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.
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Art: Poor Artist’s Cupboard by Charles Bird King
I've found that some of my side characters can be combined so the reader has to remember fewer names and the characters have greater impact.
Julie Weathers says
This is an invaluable checklist.
Julie Weathers says
I've found that some of my side characters can be combined so the reader has to remember fewer names and the characters have greater impact.–Kiersten
I just finished doing that. It does make a difference.
remember yesterday's blog post?
My word verification should be added:
I've learned in a character-heavy ms to refer to some characters by their last names, it's easier for a reader to identify the surname "Solarno" or "Tellis" as one of the bad guys than if he has the name Kevin, Matt, Todd, etc.
The first four of your list are the hardest, imo, and probably what keeps lots of books unsold.
Lisa Schroeder says
aHave you created a main character who we can relate to? Who we empathize with? Just a few ways you can do this:
Good at something, has a strength
Liked or loved by someone else
Has a familiar flaw
Do individual names stand out or do they blur together and become indistinguishable?
This is a huge help, Nathan. Thank you!
Bane of Anubis says
Nice list – w/ my recent work, I feel fairly confident about all of these (except, perhaps, the description part)… the key for me for this vs certain other stories I've written is that I cared about the characters far more… so along those lines (which can probably be inferred by several of your points – e.g., best and worst characteristics – but not necessarily)…
Does the reader experience sympathy /empathy for your characters (not just protags)?
Do you make use of all five senses where appropriate?
(a biggie, I think)
Does anything interrupt the "dream vision" of the story?
If you read the dialog aloud, does it sound like real people talking?
Do you have a hook?
This is too much fun. I'm going to be here all day. All I need now is a crumpet and I'll be set.
Wow! Great list – especially #4.
Bane of Anubis says
"Is your word choice perfect throughout?"
BTW – this one sux big time; I used to be far less critical of my own writing; now the writing's far superior to what I did even a couple of years ago, but I'm never pleased with it; eventually I'll settle on something that conveys what I want fluidly, but I'm fairly certain that I'll never believe it's perfect (though, to comfort myself, I'm 99.99% certain there is no just thing as a perfect book)
David R. Slayton says
Is there too much description? I think a lot of times it's just as easy to go the other way with that.
Does your dialog reveal something new about the characters or the plot?
Rick Daley says
Can you sit back and read through it without a compulsive need to continue changing it?
Bane of Anubis says
David – great point – e.g., Robert Jordan.
Marilyn Peake says
Yes, in answer to all your questions. 🙂
Does my book have an ending, meaning the final chapter? Not yet.
Here's a question about something I strive for in my writing and love to find in novels, not always found in best-sellers: Is your writing elegant?
Another question: Is there symbolism present to enrich the story?
Are actions and reactions ligcally connected? Are events causally related? (Also known as "How to avoid deus ex machina)
Does that ever happen? My Beta readers will absolutely adore my MS, and I continously grow bored with it. I just finished a final revision and am afraid to read over it again, I know I will see something to change.
Melanie Avila says
Wow, this post came at the perfect time. I'm a couple days away from finishing line edits on my fourth draft and these are all the questions I've been asking myself — plus a couple I haven't.
Holly Bodger says
1. Are you showing rather than telling? Ask yourself this question for every single sentence!
2. Does the narrator know the information he/she is giving the reader and does it make sense for them to share it?
Nathan Bransford says
Everyone is making really good suggestions. I may not be adding all to the main post because I'm going to stick to the most universal ones, and some of the suggestions here might apply to some genres but not others.
But the comment thread will also be a great place to go for more ideas.
Do your section and chapter breaks end with strong enough hooks to pull the reader forward?
Do you introduce new characters and settings at a pace that doesn't overwhelm the reader?
Does the resolution to the conflict arise from who the central character is at heart? If the resolution doesn't depend on them, why are we following them?
This is a wonderful list – very helpful. I like that you've gone right for the important things first – plot arc, conflict, pacing. I love the idea of a readable checklist for this.
I do wonder, though, about one thing you said: not having too chatty or sarcastic a voice. That was an interesting one. I do think you have to be very careful not to distract from the story.
My 'voice' tends to be chatty to the point of being almost intimate, and I think I can make it work. Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) also uses a 'chatty' narrator to great effect.
I guess in fiction, the trick is if you have a 'chatty' narrator, then they become a character in addition to the others. That's how Daniel Hanlder handles it.
Also, sadly, I have to disagree with one other point. One can never have too many adverbs.
Adverbs are my life. I've started to go through all my books, and add them in myself. There just aren't enough adverbs in the world.
Great list Nathan. But if I take away #8 – chatty and sarcastic, I have nothing left; I'm a one trick pony. Sigh.
Jason Crawford says
Are there holes and/or contradictions in the plot or in character behavior?
Susie hopped a train to New York in Chap 5, but Jack asks her if she enjoyed her flight she arrives in Chap 6.
Susie has a arachnophobia in Chap 3, but has no qualms about the tarantula her crawling up her arm in Chap 9.
Mira, you are awesomely freakishly admirably hilarious!
Will you add them to my books, too? You are so much better at it.
Nathan Bransford says
mira and diana-
I said overly chatty and sarcastic.
Jason Crawford says
Also making sure you read through your edits BEFORE you post them….sorry for al the typos above. 🙂
- Eadyn's Calling says
Just the post I need, as I'm going to be working through revision on my book in a few months. 🙂 Thanks!
Kiersten and Julie – I did the same thing yesterday. I kept feeling like I was creating new characters when maybe I didn't need to. I'm surprised by how much better that made my MS.
Bane of Anubis says
RTFP, ladies :p
Holly, great point about showing, though narrative telling in some places is sometimes useful.
Can you identify what the story is about – the theme?
Is it clear in the first chapter?
*this is the one that helps me to pare down the story from 180K – if it doesn't echo the theme, it goes.
Is the point of the novel to tell a story rather than beat the reader over the head with a moral? Or does the entire work read like a sermon or an episode of a bad 80's cartoon?
Personally, any time I read the back of a book and it mentions a character learning "what's really important in life," I gag a little. I say, if you have to get preachy, sneak it in the back door, and cushion it with humor. Do it gracefully, not aggressively. That's the difference between a writer like Terry Pratchett and one of those authors whose cover is pastel and sparkly. Not naming names.
Do you repeat yourself — lines, paragraphs, chapters, themes?
Nathan, on the first one do you mean something like Sophie Kinsella's books where the story goes on for most of the book and THEN gets to the plot twist? Example: Confessions of a Shopaholic– the plot twist doesn't come until near the end and we're asked to sit through the main character's shopping addictions for however many (too many) pages.
Or am I too anal about making my plot arcs within the first 30 pages? Where else does not doing this work? (I'm not sure it really works in the Shopaholic book.)
This is a fabulous list. I like Ink's five senses suggestion, as I think about that in every scene. The only thing I'd add to the revision process is to have beta readers read the book, preferably with Nathan's checklist by their side. I think sometimes it's hard to be objective when you've been obsessing over the same manuscript for months and a fresh pair of eyes can identify problem areas more easily.
Nathan – it's a good point. I'm not disagreeing with you, more discussing it. It's just very interesting for me, because my natural 'voice' is chatty and personal. So, where to find that line. One can easily distract from the story if you make the narrator too visible. You have to be really careful.
Bane – what does RTFP mean?
Anon 11:58 – Thank you. I'd be honored. Adverb advocates must bond together.
Margaret Yang says
Have you used the word "toward" correctly, without an S on the end, if you are an American? (Pet peeve, can you tell?)
Is your word count still vithin acceptable parameters. (I don't know about anyone else, but my word count can really fluctuate sometimes when I'm revising, in either direction)
Zoe Winters says
My characters roll their eyes too much. I've considered poking their eyeballs out with a spork. Or at least threatening it for each infraction.
Does your dialect agree with the time period, location of book, nationality of character, age of character? Is grammar getting in the way of the true way a person's speech sound?
I personally think grammar in the wrong areas take away from voice.
"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." – Stephen King
Mira disagrees irrevocably, wholeheartedly, unreservedly, unabashedly … my brain aches now. Too many stinkin’ adverbs.
Nathan, what's your verdict on the adverb debate?
Nathan Bransford says
Everything in moderation.
Does your dialogue move the story forward or are your characters just talking to take up white space on the page?