Baking is messy. You’ve got a ton of ingredients swirling around your kitchen. There’s flour exploding against the marble countertop, and now there’s some sort of sticky substance on your ceiling. And you could have sworn there was some baking soda at the back of the cupboard, but it’s nowhere to be found. Your non-stick spray is missing, you can’t remember how many cups of sugar you’ve already scooped into the mixing bowl, and you’re so hungry you’re thinking about going to the café down the street and enjoying their pastries instead. You’ll never get your delicious dessert into the oven at this rate, anyway.
You know how they say to never trust a skinny chef? Well, never trust a stress-free writer.
Writing can be as chaotic as baking, and this frenzy often consumes writers, old and new. But, once those ingredients are in the bowl, you’ve fought half the battle! Everything is on the page, and now you just have to make sure it all belongs there and decide what’s missing.
It’s not too late.
It’s time to scrape that goop off the ceiling and get your delicious dessert finished. This fiction-editing checklist contains the last steps to completing your recipe. While you already did all the mixing, it’s time to cook this bad boy.
Checking off all of these items will help you to create something scrumptious from a half-baked draft in no time.
- Run an automated spellchecker. You’ll be surprised how many typos you catch from nights when seven cups of coffee just wasn’t enough.
- Then, do all the boring stuff. Changing the font type can help you catch errors you missed before. Don’t just fix typos, but also improve scene transitions and strange word choices (we promise, your character didn’t “chuckle darkly”) and ensure consistency for place and character names. In addition, eliminate redundancy, like instances where a character “thinks to themselves.”
- Speaking of word choice—keep your character and narrator’s voice in mind. If you’re writing a horror novel, keep that spooky tone rolling throughout, and don’t break reader focus. The line “I must be the color of the Communist Manifesto” should not appear in a romance novel (we can’t make this stuff up).
- Fact check, but not your momma’s fact check. Okay, so fairies don’t exist in the real world, but let’s say they do in your story. Let’s say you wrote a fantasy story in which these fairies buy their petal skirts with caterpillar legs. Make sure Flutter Feather didn’t accidentally buy her sweet garb with a coin in Chapter 3.
- Make sure your point of view never falters. This is a mistake that breaks reader attention. When we’re in first-person point of view, John Radley shouldn’t know that his buddy had a doughnut for breakfast unless he was there. Or he’s psychic.
- If your first sentence couldn’t appear on a poster, rewrite it. Most of the best novels meet this criterion. I have a mug at home covered in the best lines from famous novels, and I always think of this mug when I’m writing. Thomas Pynchon’s “A screaming comes across the sky” comes to mind.
- On that note, ensure that your story starts in the right place. We need to get a feel for a character’s main routine before we see how their entire life changes. But don’t start your story with your character waking up. That is how you know you started your story too early.
- Don”t drown your reader in a torrential downpour of character appearance. Ditto for backstory. I can learn that Roberta has blue eyes and blonde hair and thin fingers and large feet and huge eyelashes and a dead dog and two brothers and once had her hair pulled in the third grade (you get the point) throughout your story. Introduce more information when it feels natural, but please don’t let your readers sink before they even get to Chapter 2.
- Kill your epithets. Epithets can work only when your character doesn’t know the person yet. Let’s say Suzy sees Greg across the room. She doesn’t know his name yet, so Greg is referred to as “the man with the angular cheeks.” Once Suzy learns Greg’s name, there is no reason to use this description in place of his name. None. Destroy it.
- Your character has to have some kind of redeeming quality if the story ends well for him/her and if we’re supposed to be happy about it. Even if your reader is a serial killer, he/she had better be a vegetarian or have a house that just burned down. If we don’t like them, we should feel sorry for them. If we don’t feel sorry for them, then there had better be something really, really interesting or unique about them.
- Ensure that you have enough conflict that your story could appear on reality television. There needs to be a minor conflict and resolution in every scene. It’s all about cause and effect. So, if your character hasn’t faced an emotional change in the chapter, then you have to do some rewriting.
- Make sure your dialogue is believable. Your characters should never say, “You should know where I’ve been—you’re my protective sister!” Please give us cues instead.
- Every character you introduce by name has to change somehow. They all need stories. If you have to cut characters out, do it. It’s important that even the annoying barista at the coffee shop has undergone some sort of transformation, even if it’s learning that it’s okay for customers to have an empty mug now and again.
- Fill those plot holes! Does every conflict come to a resolution by the end of the novel? Are there any logical inconsistencies that need to be addressed? Is the order of events consistent? Make sure that all of this is totally taken care of, and you and your reader can both breathe a sigh of relief.
- Cut anything that doesn’t contribute something to the story. That beautiful prose you wrote for a dream sequence that has no influence on the plot and doesn’t contribute to the characterization? Cut it. Even if you love it, cut it. Maybe you can use it in another project!
- Be certain that all of your characters have unique voices. Take the phrase “Hello, how are you?” and make sure your characters would all say the same sentence differently. “Hey, how’s it goin’?”, “Hello, is there anything new we need to discuss?”, and “What’s up?” all demonstrate the use of voice to characterize for your benefit. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted!
- If it’s convenient, it needs to be cut. The protagonist should never stumble upon an answer. As an active character, he/she needs to discover information for themselves, always working hard to seek it out.
- See that your characters are well rounded. Sure, everyone’s always talking about Marvelous Mindy, but nobody’s ever talking about Loser Larry, the guy with all the odds stacked against him and no strengths whatsoever. Loser Larry is a victim in every situation. Don’t let your character be that guy. Yes, you want the reader to feel sorry for Larry, and yes, Larry has a lot of obstacles to overcome. But everyone has strengths and weaknesses, even Loser Larry. Maybe Larry’s overly optimistic about his situation, or he always takes his dog for a walk, every night, even though he’s tired. See that? Loser Larry just became Loveable Larry.
- Everyone should have a defining characteristic. Whether it’s Jerry with the greasy hair, Tina with the big chin, or Amanda with the walnut hair, everyone should have at least one thing that sets them apart from the others. Take anyone you know around you. How would you describe your friends to a stranger? “The one with the doe eyes,” “the one with the small head,” or “the one who always looks tired” are all valid answers.
- There’s nothing wrong with using the word “said” repeatedly. Use other words like “shouted” and “whispered” sparingly. There’s nothing worse than a sea of “deliberateds” and “emphasizeds.” If you write your dialogue well, then we’ll know that the bus driver is shouting, even if you use “said.”
- Avoid the passive voice when it’s not intentional and deliberate. If the word “was” is frequently found within your piece, you’ve probably slipped into the passive voice. “The bowl of fruit was knocked over by Mary” is passive, while “Mary knocked over the bowl” is active.
- Your antagonist needs to be at least as strong as your protagonist. Strive to make your villain scarier. Making the antagonist the baddest bad guy will have your audience cheering once he’s defeated.
- Making us happy that your character won means making them suffer first. Yes, it’s hard to hurt your babies. But they have to suffer. They have to be teetering at the breaking point. Only then should you let them win. Treat them to a chocolate cake only after they’ve finished their Brussels sprouts.
- Ask for a fresh pair of eyes. While you may be embarrassed to ask a friend to look over your piece, it really can make all the difference in taking your story from good to spectacular. You’d be amazed by the questions others can come up with. From “Whatever happened to Lucy? I thought she was your most interesting character,” to “I wish you’d expanded on the mechanics more, because it’s hard to understand the rest of the piece without knowing how this works,” they’ll likely offer considerations you might never have come up with on your own. After the baking is done, it’s all about sharing the sweets anyway, so you’d might as well ask your friends to wash the dishes once the dessert is in the oven.
There you have it: the Ultimate Fiction Editing Checklist. Now that you’ve gone through this list, it’s time to march back into the kitchen. You may have already licked the raw batter from the bowl (it’s okay, we’re not judging), but now you can share your freshly baked sweets with the world!