Your complete self-editing checklist

self-editing checklist

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Do you write relatively easily but find yourself overwhelmed when it comes to editing? Here is a complete self-editing checklist to make the job easier…

I do many different kinds of work, but I have one favourite job. Editing a 750 to 1,200-word piece written by someone else. I like this work because it’s fast, rewarding and — usually — interesting. Editing my own 750 to 1,200-word pieces, however, isn’t nearly as much fun.

This may simply illustrate the principle that it’s easier to give advice than to follow it, but I think another factor is also at work. When we’ve written something ourselves, we’ve done the research, done the thinking and planning, and done the actual writing. In other words, we are too close to the subject matter to be able to edit intelligently.

Of course, you can always hire an editor, but even if you can afford that, you’ll save money if you do some of your own editing first. Here’s how I suggest you approach the task:

Start by taking a break

This incubation period is one of the most important aspects of editing because it gives you at least a little bit of distance from your work. If you’re writing a long-form project — such as a book or thesis — I suggest you take six weeks before you start editing anything you’ve written. For shorter projects, or at least ones with shorter turnarounds — such as blog entries — take a day if you can. If that’s not possible, then break for at least an hour and do something highly distracting in that time: go for lunch, work on something totally different, talk with a colleague.

After your break, be aware you can subdivide the task of editing into two main parts: substantive and copy-editing. Which part you attack first is a matter of taste. Some people don’t like copy-editing material they may end up removing. People who believe this do their substantive editing first. Other people prefer to make their copy clean before the substantive work. People who believe this do an initial copy edit first, and then a second (faster) one later. I fall into the second camp.

Copy-editing tasks

Begin by running your piece through no-charge readability statistics software. I suggest starting with Online-Utility.org. Just copy and paste your text into the box on their page and then hit the “process text” button. The number you want to see is the “average number of words per sentence.” (This is the sixth number on the page.) Ideally, you should aim for somewhere between 14 to 18 words. If your average is longer than this, you need to do some sentence shortening. For advice on where to do this, now go to the Hemingway app and copy and paste your story into it. This software will highlight all long sentences in red. Be aware that not all long sentences are a problem, as the Hemingway app appears to suggest. Instead, look at any in red and judiciously try to shorten some (not all!) of them. Once you’ve done this, copy your material back into the Online-Utility.org and see how your sentence-length average has fared. If you have it down to the 14 to 18 word range, you can ignore the rest of the red in the Hemingway app.

Next, you should reconsider any text you’ve written in passive voice. I’m not saying you need to change all of it to active but you should consider it. Passive voice hides the main actor of the sentence. For example, in the sentence, Mistakes were made, you don’t know who made those mistakes. This makes the sentence harder for the reader to visualize. The Hemingway app helpfully marks anything passive in bright green and you should consider each of these sentences and decide whether it’s worth making any of them active. You could rewrite the “mistakes” sentence as, The government made mistakes, for example.

Ensure all antecedents are clear. When I wrote my last book, I had a dozen friends — many of whom were professional writers — read the manuscript and give me comments. I paid close attention to their feedback and edited vigorously based on what they told me. After that, when I turned the draft in to my copy editor, I assumed she would have little to find. How wrong I was! She filled my manuscript with little red markings and I noticed that many of them related to unclear antecedents. An antecedent is the word that a pronoun refers to. For example,

When you see the teacher, please tell her I’ll submit my essay later.

The noun “teacher” is the antecedent to the pronoun “her.”

Here is an example of an antecedent that is unclear:

When writers procrastinate, it means they waste their time.

“It” does not refer to a specific word in the sentence, therefore the sentence is not entirely clear (even though you can probably guess at the meaning.)

I find that people either tend to use pronouns carefully or tend to be sloppy with them. If you’re one of the sloppy ones (like me) then you might want to do a search for pronouns in your story. Use Command + F and type in “it”, “they,” “he” and “she,” separately. Check the antecedents in each of these sentences. Make sure each antecedent is clear.

Look for transitions and make sure you have enough of them. Also known as bridges and connectors, these are the words, phrases and stylistic devices that help direct readers through our writing. The biggest difference between sophisticated writing and more amateur efforts, I find, rests with the volume of transitions used. Shrewd writers will often make intriguing statements/questions or paraphrase frequently to pull the reader along. For more advice on how to make manoeuvres like this, see my blog post on connectors.  Alternatively, you can also use single words to signal your intent. Find a list of them in the same piece.

Look for and eliminate clichés. You will likely have studded your crappy first draft with plenty of clichés. This is not a problem. The problem arises only when we fail to remove these hackneyed phrases. Don’t leave in expressions such as: old as the hills, fit as a fiddle, diamond in the rough and every cloud has a silver lining. But there are other less obvious clichés that may also need your attention. The Washington Post maintains a list of journalism clichés I suggest you review before your next edit. It may surprise you to see such comments as double down, strange bedfellows and game-changer on the list. It can be tough to find a fresher language for these terms, but it’s worth the effort you’ll be a better writer if you try.

Check spelling. For sure, run your spellcheck. The feature exists on your computer for a reason: to help you. Just be aware that it will not catch homonyms — such as two, to and too — so you’ll need to look for those manually.

Check grammar. I share Joan Didion‘s feeling that, “grammar is a piano I play by ear.” If you were not born with this ear, or haven’t been able to train it, then please, get a friend to check your text for grammatical errors. Do this after you have completed the substantive edit, however.

Substantive editing tasks

Prepare an outline of what you have written. Note that this is the only time in the entire writing process that I recommend an outline. When you’re at the preparing-to-write stage, you’re better off using a mindmap. That said, outlines can be useful when you’re editing. They will allow you to see, succinctly, what you have covered, and in what order you have done it. If you have an entire section that is in the wrong place, an outline will help show you that. I like to think of outlines as architectural plans that will expose the entire structure of what you have written. Do you have a weak foundation? An outline will help tell you that.

Read for logic and flow. This is the most challenging and time-consuming part of the editing process. I like to handle it slowly, one sentence at a time. I read the first sentence and ask myself whether it raises any questions in my mind. If it does, then I expect the second sentence to answer them. If it doesn’t, then I know I’ll need to do some more editing. in my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster Better, I give a detailed example of how to do this kind of editing (see pages 59 to 63.)

Finally, read your work aloud, considering your rhythm. When I worked in an open-area office in a newsroom, I did this with every story I handled. I’m sure people thought of me as the crazy woman muttering in the corner, but I never found a better system than reading aloud. All words have rhythm and saying them aloud is the only way to hear that. As well, when you read silently — in your head — it’s tempting to skip over sections you may have read a dozen times already. Forcing yourself to read aloud will stop you from succumbing to that temptation.

In giving you this checklist, I hope I haven’t caused you to think that substantive editing is less important because I’ve given it less space here. In fact, it’s the most important step. And the most time-consuming one. That “read for logic and flow” instruction should take you longer than all the steps in the “copy editing” section.

As for the time that editing takes, be aware that it should take you at least twice as long as writing.

How do you approach your self-editing work?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of  Make What You Say Pay by Anne Miller. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted November 29th, 2016 in Power Writing

  • Emma Jarrett

    This is so clear and helpful for me – probably because it has been well self-edited and enables your experience and expertise to be articulated clearly.

    I fear my editing has been “a piano I play by ear”, so now I have the tools to make it more conscious and disciplined. Thank you so much.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Emma. I find this system works well for many people because the initial steps (online utility.org and the hemingway app) are done by computer, making them really easy.

  • Nandita Singh

    Distancing oneself from work is a real refresher. This break helps the writer to clear the literary clutter which had seeped in while writing.Thanks for a valuable editing checklist.

    • I’m always astonished by the people who fail to do this. What could be easier than IGNORING a piece of writing for awhile?

      • Nandita Singh

        True! I I have begun do it since sometime ! Once, on a project,I took off every 15 mins to go look at the sky and the hill outside. Felt guilty then, running away like that ! But later realised it was worth every free second that I had taken.

  • Robin Phillips

    I loved this. I’m a strong believer in checklists and I have an editing checklist I created for my writing students. However, I had not included antecedents. I will certainly add this. It’s so easy to miss mistakes. The editing checklist helps us keep focused on what we are looking for instead of trying to catch everything in one reading. I try to instill in my students the fun of editing and you often give me new ideas.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Yes, antecedents are way too easy to overlook when you’re self-editing. At least, I find them that way.

  • Sue Horner

    Great information — almost too much to be considered a “checklist”!

    • Well, nine items is considered the max by experts and if you regard the list as divided in two (copy vs substantive) I think it just squeezes in! That said, I have an 18-item checklist that I go through every day!

      • adel daoud

        Thanks, Daphne, for this post. I am just in the process of building my own checklist inspired by yours. I am curious about you 18 items. Would you like to share them for further inspiration?

        • happy to do that but keep in mind it’s not terribly exciting….

          • Leah Del Signore

            Would you share your checklist with me, too?

          • Done!

  • Thomas O’Keefe

    I trust that cliches are permissible when part of a character’s verbal traits?

  • Tiffany

    These are such fabulous tips! I know that you’re not necessarily catering to an academic audience. However, as an academic who is always trying to improve her own writing (and that of her students), your blog is pure gold!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Tiffany. I work with many different types of clients (including a number of academics) but in spite of the diversity of their work, I find that my tips work well for most of them.

  • Paul Field

    Thanks Daphne! I always find your blogs interesting and this one is extremely practical and useful. I don’t write often, so I find a
    checklist is invaluable for improving my writing quality.

    I liked your suggestion to prepare an outline. I give presentations and I recently discovered the benefits of writing first and then extracting an outline. The outline is not only great for checking the points I’m making and the order, it’s also much easier to remember my content when I’m presenting!

    And for fun, I put this comment into Online-Utility.org. The original had 20 words per sentence, so I’ve edited it in Hemingway and I hope it’s more readable now 🙂

    • Hi Paul, Your message is very readable! Just be aware that Utility-org and the Hemingway app are less reliable for shorter word counts. They work best at a minimum of 500 words.

  • Thank you for these great tips, Daphne! I often struggle with editing my own work, so having this checklist will make the process easier.

    • It makes some people laugh when I say this, but the great thing about checklists is that you don’t have to THINK to use them!

  • MP UPPAL

    Your checklist is like a treasure house of most useful tips for writers. Thanks!