12 Steps to Improve Your Work Using a Self-Editing Checklist

  Pat Aitcheson    Oct 30, 2018
12 Steps to Improve Your Work Using a Self-Editing Checklist
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This self-editing checklist covers the basics of self-editing so you can get your work looking its best.

If you want your message to be heard, be clear. Don’t tempt readers to click away or put your book down because of careless mistakes in grammar or construction.

Writing and editing are different skills with different mindsets. You need to separate creation (right brain activity) from critique (left brain activity).

Write your piece, then let it sit for a while before editing it. Concentrating on one aspect of editing each time leads to better results.

1. Back Up Everything Every Time You Write

Back up regularly to an external hard drive and/or the cloud. At the very least, save to a USB stick (thumb drive.)

Save each version and number the file names v1, v2, etc., especially for a longer work. This allows you to turn back time if you need to reference an earlier draft.

2. Check the Overall Appearance

On the screen we need much more white space than on a page. White space allows our eyes to rest. For online pieces, paragraphs can be one to three sentences long.

To improve clarity,  have one idea per sentence. Avoid comma splices, where a comma is used instead of a full stop.

3. Print it Out

Use a different font in a larger size than usual. This makes it easier to see errors like missing punctuation, extra spaces, or duplicate words.

Non-justified text is easier to read.

Always start a new paragraph when there is a change in:

  • topic
  • location
  • speaker

You might also want to break the paragraph to emphasize a particular sentence.

4. Read it Aloud

This is the number-one method to catch awkward or choppy dialogue, repeated words, and long sentences. Hearing your story read out loud is great fun. You can mark up the print copy as you go along.

Use text to speech to have your computer read to you.

This is standard on Macs: open System Preferences, then Dictation and Speech.

For Android devices, look under Accessibility. Or download a free app such as ReadAloud for PC.

5. Typos and Homonyms

The spell checker is very useful for catching spelling errors. However, it will not highlight typos that are real words, for example, “bets” rather than “best.” You’ll see them on a print copy and hear them on audio.

It’s essential to read through your print copy more than once to catch typos, even when the spelling check is complete.

Homonyms are words with the same sound or spelling but different meanings. For example:

  • To/too/two
  • There/their/they’re
  • Peek/peak/pique

Homonym errors can be repeated because you’re unaware or unsure of the correct word. If you’re not sure, you don’t know it. Look it up.

You can find more information about homonyms here. It’s worth reading more about homonyms because they can trip up even the most experienced writer.

6. Avoid Repetition

In everyday speech, crutch words give us time to think:

  • well
  • really
  • honestly
  • actually
  • literally

In writing, crutch words are those we lean on and use repeatedly.

Using a few of these in written dialogue can show character and sound natural, but beware of using them too often. Good dialogue is natural speech, polished.

You can use a word frequency counter like this one to see which words you overuse.

Action tags are another source of repetition: shrugged, smiled, laughed, sighed.    

Use the ‘find’ function and make a choice to keep, cut, or change.

And, that, when, but: common words which are not always necessary. Removing some of them tightens your prose.

7. Limit Your Adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs, but often a stronger verb is the better choice.

Walked quickly           strode, ran, hurried

Said quietly                   murmured, whispered, muttered

Laughed loudly           chuckled, chortled, giggled

The suggested alternatives are not exact synonyms. Choose the one that best matches your meaning.

8. Make Reading Easier

Reading age describes a person’s reading ability compared to an average child of that age. Average reading age is 11-12 years in the UK and 12 years in the US.

People prefer to read for recreation at least 2 years lower than their educational level.

Cut jargon, slang, unusual, or long words unless they are essential to your point. Use simple words that everyone understands.

Reading age of popular media (years)

The Sun tabloid newspaper             7-9

Harry Potter                                      12-13

Improve readability by splitting long sentences and making paragraphs shorter.

The Hemingway application has both free and paid versions, which allow you to check for readability, adverbs, passive voice and more. 

 9. Use Active Voice

Academic and business writing ruins us as creative writers. Business writing often combines overuse of passive voice with jargon. This makes our writing feel formal and stilted. There are exceptions where we choose passive voice for a distancing effect. Be sure that’s what you’re aiming for when you use it.

Passive voice uses the construction object – verb – subject.

The active construction subject – verb – object uses fewer words and focuses attention on the subject.

The boy was hit by the ball.                                      The ball hit the boy.

Passive voice is disliked by modern writers.    Modern writers dislike passive voice.

10. Don’t Overuse Progressive Tenses

Using “was” with “-ing” is a favorite in writing, as it mimics the natural speech patterns of storytelling. Look at example #1, which features past progressive and, for good measure, also the cliché adverb “suddenly.”

1. She was walking slowly along the road, when suddenly, he came into view. 

We can improve it by using a stronger verb in the past simple tense, removing the cliched adverb, and making it more descriptive:

2. She shuffled along, scanning the road ahead. There was no time to hide when he stepped into her path.

If you overwrite, using past simple is one way to cut words without losing the sense of your text. If you underwrite, better verb choice and more description can flesh it out. 

11. Avoid Hanging Participles

These are verbs or verb phrases without a subject. It’s not clear who or what performed the action.

A hanging participle could be a sentence that starts with an –ing word. If you start a sentence with an -ing word, ensure the noun that follows belongs to the verb at the beginning.

Rushing through the entrance, the doormat nearly tripped me up.

Instead:

Rushing through the entrance, I nearly tripped on the doormat.

Or:

I stumbled over the mat as I hurried out of the rain.

A hanging participle could be a phrase without a subject.

Now aged six months old, doctors say Karen has fully recovered.

Instead:

Karen is now six months old and doctors say she has fully recovered.

The hanging participle is best rewritten to clarify who is doing what to whom.

12. Remove Filter Words

Filter words stand between author and reader, creating distance. They describe thought processes and sensations. To deepen point of view and immerse the reader in the character’s mind, remove them. Here’s an example.

She started to run away from the man, and saw an alleyway coming up ahead. She ran into the alley, feeling her heart beating quickly in her chest. She heard his footsteps behind her. She felt as if she could not escape. Deciding to stand her ground this time, she turned to face her attacker. (54 words)

She ran from her attacker and ducked into an alley. Her heartbeat kept pace with the footsteps racing ever closer. It was a dead end, no escape. She took a breath and turned to face him. This time she would stand her ground. (43 words)

The new shorter version is more vivid and immediate. It’s rated Grade 2 on the Hemingway app, so an average seven year old should be able to read it.

Go Beyond this 12-Step Self-Editing Checklist

There’s much more to this subject than this article can cover. There are many other useful resources to choose from. For instance:

Grammar Girl is a comprehensive website that can answer all your grammar questions.

Grammarly offers free and paid versions of its grammar and spelling checker.

Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni King and Dave Brown gives in-depth advice on all aspects of editing.

 Now try applying some of these simple changes to your work. You’ll see how it improves. And don’t forget to back up everything.

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