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
Rick Daley says
Your genre in particular is not amenable to swearing.
I just searched my MS and I have five f-bombs in there, out of 105,000 words. Four of them are in dialogue, and by the time I am done with my re-write, I wouldn't be surprised if all of them are gone.
There are no bad words, just inappropriate places to use them.
I try to find creative ways to avoid swearing, too, unless I am doing it for a special emphasis or for humor (like the %^$#& in my prior post).
If your story has multiple intertwined plotlines, if you read JUST the bits for Plot A does it make sense, is it consistent, and does it "arc"? What about plot B?
[repeat as necessary, until running out of letters of the alphabet]
Anna Lefler says
Oh, man, fantastic list!
A possible addition: do you clearly understand and convey your main character's surface problem and story-worthy problem?
Thanks for this, Nathan – it's exactly the post I needed to read today.
Lotus girl said: Have all the side storylines you started gotten resolved? Do they weave seamlessly into the main storyline's conclusion?
I was thinking about this in my MS this morning. Trying to wrap my brain around my plot threads and make sure they're resolved to my satisfaction. I hate when writers – and sitcoms for that matter – don't fully wrap things up.It's a pet peeve of mine.
I love it though when everything works and you have an "Ah ha" moment. It's like magic the way plot threads weave together sometimes.
Rick and Laura and whoever else cares about the f-bomb:
If your reader target is old enough I think sometimes it's safer to use it than not. I don't believe dialogue that's too clean coming from a strung out teenaged drug dealer, for example. It's an ugly word that is used VERY frequently and let's face it, actually does make you feel better after you drop an anvil on your foot.
For artful judicious use of the f-bomb I highly recommend "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." Very discreet and elegantly done.
Is there TOO much conflict leaving the reader confused and overwhelmed?
This list is awesome Nathan. I would be ecstatic to see it placed as a tag or FAQ link on your blog. It is something I think we could all use through out the process!
I'm not sure if you are quoting a question or if you came up with the "swear word" question on your own, but I have seen people that obviously don't curse on a regular basis and so it seems awkward when I read it. But you can tell reading someone's work if it comes naturally or not. At least I think so.
I'm a closet potty mouth but the expletives used to flow full force when I was a teen to the point of making sailors blush. I like to think I'm not hanging up my readers on a curse word because I don't know my material. 😉 I guess there is some good points to "writing what you know". muwahahaha.
I just think cursing is like a tic. If you haven't experienced it or been around enough people with it, you may not be able to pull it off.
Pete Peterson says
One more I'd add:
-Do each of your scenes make dramatic sense on their own as well as move the overall plot forward? Do they have a beginning, middle, and end. Do they contain both conflict and some sort of resolution?
Laura Martone says
I agree that the use of "swear words" (including the f-bomb) can be critical, depending on the character and central story. If you're writing about modern-day soldiers – or, as you suggested, strung-out teenaged drug dealers – then it's imperative that you be true to their style of speech, which usually includes naughty language. But, in the case of my literary/mainstream novel (with which Rick is familiar), the few f-bomb instances seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. I mean, my main character is a disgruntled housewife and mother (NOT a strung-out drug dealer… although…).
I think the bottom line is that you must always be true to your characters' voices. In other words, it doesn't matter that I am, in fact, a potty mouth myself. (Yes, Purple Clover, I only WISH I was a "closet" potty mouth like you.) The question is… would my characters use that language in a given scenario?
wv: fiblent – inclined to lie through one's teeth
Jude Hardin says
Have you eliminated all cliches?
Do each of your scenes have a turning point? Either surprise, increased curiosity, insight or new direction (thank you Robert McKee)? Do the events lead up to and then away from that moment without extra hoo-ha?
Does the character change in some way in each scene?
Your MC could be any one of my friends. We talk like sailors. Or HBO after midnight. It's the last form of rebellion once the kids get old enough to smell it if you've been smoking.
But you're right, though. If you "know" your characters instead of just invent them you know if they would use words like that. I think avoiding it deliberately can be just as awkward as using it gratuitously, though. Either way it shows.
Laura Martone says
Laurel – Good point. I'll add that to my list of concerns for my current revision… I don't want it to seem like I'm TRYING to eliminate swear words… Ah, so much to think about! This writing stuff isn't easy, I tell ya. 🙂
wv: glogue – (pronounced GLOAG) the latest style magazine for bloggers and their commenters (you know, with articles that help to bring out the blogging fashionista in all of us – because, even in the comfort of our homes, it matters what we wear – you never know who's watching!)
Great Checklist Nathan.
I so want to be done so I can be in the "revision process".
word ver. – supper – uh oh – I better get off the computer and fix the kids something to eat!
(I've been wanting to say that all along. Is that a cliche'? lol 'Tis one of my fav songs!)
I have to agree that seems to be an important one. I keep getting updates on the latest and greatest feedback from the conferences and one of the things I'm hearing is the overuse of cliche's. I had no idea and I'm pretty sure I use them in abundance. I am one big cliche'.
Christine H says
I finally wrote today, breaking my two-month fast. Yes to all that stuff Nathan wrote. I think about all of it, but that's why I get so overwhelmed, too, and think I'll just never be able to do it.
One thing at a time. That's what I keep telling myself. Pick one thing and start with it.
Do you have internal and external conflicts?
Christine H says
PS I don't curse unless I'm really, really upset and even as I do it, I'm aware of how unladylike it is. So I either say "He cursed" to get the emotional state across without actually swearing, or I make up fantasy curse words.
Fantasy writers can do that.
From a former English teacher, "Did you replace most of your exclamation points with periods?" I understand that you're excited, but your dialog/description should tell us that without the exclamation point at the end. (Yep, you know what that means–show, don't tell. Ahh, the teacher lives on).
Christine H says
Is it enjoyable to read? Or, if being enjoyable is not your goal, can the words be read smoothly and coherently out loud?
Minnette Meador says
This is something I get all the time when I'm editing:
Are we living the story with the character or just watching the story?
Great list! I would add: Does your MC do something stupid to move the plot along? Can they do it differently, instead?
As a reader, nothing will make me throw a book across the room faster than the MC doing something really stupid for the sake of the plot.
Laura Martone says
Christine H. – Not to beat a dead horse [to use a cliche – ;-)], but as to the cursing issue, sci-fi/fantasy writers can (and should) have more fun with it! Just look at the now-expired show "Battlestar Galactica" – the characters said "frack" (sp?) so often that I hardly heard "frack" anymore – I heard you-know-what instead. Same goes for the show "Firefly" – the characters cursed in a whole made-up language – it was awesome (a wonderful way to swear without really swearing on network TV). Grr – stupid Fox for cancelling it.
Marilyn Peake says
I was thinking the same thing. Battlestar Galactica used the word "frack" so often, I found myself thinking of it as a real swear word after watching a marathon of Battlestar Galactica shows. I thought the constant swearing fit the characters who talked that way. I’ve started listening to Ronald D. Moore’s podcasts about the show. I think he’s a brilliant writer, and his podcasts are fascinating.
My two favorite TV shows are Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Like you, I was really disappointed that Firefly never came back!
thank you for this. i'm just writing sequel rough draft and it's helpful!
I so needed this right now. Thank you.
Laura Martone says
Beta Anon –
Sorry that I didn't address your question earlier in the day… sometimes, reading the comments on Nathan's blog can be overwhelming. 🙂
Anyway, what kind of beta readers are you looking for? I'm currently swapping manuscripts with a fellow writer – in other words, we're helping each other as beta readers/critiquers. If you're interested in that possibility, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we can discuss it off the blog.
Brilliant post Nathan
Wow! I just printed out the completed first draft of my manuscript ten minutes ago, and stopped by your blog to find a revision checklist!
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Nathan!
Perfect timing- I started revising today.
Morgan Xavier says
Um, yay Firefly!!! Totally shiny!
And, also, YAY discussing the use of swearing! This is something I have wondered about, especially because my characters tend to swear…a lot. Nothing like Stephen King, mind you. Maybe three words per chapter (which runs around 5000 words). Until chapter Five. Lots of potty mouth punks. But they totally get what's coming to them. Yup. Awesome.
My reason for using the actual word instead of saying, "he cursed," is that my I want my scenes to pull the reader in, as if they are actually watching what is happening. Hearing the character saying it makes it seem more real. But I don't know what an agent or editor will think. I guess the words can always be replaced, if it came to that.
All I can say is be true to your artistic integrity. I find the really good stuff comes when I'm not even trying. And if the 'voice' includes a f#$@, then chances are, it is meant to be included. So long as it isn't every other sentence. Have I mentioned Stephen King?
This is a fantastic list. Thanks Nathan. There are some great additions within the thread, too. I'll have to investigate wordle.net. Word reps are my pet peeve.
Another suggestion: Step Away from the Novel
Set your book aside for a while before giving it that final read. *Especially* after making dramatic edits. I revised my novel several times before giving it to beta readers, and then I did another round of cuts and additions after hearing their feedback. Then I caught the chickenpox.
Although suffering the 'pox in adulthood was no picnic, the benefit (and the only one I can think of) was that my final copy edit was delayed for three weeks. When I re-read the revamped version, I found tiny things I'd changed that affected plot arcs and timeline details, as well as continuity errors that I'd just missed from the get-go.
Being so close to the story and characters all the time, I had the "logic" in my head. But what's in your head may not be what's on the paper. You have to take time—be it two weeks or two months—to get your mindset out of "informed writer" mode and into a more objective place to identify problems you create when you fix all of the other problems.
Oh, and congratulations to all of the blog readers here who seem so close to finishing their works! It's so nice to hear everyone say that they're almost done.
apparently, one must be politically correct for contemporary readers even this is in conflict with the time and place of your novel. For example, I was told I could offend readers because in 1920's Paris, my pregnant character drank wine with her meals. Hardly an alcoholic, she is sociable and in keeping with HER times. Any thoughts?
Thanks for the checklist. It'll be very helpful when writing.
Keren David says
As the first one who mentioned swearing I'm happy to see that others find it a problem – and Rick, I agree completely!
I'm writing YA books so I don't want to frighten off parents, teachers and librarians but I do want to write something reasonably realistic. So I do a lot of referring to the fact that people are cussing without using the actual words. Even so my editor thought I used one swearword – Christ – too often and asked me to swop a few for other swearwords. So it's variety as well as frequency that made it work in the end.
I think the main difference between writing for a YA audience and an adult one has to be in the liberal use of swear words and perhaps how explicit and frequent the sexual references are.
I think an important consideration is whether your story would be interesting to other people, even if they don't share your experiences, opinions and ideologies.
Anonymous, the politically correct thing drives me crazy, as I wonder all the time whether someone is going to take something out of context and say I'm promoting some behavior. I don't know the answer, though.
Regarding the swearing making the story authentic, I once tried to write a Christian romance in which the hero was a construction worker. I'm married to one, so I know how they talk. It was very difficult to write the scenes where the guys are talking amongst themselves. I finally gave up and shelved the project, but I may resurrect it as a contemporary novel one day.
Regarding adverbs… I believe a carefully chosen adverb adds a lot to a sentence. They are a part of our language for a reason.
Regarding characters coming through the book changed:
I hate being drawn into a long, complicated, heart-rending story, only to find out at the end that nothing really changed. I feel very frustrated and let down, even manipulated.
I think the use of expletives comes down to the tone of the novel. Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff, yes. But then, the entire novel is steeped in Trailer Park despair. The curses soon disappear and become as vanilla as said tags. However, I'd point out that the swearing is part and parcel to the purpose of the work. In other words, a curse often holds so much weight as to steal the scene. So when I use one, it's usually in a moment that defines everything around it.
Short of that, I find rereading them in the editing process a little embarrassing. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I can see that I've threw it in as something of a lazy place holder in order to go back and find a better way to express the essence of the moment.
Justus M. Bowman says
When I first read "David R. Slayton," I thought you were referring to an author who uses too much description. Ha ha.
I like Joy's comment @ 6:49. Take out those exclamation points! It screams amatuer.
Also, is there so much drama that it reads like melodrama? Obstacles are great, but there is a fine balance between creating tension that furthers the story and creating tension that distracts from the story.
Conflict should mean something. Having a character do an internal monologue for three pages because a hot dog stand didn't have mustard might be entertaining from a writer standpoint, but as a reader — heck, get on with it already.
More applicable to genre works. Have you eliminated any and all deux ex machina plot devices? If writing in an action genre, does your ending depend on a car chase? Have you double (triple) checked your factual references?
Awesome checklist, will be printing out.
verify word: moggin
I really like your point about stepping away from the novel for awhile. Getting some perspective is crucial, and I think alot of us tend to rush the process in order to get the our work out there.
Sorry to hear about your chicken pox, though!
Re adverbs – Although it's true that I spend my spare time going through Shakespeare, popping in adverbs all hither and thither (verily, verily), I admit that adverbs in most cases should be used judiciously.
Just not in Shakespeare.
Dear Nathan, I've been following you for some time now and I just want to say the following: I don't know how you do it, but I really appreciate the time and effort you're putting in to maintaining the quality of today's changing literary market. We can't stop technology or development, but we can and we should protect the high standards of literature. It's a great responsibility to keep on offering publications that are more than good reads or must haves (nothing against these); to prevent the extinction of Literature. Thank you for helping out.
monchichi and the serendipity berries says
Great list, Nathan– thanks! I've bookmarked it and will return to it often.
Thanks, Brian, for the worldle link– a great find (and yes, it is pretty).
And if people are putting together a beta readers group, I'd love to be a part of it! You can email me via my blog. Thanks!
Chuck H. says
That would be me arriving extremely late to the party. Rain, mud, farmwork, etc. Nathan said "everything in moderation" but I prefer Lazarus Long's (Heinlein) version. "Everything in excess. Moderation is for monks."
WV: arrhaphi – too many "arr's"?
ryan field says
This is a good list. It's a great example of what the best copyeditors do all the time.
I also think something else could be important. It doesn't always happen, but sometimes it does. If you think you're holding back too much with a certain character's emotions, fix it. Listen to your instincts. It happened to me with a book and I didn't listen to my instincts. And each time the book was reviewed, the reviewers mentioned that they wanted to see more emotion from that character. They felt let down. And they were right. One or two sentences could have fixed this, but I hesitated.
Christine H says
Ryan – What you said.
I know that's the problem with my current book. 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.
Didn't someone say that a story without love is like a meal without salt? Or something to that effect?
Thanks, Nathan! Fantastic post.
And Jason- I will always, always have qualms about the tarantula crawling up my arm. (smile)