Self-Editing Checklist: Improve Your Writing Fast

An effective editing checklist is crucial for good writing. It will help you fix and publish your work faster.

Have you ever written a paragraph in your book, rewrote it, written another paragraph, and then went back and rewrote that too?

And on and on and on…

An hour goes by.

You realize you haven't written anything at all. All you’ve done is rewrite the same part of your draft.

Feels like writer’s block, right?

For years, I wrote like this. I worked on my stories and ideas, and I spent hours revising and tinkering with my sentences, moving the nouns around and looking for the right verbs. This is a terrible way to write.

In this post, I'll offer you a printable self-editing checklist and explain how to use it. I also provide tips from a professional editor.

Self-editing checklist improve your writing fast

When you try writing and editing at the same time, you're doing TWO different activities.

The left side of your brain that needs to write and get ideas out of your head and onto the blank page – your internal writer – shies away from your inner editor.

The right side of your brain that takes your first draft and turns it into something that shines – your internal editor – does its best work when you have a complete first draft.

To engage both parts of the brain at once is to indulge in the myth of multitasking. So, allocate one portion of your day to writing (I like to wake up early) and another part for revising your work with the right editing tools (I like the afternoons).

Separating both tasks will help you write first drafts faster.

It's also what most writers do before they send their work to a professional for review.

Two Pre-Editing Tips to Consider

If you want to get the most out of your time spent editing, consider the following two tips. 

Add them to your usual editing process, and you are guaranteed to see a monumental difference in the effectiveness of your editing.

1. Getting Ready to Edit Your First Draft

Take Time Off

After spending weeks or months writing about a topic or story, the work becomes too hot to touch, let alone edit.

When you finish your first draft, let it sit in your computer for a few days (or longer depending on the length of your work).

Swim. Run. Meditate. Eat steak in an expensive restaurant. Take the dog for an overdue walk. Do something that has nothing to do with writing.

This is essential to any creative process.

Your ideas will cool, and your memory fade. Later, when you open up that messy first draft, you’ll look at it and think ‘Oh yeah, I remember this.’

Change the Format

Now, change the line spacing of your work to double-spaced, change the font to Courier New and the size to 12.

Many professional journalists and sub-editors format their work this way because it’s easy on the eye and takes approximately one minute to read a page.  This simplifies spotting mistakes in sentence structure and punctuation. It also gives you plenty of space for writing on your manuscript.

Better, yet download the font Courier Prime. This revised version of the Courier font looks better on larger screens and has all the benefits of its older brother.

Font choice aside, print out your work, sit down at a quiet table and read your first draft in one go.

Confession: I feel guilty about the paper I use while editing, and I have great intentions to plant a small forest one day.

2. Marking Up Your Manuscript

Let the Ink Run

Remember using peer checklists in school? You’d ravage a classmate’s essay and rip apart their thesis statement until the paper covered in red ink. 

This editing process is the same, except you are combing through your pieces to find and fix common writing mistakes.

Please don’t feel disheartened if your first read-through disappoints. The American editor Sol Stein likens the process of reviewing the first draft to performing triage on a patient, and that’s what you’re about to do with a red pen.

To get the most out of this self-editing technique, strike through words with your pen, use arrows to indicate where you want to move your sentences and write in the spaces between each sentence.

Your markups don’t have to make sense to anyone but you, and if you’re in doubt about a change, circle the sentence or word with your pen and decide on this edit later.

Read Your Pieces or chapters Aloud

Unless you have access to a writing center or some eagle-eyed friends who can write and edit, read your pieces aloud.

I sometimes read my pieces aloud and record myself using the voice memo app on my phone.

Then, I listen back to this recording and mark up the manuscript. The act of saying something aloud helps identify problems in a way my eyes can’t.

Now that you have a sense of your manuscript, you’re going to edit it in at least three different ways.

Round 1: Editing the Structure of Your Book Chapter

During this round, concern yourself with how you’ve organized your book chapter as a whole rather than the finer points of grammar.

For example, during this edit, I like to read the introduction and conclusion and see if they gel with each other.

Ask yourself:

  • Does my introduction and topic sentence invoke curiosity in the reader?
  • Do I have an engaging thesis statement?
  • Do I invoke at least one of the five senses on each page?
  • Are there visual elements in my chapter?
  • What’s the weakest part of this chapter? Now, can I cut it?
  • Have I included metaphors or similes that, upon reflection, don’t stand up in the narrative?
  • Is each of the key paragraphs and sections in this chapter of an appropriate length?
  • Have I suitably broken up each section in my chapters?
  • Do I need to reformat my piece or source images?
  • Am I happy with the tone of this chapter?
  • Are there obvious gaps in my research or stories I need to flesh out?

Round 2: Editing Your Book Chapter in Relation to Other Book Chapters

Like a general surveying the battlefield before marshalling his troops, it’s your job to take stock of your book chapter in relation to the rest of your book.

Address the big problems by asking yourself:

  • Do I need to interview an additional source for the chapter?
  • Does the central argument stand up?
  • Have I told an emotional story that resonates with my reader?
  • Can I strengthen my arguments?
  • Have I brought an original insight into the narrative?
  • Is the central idea or story specific to this chapter alone or do I elaborate on it elsewhere?

Ideally, your chapter should fall naturally alongside the preceding and proceeding chapters, be of a similar length and have a title consistent with the tone.

It’s also sometimes pleasing to sign-post or reference different chapters in your book at this point too, i.e. “I'll talk more about this in Ch.5” and so on.

While editing The Power of Creativity, I stepped back and looked at my book as a whole before dumping two unnecessary chapters and starting a new one.

I was less concerned with pretty little sentences or usage of the passive voice than I was with arranging my book in a way that agreed with readers.

Round 3: Line-editing Your Book Chapter

Line-editing is like polishing your car. You can spend hours doing it and still be unsatisfied with how it looks. That said, it helps to know the basics.

The rules listed below are crucial for editing any introduction, body paragraph, or conclusion. And they will improve your writing skills.

21 rules For Every Writer's self-editing checklist

1. Use the active voice 

The post was edited by me.

Oh dear.

I hired an editor to fix my book.

That’s better.

The active voice keeps your articles consistent and crisp. If “were” and “was” frequently appear, you are likely using a passive voice.

The passive voice fails to engage readers and sounds clunky. Instead, place the subject at the beginning of the sentence. 

Read our guide: What is the Passive Voice?

2. Choose a consistent verb tense

Are you discussing the past, present, or future? Try sticking to one verb tense when possible. Instead of saying, “The documents are filed by the employees,” say, “The employees file the documents.” 

3. Avoid telling the reader what isn’t happening

I’m not stating this rule for no good reason. Here are some examples:

  • “She didn’t speak.” – “She stayed silent.” 
  • “He didn’t go.” – “He stayed home.”
  • “The coffee shop never opened.” – “The coffee shop remained shut throughout the day.”
  • “I’m not stating this rule for no good reason” – “I’m stating this rule for a good reason.”

4. Revise unnecessary words

Look closely for unnecessary adverbs (there’s one) and pointless adjectives (there’s another). 

Adverbs typically appear as “-ly” words, like closely. Adverbs add unnecessary fluff and can tire your reader out. Instead, opt for a precise noun or verb. Here’s an example – He hastily grabbed the hammer off the table. He snatched the hammer off the table. 

Further, avoid the words ‘up’ and ‘down.’ “He jumped up in the air.” “She sat down in the hallway.” 

5. Eliminate redundancies

Trust your reader’s knowledge enough to leave out redundancies. They will know what you mean.

“He blinked his eyes.” – Instead, “He blinked.”

“She grabbed it with her hand.” – How else would she grab it?

“He nodded his head.” – Instead, “He nodded.”

6. Eliminate clichés like your life depends on it.

Clichés include words, phrases, and events. Don’t be too predictable. 

For example – A woman drops her pen only to be met by the eyes of her future love interest kneeling to pick it up. – We all saw that coming. 

7. Simplify clunky language

Reading a piece aloud helps. If you stumble over a sentence, it probably contains clunky word choice.

8. Attributing dialogue tags? Just say, ‘said.’

She gesticulated. He grimaced. We giggled. “That’s not how people talk,” your editor said. Instead of using a verb to describe a character’s dialogue, use ‘said.’

9. Spot moments of lazy writing

Do you make a living from your books? Or do you earn a living from your books? This rule also applies to the use of which, that, who, whom, can, may, lay, lie, less, fewer, further, farther, in to, and into. 

10. Avoid using the same word over and over and over…

Scrivener and Grammarly will help overused words. A thesaurus is useful too.

Check out our round-up of the best grammar checkers.

11. Kill your mixed metaphors

Your readers are watching you like you’re a hawk. If you’re going to use a metaphor, it needs to make sense. The purpose of a metaphor is to make a concept or idea more understandable.

12. Avoid complicated word choice 

Because your exasperated readers won’t have the inclination to ruminate on your warblings. Your academic word choice may look smart, but you will lose readers faster than you can search for your thesaurus.

Complicated language can further distract your reader from the narrative and disrupt their reading flow. 

13. Use suitable formatting

Put key words in italics and bold, and break things up with lists like this.

14. Review your punctuation

Unless you’re tweeting like Donald Trump on social media, those exclamation marks have got to go!!!

Review all punctuation, including semicolons, commas, a single vs. double quotation mark, double quotation marks, hyphens, and apostrophes. Speaking of commas…

15. Love the comma

“Let’s eat, grandma.” isn’t quite the same as “Let’s eat grandma.” Commas are crucial to correct sentence structure. With that said, avoid comma splices, or rather, connecting two independent clauses with a comma instead of a colon, semicolon, or conjunction. 

16. Remove your modifiers

You possibly include them because they simply sound good. And your reader's reaction? Really?! Similar to adverbs and unnecessary adjectives, modifiers provide fluff and lead to chunky sentence structure.

17. Check for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors

Them thar ttypos keep me up at nite. 

Note – Spell check won’t catch grammatical errors like the accidental use of ‘a’ instead of ‘as,' or not using capital letters for proper nouns, nor will it find the wrong use of words like ‘their,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘there'. If possible, have a second set of eyes edit your spelling and grammatical errors to ensure the use of the correct word.

Check out our guide to the best spell checker software.

18. AVOID CAPITAL LETTERS

Unless you are using capital letters to capitalize proper nouns or the first word of a sentence, AVOID using them. Capital letters appear dramatic and abrasive. 

19. Cut it down

Brevity is clarity. Cut 10%. Slashing through adverbs, adjectives, modifiers, and unnecessary sentences is a great place to start.

20. Write compelling subheadings

Please, don’t begin with a dull “introduction” and end it with a stereotypical “conclusion”. Headings are the first thing a reader’s eye will spot. Use headings and subheadings as an opportunity to intrigue your reader and lure them in.

Oh, and don’t forget to run the Alien from Mars test.

21. Check for instances of inadvertent plagiarism

Inadvertent plagiarism describes using a piece of research or an idea from another writer without properly citing or referencing the source. It's a particularly serious issue in academia.

If you're a worried student writer, you can use a plagiarism checker to review essays for this accidental error.

How Many Rounds of Editing Is Enough?

Great writing is rewriting.

You may write, review, edit and rewrite your drafts many times. Or you may go through this cycle once.

Take it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and chapter by chapter. As you self-edit and write (but not at the same time!), your book will teach you how to finish it.

While improving your second or third draft, enlist the help of a family member, friend and ask them to provide frank feedback.

Later on, enlist a professional editor (and proofreader) and ask them to help you turn your self-edited draft into something you’re proud to publish.

That said, some writers rework drafts up until it goes to the printing press, and thanks to lowering cost of self-publishing, you can even rewrite your articles after publication.

But please, don’t get stuck on a merry-go-round of reworking drafts without an end in sight.

Diminishing returns will set in. Instead, accept that while your drafts will never be perfect, it’s as good as it can be.

And that’s all your readers can ask.

What Else Should You Edit?

The checklist above doesn’t include checking for run-on sentences (besides comma splices), sentence fragments, subject-verb agreement, or the proper use of page numbers. 

Why?

Well, there are hundreds of elements to check for while editing a manuscript. Therefore, engage a professional editor and proofreader after you have finished self-editing.  

As the writer, it’s your job to eliminate run-ons and sentence fragments. Learning how to do this is part of the process. 

That said, the tips included in the checklist will help you identify mistakes many writers are unaware of. 

This process involves checking for grammar and punctuation mistakes, and also checking for common spelling errors, as these are critical elements while editing and proofreading.

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Additional Editing Resources

Editing Software for Writers

For grammar, style, and proofreading:

For improving your pieces:

  • Autocrit is a critiquing tool for fiction writers. It costs USD29 per month.
  • Hemingway Editor – this tool will help you figure out which words to cut and which sentences to shorten. It’s free.

Want more? Check out this list of writing apps.

Books To Learn About Self-Editing

The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Coyne, Shawn (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 379 Pages - 04/27/2015 (Publication Date)
Sale
Stein On Writing
  • Stein, Sol (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 01/25/2000 (Publication Date) - St. Martin's Griffin (Publisher)
Sale
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
  • Wusthof
  • Strunk Jr., William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 105 Pages - 07/23/1999 (Publication Date) - Pearson (Publisher)

Editing Checklist: FAQs

What is an editing checklist?

An editing checklist is a one or two-page document that lists all of the issues to check for, while reviewing a piece. For example, instances of the passive voice, common spelling mistakes and so on. It also provides an overview of tone of voice and house style.

What is the Importance of an editing checklist?

Its purpose is three-fold. Firstly, it can save a writer time while reviewing his or her work before publication. Secondly, it can help an editor create a system for proofreading and for fixing editorial issues faster. Thirdly, you can use this checklist to collaborate with other editors or writers.

What is the difference between editing and copy editing?

Editing is a broader concept that describes everything from developmental editing to copyediting. It refers to the entire process of improving a manuscript. Copy editing describes working on specific sentences and paragraphs so they're precise and clear rather than the structure of an entire piece.

What are the benefits of editing?

Writing the first draft is the hard part. Editing is more fun because you can discard parts of an article, web page or chapter that don't work. You can also clarify your ideas and insert additional imagery, metaphor and even humor. As Stephen King said, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

[Interview]: How to Work With An Editor With Neha Vaidya Of PaperTrue

Neha Vaidya
Neha Vaidya of Papertrue

PaperTrue provides copyediting and proofreading services to writers, entrepreneurs, and academics. Based in India, the company employs over 100 editors and works with writers, academics, entrepreneurs and executives around the world.

In this interview, CEO Neha Vaidya explains:

  • Why every writer should work with an editor
  • How to prepare your story, screenplay or book for an editor
  • How much editing and proofreading costs
  • What to expect from your editor

And lots more

I started by asking Neha to explain a little more about how PaperTrue helps writers.

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