Before handing over your manuscript to an editor, or self-publishing, these are the procedures that I follow to ensure readability or to present your work in the best light possible.
This document contains my editing checklist. The way I use it is to perform searches on documents for specific words, parts of words, or phrases that can indicate a potential issue. This is one of the last phases before submission/publication. If you plan to make any substantive changes, you’ll want to wait until you’re finished to go through this checklist, or you’ll have to do it again when the changes are done. I have compiled this list from various sources, from my editor (Jonas Saul) to recommendations within various writing groups.
Participle Use – Search for 'ing' with a space at the end
One of the more common grammatical issues is the misuse of participles. A participle is an “-ing” verb that indicates ongoing or simultaneous actions.
Sometimes, a participle is used at the beginning of a sentence without the correct subject, resulting in a dangling participle.
Other times, a participle is used in conjunction with other verbs, so it sounds like actions are happening at the same time when it would be impossible for them to do so.
A lot of “-ing” words in the same sentence can indicate an overly complex sentence. A good rule of thumb is no more than three simple actions (“He entered, sat, and ordered from the menu.”) or two simple and one ongoing (“Cursing under her breath, she ran into the forest and hid.”)
Some editors hate when authors start a sentence with a participle at all. I’m not one of those. It’s a valid sentence structure. You might want to reduce them where they make sense though, because you never know what the editor will prefer.
Not all “-ing” words are participles or even verbs, but the best way to find issues is to search for ing in your document and look at each one.
Noncommittal Actions – Search for begin/began, start/started, try/tried
Writing in the past tense means everything has already happened. Except in rare cases, you can remove the words “begin/began,” “start/started,” and “try/tried.” The only time these words are useful is to indicate an interrupted action, such as “She started crying again, and he stormed out the door.”
Unnecessary “That” – Search for that
You can often delete the word “that” from sentences. Including it is grammatically correct, but the English language allows you to imply it. Removing it makes the story smoother. However, some occurrences of “that” are necessary. Rely on your ear to determine which ones to remove.
Adverbs – Search for ly
Adverbs are a touchy subject. Most editors hate them because they serve as a crutch for weak verbs, so they demand all adverbs be cut. A few editors know a well-placed adverb serves a purpose. I fall into the category of “adverb connoisseur.” Adverbs are useful when they add flavor, especially in dialogue. A lot of adverbs are never good, but how many to include is a matter of opinion and style.
Filter Words – Search for all the words listed below Filter words are words that add distance between the readers and the action. They filter readers’ experience through that of the main character instead of allowing readers to experience the action for themselves. Most of these should be cut, but if it’s essential for the readers to experience something through the character’s eyes (such as a hallucination or an impression of another character that the reader would not have), leave them in.
Make out/made out (in the sense of seeing, not kissing)
This list is not comprehensive. They’re the most common ones I’ve seen, but watch for others in your story and make this list yours. Anything that puts the character between the reader and the action is a filter word.
To Be Verbs – Search for was/were/be/has been/had been
This is another tricky topic. I’ve seen so much confusion over when to use “to be” verbs. First, the way English is structured means not all verb tenses are self-contained like in other languages. We have “helper verbs” that change the time frame of the verb. Participles, discussed above, are one type of verb tense. You add “was/were” + the “-ing” form to indicate an ongoing action, such “She was jumping on the trampoline.” This is fine. Cutting out all uses of “to be” will drive you crazy and make your writing incomprehensible.
The reasons to search for “was/were/be/has been/had been” are as follow:
Their use is a possible indicator of passive voice. This is a whole subject on its own, but the upshot is most passive voice should be changed to active voice. In the sentence I just wrote, the verb “should be changed” is passive. You don’t know who should do the changing. A better way to phrase it is “you should change most passive voice to active voice.” If it’s essential to emphasize the object of a sentence over the subject, or you do not know the subject, you can keep it: “Her head had been shaved.”
Because the verb “to be” is so basic, it’s a weak verb and supports other weak verbs. It’s more vivid to say, “Exhaustion flooded Jane” than “Jane was tired.”
Had – Search for had
The verb “had” is another helper verb like “to be.” It’s used to push events farther into the past. Stories in past tense rely on had to indicate something happening before the current past. Don’t be afraid to use it, but make sure it’s necessary. If you’re talking about a series of actions that happened in the distant past, using it once to indicate a change of time frame is usually sufficient.
Emphasizers and De-emphasizers – Search for really/very/just/kind of/almost
Another way to search for weak verbs and adjectives is to search for emphasizers and de-emphasizers, which are used to prop them up. Most can be removed and the verb or adjective strengthened and made more specific.
Over-writing – Search for all the words listed below
These words attempt to add a sense of urgency to the story, to tell the reader how to react to an action or event. If the story is engaging enough, these words can be cut.
A second / An instant later
As you know
At that moment
For some reason
For that matter
In order to
In the midst of
In occurred to
In the process of
Needless to say
On the other hand
Once / At one time / Prior to
Suffice it to say
The (only) problem was
Up(on) closer inspection
While / After / Before / In / Upon / By ___ing
Filler Words – Search for all the words listed below These words often take up space without adding anything to the story. Some will be necessary, but it’s a good idea to check each instance and evaluate if it can be cut.
Caused ___ to
Keep / kept ___ing
So to speak
To say the least
Dialogue and Action Tags – Search for single and double quotes
Most editors recommend that dialogue tags be limited to “said” or “asked.” Readers generally find these invisible unless they are overused. Adding adjectives or adverbs creates a phrase called a “swifty,” named after the Tom Swift books. These are not only annoying to readers, they can be unintentionally hilarious. For example: “I dropped the toothpaste,” Tom said, crestfallen. Action tags ground the reader with the character who is speaking, but it’s important to ensure the actions are necessary and forward the plot or deepen the character. Avoid repeating something communicated through action in dialogue, and vice versa.
Beneficial action tag: “Hold it right there.” Captain MacLean leveled his nine-millimeter at Samantha. (This helps the reader envision the type of gun.)
Unnecessary action tag: “What is that on your head?” Heather stared at John. (She wouldn’t have commented if she hadn’t been staring. A better choice in this case is a reaction from her. Does she laugh? Cringe?)
Repetitive action tag: Doug clutched his stomach. “My tummy hurts.”
Nominalizations – Search for tion, ship, and ence with a space at the end Nominalizations are verbs that have been turned into nouns. Doing so tends to obscure a strong verb in favor of a weak verb and makes the story wordy. Example: “Bill gave the matter his consideration.” versus “Bill considered the matter.”
Generalizations – Search for some, a few, a lot, many, a handful
Specifics engage the reader better than generalities. If the amount is unnecessary to the story or unknown to the main character (“I added some sugar to my tea.”), keeping a generalization is fine. If being more specific paints a clearer picture (“Three soldiers emerged from the forest.”), it’s better to do so.
POV (Point of View) - Is the POV consistent within the same chapter/paragraph? If you wish to have multiple POVs, make sure to have a Scene Break. Avoid Head Hopping!
Avoid similar character names (even initials) to keep them distinct in the readers mind.
Show versus Tell: Don't have a character say, "I'm cold." Instead: Catherine's breath plumed in the air as shivers wracked her body.
Redundancies: Avoid use of 'Charles knelt down.' or 'Samuel reached up for the glass.'
TIP: If a sentence is awkward, or you are unsure, read the work out loud! You would be surprised at how often you will catch errors. If it doesn't sound right, it may not be.
Grammar Programs do NOT take the place of an editor. In some cases, Grammarly for example, the suggested corrections are flat-out wrong.
When you are at the point of re-reading your work, try to do so in a different format. Have you only been reading on a screen? Print it out! You can also save the file to read on a different device. I have heard others change the font and spacing, to offer a new perspective. Try it out!
There will come a time where you can no longer 'see' any problems, or you are becoming numb to the novel... TAKE A BREAK! It can be a day, or a few weeks. Allow your mind to refresh. Check out my other blog post on Manuscript Blindness.
Weak Adjectives: Avoid use of very and really.
Weak sentence: She was really scared of birds.
Strong sentence: She was terrified of birds.
Stronger sentence: Birds terrified her.
While this isn't inclusive, the above is a great start to self editing!!! Feel free to share or print. If you have other suggestions, let me know! I'd love to hear what you do.