The Last Editing Checklist an Author Will Ever Need
So you’ve finished your first draft and are ready to edit your extraordinary story, huh?
That’s awesome! You should be proud of achieving such a significant milestone. I’ve got a tough pill for us authors to swallow, though: the hardest part starts now.
Editing your work, for most authors, is quite tricky. It doesn’t have the same thrill of writing, you aren’t doing much worldbuilding or character development, and (worst of all) you have to admit what you wrote isn’t perfect.
Sass aside, this process isn’t easy, especially for newer authors. Just knowing where to start is a massive obstacle, not to mention all the stuff that comes after.
But fear not, good author! That’s what we’re here for. In this article, we’re going to build a comprehensive editing checklist. An editing checklist to end all editing checklists, one that you can keep in your toolbox and reference whenever you finish a new story.
Editing is a big undertaking, though, so I’ve broken this checklist into three different sections to mimic the three stages of professional editing: developmental editing, line editing, and copyediting.
If you aren’t familiar with those processes, that’s fine! I’ll explain each one as we go, or you can click here to read all about the different types of book editing.
A piece of advice before we get started, though. Self-editing with this checklist can vastly improve your work, but it’s not a complete substitute for professional editing. If your budget can realistically allow editing (and you should aim to at least get a copyeditor), this checklist will make sure you have the best possible draft and get the most value out of an editor you hire.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at our editing checklist.
Stage One: Developmental Editing
Also known as structural editing, this stage of our checklist is taking a look at the macro-level elements of your story. At this point, we’re not concerned about spelling, grammar, or things like passive writing.
Instead, we want to think about things like plot and character development, themes, worldbuilding, etc.
Why is this up first? Because there’s no point in looking for spelling errors if you’re going to rewrite a chapter or change a character’s arc. That’s why we’re starting at this macro level and working our way down.
Here’s a breakdown of this stage of editing.
Stage: Developmental/Structural Editing
Focus on: Macro-level details—plot, characters, theme, perspective/POV, author voice, worldbuilding
Don’t worry about: Sentence structure, word choice, spelling, grammar, stylistic choices
Helpful tools: Sticky notes, comments, online databases, story structure and character templates
- Does your story have a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end? Without this, you don’t have a real story. You should be able to point out the specific beats in your book, especially the inciting incident, midpoint, and climax. If you need a refresher, check out our article on story structures.
- Is the flow of your story logical? It might help to write a quick bulleted list of the main events in your story. Does it make sense that they happen in this order? Should some be switched? Do you need to add or remove anything? Feel free to get feedback from an objective third party.
- Are there any obvious plot holes? With your beats listed, it should be easy to spot plot holes. You can do the same with subplots to make sure there are no glaring holes in them, either. Don’t make excuses for yourself here because your readers sure won’t.
- Do you have a clear external conflict? This conflict is what pushes the protagonist along and forces them to grow or change. If your external conflict isn’t clear or, worse, is boring, you need to work on it.
- Is your protagonist fully developed? Your protagonist needs their own character arc, flaws, unique traits, motivations, and goals that are not only realistic but interesting. This character is the one that will carry your plot forward, so give them the attention they deserve.
- Is your antagonist fully developed? In addition to all the elements needed for your protagonist, how does your antagonist get in their way? The whole point of an antagonist is to present obstacles and stop the protagonist from reaching their goal.
- Are your secondary characters developed enough? You don’t need to spend as much time on your secondary characters as your main ones, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore them. Anyone who gets substantial screen time should have flaws, goals, motivation, and unique traits.
- Is your worldbuilding consistent? If you have a magic system, are the rules applied across the entire story? Are languages and cultures shown consistently? Does the history of your world influence the current story?
- Do you sufficiently describe the setting? “Sufficiently” will mean different things to different authors, but make sure you’re giving your readers enough details to understand a scene’s setting. Focus on not only sensory descriptions but who is in the scene and why the specific setting is relevant to the plot.
- Are your chapters structured properly? Does each one have a coherent beginning and end? Does it fit chronologically with the others? If you have multiple scenes, are they related enough to justify being in the same chapter? Is it an appropriate length?
- Are your paragraphs too long or too short? This will come into play more in stage two, but look at the paragraph structure of other books in your genre. Sci-fi and epic fantasy tend to contain longer paragraphs than thrillers or urban fantasy. How do yours compare?
- Is your tense consistent throughout? Make sure you aren’t switching between past and present tense. Choose one and stick to it.
- Is your POV consistent throughout? Decide on first person, third-person omniscient, or third-person limited perspective to tell your story. Yes, some books can get away with changing it up a little, but most should use one throughout the entire story.
- Is each scene’s narrator the best one? If you’re writing from the perspective of multiple characters (using first person or third-person limited POV), have you chosen the best narrator for each scene? Ask yourself what the impact would be if the scene was told from a different perspective.
- Is your voice consistent throughout? It’s tough to define an author’s voice; it’s something that develops over time and many books. You can learn all about developing your voice from Abi’s guide here. As you’re reading through your draft, make sure that your voice stays consistent throughout.
- If you used a prologue, did you use it right? Quite frankly, most prologues that exist in a first draft are either scrapped or turned into a normal chapter. Make sure, if you used a prologue, you did it with purpose and did it right.
- Did you fact-check? This is especially important for writers of historical fiction, but any real-life or historical details you include should be double-checked. Triple-checked, even. Be wary of any anachronisms or incorrect details because your readers will be ruthless in calling you out for them.
Next Steps: Revise your novel based on your edits. Optionally, you can send your manuscript to beta readers for feedback on your macro-level elements.
Stage Two: Line Editing
Once you’ve checked all the boxes in stage one and are happy with your revised manuscript, it’s time to move on to stage two: line editing.
Line editing is the sort of editing that takes a step down from the high-level view of developmental editing. Where we were looking at things like worldbuilding and your plot before, now we’re looking at the words and sentences you’ve chosen to bring your story to life.
This might be one of the hardest skills to master. As human beings—creative human beings, no less—we tend to put a lot of faith into the words we write. So going back and recognizing our mistakes while hoping to improve them is a tall order.
But that’s why we have this checklist!
Stage: Line Editing
Focus on: Words and sentences—flow, pacing, voice, syntax, word choice
Don’t worry about: Spelling, grammar, stylistic choices
Helpful tools: Thesaurus, passive writing exercises
- Do your sentences make sense? Syntax is defined as “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences.” When line editing, you want to be on the lookout for sentences that feel clunky, verbose, meandering, or incomplete. Some people go wild with commas and cramming as much into a single sentence as possible. Try to avoid that.
- Can you eliminate filler words? We all use filler words (there are even some in this article), but it’s easy to use too many and bog our readers down with unnecessary fluff. Use a tool like AutoCrit to see which words you rely on too often, or make a list as you’re reading for line edits. Common filler words include: begin, could, even, just, little, maybe, perhaps, rather, really, seem, seriously, some, that, and very. You can also check out a huge list here.
- Are you concise? While we’re looking for filler words, keep an eye out for other sentences that use twelve words when you could have used four. There’s a time when longer, slower-paced sentences are useful, but they shouldn’t be frequent.
- Is your writing too passive? There is a place for passive writing, but usually a lot less than new writers believe. Learn to identify passive writing in your work and replace it with something stronger or more active.
- Can your writing be more evocative? People read to get lost in a world made entirely of words. It’s up to you, as an author, to choose the very best words that make it as easy as possible for that to happen. Different genres will make use of varying vocabulary (i.e., historical romance will have more complicated, longer sentences than YA romance), so focus on what’s best for your genre.
- Do you unironically use clichés? Clichés are overused phrases or ideas that do more harm than good for your writing. If you notice them, think of a stronger way to say what you’re trying to say.
- Does your writing flow? I always suggest authors read their work, in its entirety, out loud. This way, you can get a better feel for how your work feels, sounds, and flows. You want your story to be enjoyable to read, not filled with super short or long sentences that make it tiring. So read your book out loud to see how it flows.
- Will your reader care? Ultimately, no matter what you’re writing, we need to hold out readers’ attention through our entire book. If you find a sentence, paragraph, or scene doesn’t do that (especially in the “sagging middle”), cut it or reword it.
- Have you maintained your voice? I know we covered voice in developmental editing, but do yourself a favor and keep it in mind as you’re doing all these edits, too. As you’re taking a scalpel to each word, it’s easy to lose your voice. Make sure you’re maintaining who you are as you edit, even if it goes against some conventions or rules.
Next steps: Most line editing can be incorporated along the way, so your next steps should start with reading your new draft with all the changes you’ve made. If you’re happy with it, this is my preferred milestone to send to beta readers if you’re okay with them providing feedback on things like word choice.
Stage Three: Copyediting
Finally, we come to the stage most people associate with professional editors: copyediting. When copyediting, an editor is looking specifically for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. This is where the technical stuff comes in.
If you can only hire one type of editor, I always recommend it be a copyeditor. It’s hard for writers to identify their own errors in things like comma use when they’ve spent 100,000 words using it incorrectly. Many readers won’t hesitate to chuck your book on their DNF pile if it’s filled with errors, too.
That said, I recognize it can be cost-prohibitive for some. In that case, use this copyediting checklist to get your book as close to perfect as you can.
Focus on: Spelling, grammar, punctuation, stylistic choices
Don’t worry about: Anything else
Helpful tools: Dictionary, advanced spell checker, style sheet
- Are you recording things on a style sheet? I wish I’d known about this before becoming an editor. A style sheet is your unique combination of capitalizations, made-up words, and attention to subjective rules like the Oxford comma. Start tracking your style to ensure perfect consistency throughout all your work.
- Have you used a (good) spelling and grammar checker? When I say good, I mean something like ProWritingAid, which is an AI-powered checker better than what comes with Microsoft Word or Google Docs. No checker is perfect, but they will catch more than an amateur editor.
- Have you read for errors? Even after passing it through something like ProWritingAid, read through looking for any errors in grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, hyphens, and consistency in number usage (i.e., do you write 15 or fifteen?). You won’t be an expert, so don’t be afraid to Google any questions you have.
- Have you checked your dialogue tags? Dialogue tags or attributions are those phrases that indicate who said what. So many writers, especially newer authors, get these wrong the first time around. Become a dialogue tag expert with our guide here.
- Are you overusing exclamation points? Most people do. Let your dialogue tags and other actions show your reader how something is said or interpreted rather than using an exclamation mark. There should only be a handful in your entire book. And never use “?!” or I’ll be upset with you.
- Are you overusing italics? Italics are another example of something newer writers overuse. You don’t need to emphasize a particular word every time someone speaks. Like exclamation marks, save your italics for when they have the most impact (or don’t use them at all, which might be preferable).
Next steps: With this stage done, you’re either ready to send it off to a professional editor to make sure everything is as perfect as it can be or to an agent, publisher, or self-publishing platform. Congratulations!
Dabble Helps With All Stages of Editing
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a writing tool out there not only designed for fiction writers like you but that came with tools to help beyond the first draft?
Good news: it’s called Dabble.
Dabble has a whole host of features to help plan your novel, create your characters, and write your book, but it comes with even more than that.
With sticky notes and comments, you can make notes on the fly for later editing. With the Plot Grid, you can look for plot holes and continuity in your storylines at a glance. With co-authoring, you can benefit from real-time collaboration with another author or critique partner.
Then there’s the built-in thesaurus for choosing stronger words and direct integration with ProWritingAid to check your spelling, grammar, and style.
All that is packed into a sleek, modern interface you can use anywhere on any device.
The best part? You can try it for free for fourteen days without even putting in your credit card info. Just click here to get started.
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