glad I figured this out before I tried to tie it all together. It saved me and gave me motivation to finish.
Savanna Kougar says
Hmmm… maybe it's just me and my particular limitations as an author. However, the list seems overly complex. Or, as an example, if you're learning tennis 'thinking' about every move rather than simply playing tennis doesn't work. Isn't it simpler to discover what isn't working and go from there. Just like playing tennis there's a certain 'right' feel to writing a story, imo. Correcting what doesn't work when you get off track, or as you revise seems like a more natural process. The story and characters become deeper because you as the author learn more about them and their motivations.
To be honest, if I had to think like that, remember all that, instead of penning organically what occurs, I'd never get anything written.
Yep, I'll say it, so no one else has to ~ I'm probably a lousy writer.
To be fair, that is an excellent list overall, and helpful. I just can't think like that.
Still reading comments, but anxious to add my 2 cents while I still remember them.
Avoid cliches. (see above, 2 cents)
Avoid misplaced modifiers. Example:
"Why won't the plumber tell me how much it costs to unclog my drain over the phone?"
Well, maybe it's because they can't unclog your drain over the phone!
Do you use enough detail to enable your readers to picture people, places and things?
~~ Tessa Dick
Suzette Saxton says
Thank you for this!
Roy Hayward says
I totally agree. I know that when I was young, I was frustrated by many authors that thought that because I was a YA that I thought and talked dirt.
I may tick off everyone here, but if you can't make your point without using the F word, then you have a vocabulary problem. (and that problem is not an excess of words) Yes I have met people who had to express themselves using profanity, but I was never impressed by them. And I could write their characters without letting verbatim quotes become jarring to my readers.
It is just like the exclamation point. Show me what is happening and who the characters are. But don't cover up a lack of imagination with an ! or a @#%!
You, the author, are telling me what happened. So you can't describe the seen of people cursing without using the exact language they used? That is a poor epitaph to your writing.
Huff huff. This is a real pet peeve of mine. I may be too much of a reading addict to put a book down. But I certainly don't to get another. I search for authors that write books that have clean and compelling dialog. And sometimes they are very hard to find.
Susan Parran, Amherst, NH says
A writer friend of mine just sent me the link to this blog. What a great idea!
Comment on "side" characters: As a reader and writer, I appreciate when these bit players are handled well. After all, they do everything from supporting the main character and plot to providing necessary breathing spaces between active passages. Make them memorable by making them active in their own right; embue them with enough of their own identity and character that they stand out. One might have a dog with one eye, the other a gambling problem, or an ex-wife who married the ice cream truck driver. Stuff like that. Also, nicknames (rather or in addition to last names, which can be harsh in some usages), are also a good way to go.
Annabel Candy says
Brilliant, thanks! I've been through the list, made each point red, orange or green depending on how much I think I need to work on them. Green means I think I'm doing OK on that, red means I think I need to do serious work on this, orange well, you get the idea! Lots to do.
My big question is how long should it take me to edit, revise and rewrite a 65k manuscript? It is good to have a deadline!
wow thanks this is helpful!
i used that http://www.wordle.net site for my rough draft and, besides my charcters' names, the word "eyes" was the biggest! i guess i shouldn't describe their eyes so much i guess…
Sean P. Farley says
Wow, as a person having written a mystery (a first draft anyway), this list amazing. Thanks, Nathan. I will use it wisely. 🙂
Samantha G says
Thanks Nathan. I will be printing this off and (hopefully) will end up ticking them all off.
Question: How on EARTH do you make relationships between characters change as you go further on in the book? That's really bugging me!
Samantha, your characters need to learn something, come up against obstacles that they can't overcome, change their minds about themselves and others with regard to moral issues, find that people they like are really bad or people they hate are really good, be forced to admit (at least to themselves) that they were wrong, etc.
Fantastic checklist. It's given me a lot of confidence, in that those (all except one) are all the things I already look for when I'm revising, and the book I'm trying to sell is strong on all points. Thank you.
Kieron Heath says
If you read your book aloud, does it sound right?
Do any of your characters have names that being with the same letter?
Can I ask? Your checklist sounds like it applies the same criteria as the Hollywood formula for screenplays (e.g. as propounded by Robert wassisname and Aristotle). What if the reason you like fiction is because what you like is not formulaic? What if dialogue should not serve any end other than entertainment/character definition (but not plot arc)? Jane Austen follows an almost perfect 3 act play structure but who reads Jane Austen for the plot? Or am I just an idealist and doomed to (continued) failure? BTW FWIW I like your blog – you are a very clear writer and if I can ever get over the mental block of my own literature/writing theories your advice is v good on a v practical level
Kia Abdullah says
This is really useful, Nathan. Thank you. I just finished reading American Psycho and noticed how many times Patrick Bateman 'shakes [his] head to clear it' or is 'filled with a nameless dread'. Writing tics and recycled phrases can be so difficult to spot when immersed in writing a novel. Your post has served as a timely reminder.
Incredibly all inclusive list. I should think if I check each of these off after accomplishment, I will certainly begin to get published.
Thanks so much.
Marlene A Hibbard
Thank you, Nathan, this post is awesome! I'm still in the first draft stage, but that doesn't mean I can't apply these ideas – and I most certainly will!