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15-Point Checklist for Self-Editing Your Manuscript or Article


Nothing gives the vast majority of writers more pleasure than indulging in the creative process. After spending days, weeks or months marbling a story idea through their heads, they put pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard — and set off on the fictional or non-fiction journey of their story subject, a creative adventure with as many twists and turns as a night of dreams.

At some point, the story ends. You’ve written the manuscript. Now it’s time to edit and polish the manuscript to a fine shine. How enthused are you about that process? As a book editor, this is where I come in, to help authors shape their manuscripts into can’t-miss page-turners that will sell publishers and readers alike. However, much as I love to engage in their entire process, I always advocate that authors become strong editors of their own work before making the necessary (I believe) investment in hiring a good book editor to polish it up.

Why? Because no one knows your story, characters or subject matter better than you. You can make the key changes that will retain the vivid picture of the story and direction of the plot, or narrative if non-fiction, that you envisioned. Furthermore, by self-editing until you can find no more to fix, you then hand off the book to an experienced editor at an ideal juncture: with just one round of polishing to go. We’ll talk more about the value of an outside editor in the next blog. This is about you and your editing capabilities.

Here is a 15-point checklist that I’ve presented at workshops nationwide and to my college writing students. It works wonders, and makes you into a competent self-editor before you realize it. This applies to all fiction and non-fiction genres, memoirs, travelogues, blogs, and magazine feature articles:

1)     Start at the beginning. Make sure your lead sentences and paragraph grab the reader. The opening paragraph of your story, essay, novel or non-fiction narrative will convey the spirit and tone of your piece, with a detail or two that grabs the reader’s attention. If you open anecdotally, make sure the storytelling is crisp and the details accurate.

2)     The first five pages mean EVERYTHING. Make sure we feel the tone of the story, understand the direction it takes—at least the first part of the story—and we hear your voice. Paint a picture into which we want to jump. Waste no words. Edit the first page over and over again until you have exactly what originally poured through your mind when you conceived the piece.

3)     Make sure all verbs and nouns are strong, and there is noun/verb agreement throughout. Action verbs should reflect the traits and motives of the characters, and the plot of the story. Use action verbs whenever possible, but when you describe passivity or laissez faire attitudes, go with passive verbs.

4)     Make sure all action and movement is crisp.  When a scene or piece of action plays out, exit the scene as two actors would exit the stage. Edit out redundant or superfluous words and sentences; edit everything that carries a dawdling or lingering feeling, unless it speaks specifically to a character or the movement of the scene or event (i.e. a hostage negotiation that drags deeply into the night).

5)     Make sure the sequence of events/scenes is exactly as you envisioned it. Cut up your first draft into pieces and rework them like a jigsaw puzzle if necessary. If something is missing, write a new scene. Sequencing is vital. Everything else follows.

6)     Cut out unnecessary first-draft material that you wrote to arrive at the core of your story/narrative/article. You will recognize this—extra backstories, flashbacks, exposition, segments and descriptions that help you get to know the characters. In many cases, first draft is about the author getting to know the story; now, your job is to clean up the manuscript so the reader not only gets to know the story, but plunges in with both eyes, both feet and all his/her senses.

7)     Trim your sentences. Get rid of adverbs and unnecessary adjectives. Let your nouns, verbs and dialogue run the show. Work again on noun/verb agreement.

8)     Fiction writers: Talk out your dialogue, aloud. Talk it out as you “hear” your characters speaking in your creative mind. If something doesn’t sound right, or sounds incongruent to the character that is saying it, change or remove it. Be sure that all dialogue is “spoken” in the voice of the character that said it. This is a vital editing step, because your reader will know very quickly if your French perfume shop owner has a Kentucky accent, or if the wizard in your fantasy sounds more like an uptight big brother/sister than a relaxed carrier of ageless wisdom. Readers read with their eyes but “hear” the story with their inner ear.

9)     Non-fiction writers: Double-check all quotes with your interview transcriptions. No room for deviation here. Also make sure you’ve described the subject’s tone of voice, accent, mannerisms and figures of speech accurately, so we can put a voice to the words when reading what the person says. If the comments are sensitive or controversial, you might want to check with the subject to make sure the statement was rendered exactly how he/she meant to say it.

10)   Make sure you only have one point-of-view in any given paragraph, preferably one POV per scene, and that your POVs are consistent throughout the piece. Nothing confuses the reader faster than constantly changing POVs in the middle of a scene.

11)   If you start a chapter in first, second or third person, carry it through in first, second or third person. Early drafts almost always mix between first, second and third person, because we start with a different tone than we finished the day before, or we simply move through a highly personal, or impersonal scene, and we write according to our degree of feeling and attachment to that scene. Go through your manuscript, and make sure you’re consistent.

12)   Make sure transition sentences and paragraphs are seamless. A well-written transition should glide the reader to the next section of your story, requiring no effort on their part.

13)   Check Punctuation, Take One: Aspire to grammatical perfection—except in dialogue or interior monologue (see Take Three, below). Editors and readers will appreciate it. Make sure periods and commas are inside quotes, en dashes and ellipses have proper (non) spacing before and after, run-on sentences and dangling modifiers are eliminated, commas are used properly in series, sentence fragments are used only for dramatic effect, and colons and semi-colons are used properly. Two style books are used more by editors than any others: Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and the Chicago Manual of Style. Every working writer would do well to own and wear out both.

14)   Check Punctuation, Take Two: Punctuation marks also create emphasis, pace and emotion in your story without overusing words—a great effect that editing can bring out more fully. Periods denote the end of a moment. Exclamation points denote drama. Ellipses denote contemplation or “pregnant” pauses. Colons call the reader to be aware of what follows. Question marks are exactly that. See that your punctuation conveys the pace of your scenes and the moods of your characters.

15)   Check Punctuation, Take Three:  Dialogue and interior monologue have their own punctuation guide—the voice of the character(s) involved. Write to the character(s)’s manner of speaking. Does he talk in sentence fragments? Does she speak in heart words? Does he overtalk when he gets excited? Do they argue with respect for each other or do they get down & dirty? Show this when you edit the dialogue, so that we can hear their voices—words, tones, insinuations, the works. Likewise, interior monologue should read more like a rush of feelings or thoughts—or a slow progression of thoughts, if the character is a deep, contemplative thinker—than well-polished narrative. Actually, interior monologue that paints the picture of the crazed scientist in bursts of fragment, exclamation points and double colons is polished.

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30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own

Since the holiday season is upon us, thought I’d create a “gift list” to use when shopping for your writer friends – or yourselves.

This list is very simple: 30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own. I realize this is subjective, but it encompasses the type of material we need when working on our books, articles, essays or other projects. This list is also designed to spark new ideas, or to further exploration of ideas you already have.

In the list, you will find several self-help writing books, collections of conversations with authors, memoirs, technical books, books addressing other creative genres (music and art, specifically), and works written by some of the greatest authors.

While I would love to include my own writing books in this list – Writes of Life and The Write Time … that’s not for me to judge. One day, someone might create a list that includes them.

In no particular order, here is the list, with personal impressions from my experience as an author, poet, journalist, editor and writing teacher. You can order them through Amazon.com or your local bookstore. Take this list with you during Black Friday or Online Monday (or whatever they call it). Also, let me know what you would add to this list – I’ll run your suggestions and any comments in a future blog.

1 & 2. On Becoming a Novelist and On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner. We start with a bang – a two-for-one. No novelist has ever conveyed the craft and writing life better; then again, he was perhaps the nation’s most refined fiction writer and teacher of fiction at the time of his death in 1982.

3. Writers Dreaming, by Naomi Epel. Conversations with noted authors on their dreams, plots or ideas that came from dreams, and how they work with their dreams. A vital read if you, like me, believe the 6 to 8 non-waking hours of the day contribute mightily to the writing process.

4 & 5. Storycatcher: The Power of Story to Change Our Lives, by Christina Baldwin. Reading and working the prompts in this book is like drinking nectar, further flavored by your own words when they spin together perfectly. In other words, this book does magical things to one’s ability to journal, write an essay or story, and heal. Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest is another Baldwin title worth owning.

6. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. After nearly a century, this book remains a staple of working writers and teachers. Its greatest value might be in emphasizing the need to write tight – crisp, concise, to the point.

7 & 8. Punctuation for Writers, by Harvey Stanbrough. This book deserves a spot on every writer’s desktop alongside The Elements of Style. It presents punctuation as a timely, valuable asset to every written sentence, rather than the necessary evil we first met in grammar school. Whenever I write a book, this gem sits on my desktop. An alternate Stanbrough pick: Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction.

9. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. In my opinion, one of the best memoirs ever written. I’ve read it 10 times, and counting. This masterpiece brings together nature, voice, observation, listening, creating, inner feelings, outer environment, hubris and hope … and every word sparkles with brilliance. What else is there? If you want more Dillard, go with Three By Annie Dillard – a collection that also includes An American Childhood, and The Writing Life.

10. A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. This is a tremendous book on how the physical senses play out in the natural world, and how we can attune better to our own senses … a critical aspect of deep writing. Some of the stories of how animals use their senses are breathtaking – and reminders of how much more sense-itive we can (and should) become as writers.

11. Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay. This book contains a history of primary colors, how they were mixed for artists since prehistoric times, and the fascinating stories behind the substances and creators of these colors. A great book of observation, journalism and craftsmanship. Good writers always form close alliances with color and tone; here’s a wonderful map into that journey.

12. Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles. I believe every writer should know basic library science and library history – and this book provides a wonderfully off-beat account of both. From Sumeria to your local library, the adventures of the printed word and its storage – and the wars fought over books – could not be better told.

13. The Browser’s Book of Beginnings, by Charles Panati. As writers, we should know the origins of every subject about which we write – and the etymology of the historical words we use. The incredible material can either be used in your works – or prompt little “archaeological” digs of your own. An alternate selection: The Book of Lists, by David Wallechinsky.

14. Writer’s Market, by Writer’s Digest Books. Between the great articles on marketing, editing and craft, and the thousands of publishing listings, how can any working writer not operate with this book close at hand?

15. 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, by John Kremer. John has been teaching marketing workshops to writers for a long time, and this book has become a staple for working writers nationwide. In this era of online communities and direct author involvement in promotion and marketing, its importance has never been greater. Writing today means doing good business; you will find a number of strong marketing strategies for your book in here.

16 & 17. Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halpern. Written to honor great poet-essayist Gary Snyder on his 60th birthday, this collection of essays, stories and poems by more than 70 contributors focuses on aspects of Snyder’s life, work, personality, cultural influences, and more. It’s like taking 70 gemologists, peeling a diamond open, and seeing how that diamond comes together, one side at a time. Alternate selection for fans of Beat poetry and literature: Lighting the Corners, featuring the works and conversations of Michael McClure.

18. The Language of Life, by Bill Moyers. The subject of a 1995 PBS special, this book features conversations with 25 great current poets. In it, you will see how writers and poets develop voice, and read priceless insights on observation, imagery and craft.

19. Henry Miller on Writing, by Henry Miller. This book changed my writing life; I learned to really finish my book manuscripts after reading it. One of the 20th century’s most prolific writers and artists shares his take on the art and craft of writing – and the insights and tips fall from every page like fruit trees perpetually in season.

20. The Crossing Point, by Mary Caroline Richards. Every writer, teacher, artist, artisan, poet and those concerned with the creative process would do well to own this book of essays, talks, poems and musings by one of the 20th century’s greatest purveyors of personal creativity (and part of the famed Black Mountain literary movement). My copy is hopelessly ripped, underlined and dog-eared from extensive use; I can feel my creative electrons jumping each time I open this book.

21. How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci, by Michael Gelb. Here it is, in a single hardback book: the visual imprint of the creative mind and creative process. Its exploration of the ultimate Renaissance man brings out the creator in all of us. This book is filled with page after page of creative inspiration; I can’t last more than four pages at a time without putting it down and writing to exhaustion.

22. A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf. The beauty of this diary is that we truly see the inner triumphs and struggles of a great literary figure – but also how every minute of every day was spent writing or gathering the seeds for future works. A great look at the inner world of the perpetually working writer.

23. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, by Marc Weingarten. The story of the New Journalists – the writers to whom every current journalist, memoirist and narrative non-fiction author owes a debt of gratitude. Beginning with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, these were the pioneers of incorporating fiction-writing and deep inner personal feelings into non-fiction work.

24. The Language Instinct: How Mind Creates Language, by Stephen Pinker. During our growth as writers, we realize more and more how vital it is to understand the nuances of language, its im-pressions as well as ex-pressions. This book, written by a renowned linguist, shows the way. Read it, and you will find yourself listening to every person’s spoken word more closely – and capturing it more completely in your next piece of writing.

25. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. A modern classic for writers seeking the deeper, inner places from which to write, and the relationships of their feelings and perceptions to the outside world. The vignettes and essays in this book are tight, concise – and built to prompt you to write.

26. Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz. Music and writing are so closely linked, structurally and creatively, that it behooves every writer listen to music deeply, if not play or study it. But this stellar memoir is about more than music: it is about the art and hard work of practice, and how practice creates ultimate attunement with one’s instrument. In the case of writers, that means written vocabulary and voice.

27. Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. Anne’s deeply felt, highly observant look at the little things in life – a prime topic of both her fiction and non-fiction books – informs this collections of essays/prompts. In it, she shows how she invents verbs to suit the action of the moment – reminding us that we, too, can invent words.

28. Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. While this book is somewhat limited, in that it spells out “only” 5,000 cultural facts or subjects people should know about, I consider it vital reading to every writer who wants to make an imprint on society – and in particular, younger readers. Due to breakdowns in education, funding and the like, writers are in a particularly crucial position of helping to educate and advance our culture. We can develop a strong base with this book.

29. On Writing, by Stephen King. The man who re-invented the horror genre – in both books and films – wrote this heartfelt, deeply informed book to the writer who fights, struggles, bleeds, perseveres and stops at nothing to write … then comes back for more. In other words, a book for all of us.

30. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee. The author put 40 years of screenwriting experience into this book, which rises far beyond the world of the screenplay into something much more universal – the art and craft of writing a compelling story by visualizing a moment and then drawing it out. This book works for all writers. Alternate selection: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby.

The Bonus Book: On Being a Writer, by Theodore Strickland. This Writer’s Digest Book Club selection is now 20 years old, but just as much of a treasure as the day it was published. It features wide-open conversations with a number of best-selling authors; between them, they canvass and discuss every nook and cranny of the writing process.

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