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Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: A Quick-Start Checklist

self-editing for fiction writers

Self-editing is a challenge for even the most skilled fiction writers. Once you’ve poured your heart and soul into a draft, it’s difficult to slash and revise the words you’ve become attached to.

But, as the famous writers’ expression goes, you must kill your darlings if you hope to create a work of fiction readers will love. Here’s an editing checklist to guide you through the arduous task of making a rough manuscript smooth and polished.

self-editing for fiction writers checklistClean and Tighten Your Writing

We like our writing like we like our bed sheets — clean and crisp. Check the strength of your writing on your first self-editing pass.

_____  Clear out the clutter. Have you eliminated most adverbs and made stronger verb choices instead? (It’s not spoke quietly, it’s whispered.) Have you eliminated filler words like that, just, even, seem, very, and really?

_____ Weed out “to be” verbs and other passive constructs. Passive writing often lacks specificity and clarity. Look for tell-tale “to be” words like was and were and see if you can rewrite to make the sentence more active.

____ Eliminate clichés. There’s a reason writers chuckle when they hear the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s the most infamous writing cliché there is. (There’s even a writing contest based on it.) Make sure your language isn’t trite. If you’ve heard it said before, it’s probably a cliché.

self-editing for fiction writers checklistCheck Your Narrative Flow

Does your story flow smoothly? Good self-editing helps fiction writers not only tighten their language but strengthen their narrative.

_____ Show, don’t tell. Sometimes you have to give your reader information by telling it directly, but most of the time it’s better to draw them into the story by painting a word picture that helps them imagine the scene vividly. Make sure you’ve used description and action. Instead of telling the reader your character felt lonely, show them what lonely looks like.

_____ Find and squash redundancies. Are you repeating yourself without meaning to? Some writers lean too heavily on certain turns of phrase. Keep an eye out for tautologies, too. Those are phrases that unnecessarily repeat themselves, like baby puppy, future predictions, and dilapidated ruins.

_____ Vary your sentence lengths. Sometimes sentences all sound the same. They have a sing-song rhythm. Each sentence is the same length. (See what we mean now?) Did you vary your sentence length to keep things interesting? Have you avoided overly long sentences that might be confusing and hard-to-read? Excellent!

_____ Pace yourself. Bombard us with constant action and we’ll grow weary of the intensity. Drone on with lengthy passages of description or exposition and we’ll fall asleep. Does your manuscript have a good blend of fast and slower-paced sections?

PRO TIP: Self-editing for fiction writers is AutoCrit’s specialty. Our online manuscript editor automates much of the revision process and helps you spot potential trouble areas.

Tidy Your Dialogue

self-editing for fiction writers checklistDialogue can make or break a story. Good dialogue moves the story along and captivates the reader. Bad dialogue makes us roll our eyes or, worse, set your book aside. These self-editing tips will help you make sure your dialogue is compelling.

_____ Get rid of excess dialogue tags. Is it already clear who’s speaking? If it is, there’s no need for a dialogue tag. Non-essential dialogue tags are just noise, and they distract from your story.

_____ Stick to “said” and “asked.” Seriously. “Said” and “asked” slip invisibly into the background and let your characters do the talking. But throw in “she effused” or “he guffawed” and suddenly we’re aware that there’s a writer at work. And it’s not a good kind of awareness.

_____ Keep adverbs out of dialogue tags. There’s a type of play on words dedicated to adverbs in dialogue tags. They’re called Tom Swifties. And they’re only good if you’re trying to get laughed at. Just as with your prose in general, when you’re self-editing fiction, get rid of as many adverbs as possible. Your editor, agent, and readers will thank you.

Don’t Lose the Plot

Our checklist is meant to help you strengthen your prose, which is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers 101. But, of course, checking these items off your revision list is not the only step. This guide is meant to give you a quick head start, but there are points you’ll need to address with character development, conflict, action, theme, and more. That’s where beta readers, developmental editors, and your own knowledge of how stories work comes into play.

But if you get the worst of your writing struggles tackled first, you’ll be able to focus on those big picture edits to make sure your characters are relatable and your plot is strong. (Remember, AutoCrit stands ready to guide you through the process if you need a hand!)

What’s your biggest self-editing struggle? What are your fiction writing challenges? Share them in a comment below. It’s a safe bet that many other writers will relate.

Join the Discussion on “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: A Quick-Start Checklist”

  1. Munsey says:

    You have and give great information. I wish I could afford using your services?

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thanks so much, Munsey! Sorry to hear that AutoCrit isn’t within your budget right now. At less than $1 per day, we think it’s a great investment in your writing, but we completely understand. We’ll keep offering up lots of expert advice on our blog every week. It’s always good to hear from our readers when they find it helpful so we know to keep on creating more of the same.

  2. Kat Canfield says:

    My downfall is passive verbs. I just can’t find a different way to write the ‘was’ and ‘were’ sentences.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      We’ll have an article coming up about that very topic soon, Kat! Keep an eye out for it.

  3. Neil Daniel says:

    My current bugbear is dialogue. If I’m not extra careful, I’ll lapse into a lazy practice and all my characters end up with the same voice.

  4. L. Thomas says:

    I put my first book through auto-crit chapter by chapter until the summary score was at least 85 plus. I really recommend this program. Not only does it help you edit your work but by editing your work you learn to write more efficiently and automatically begin to stop using redundancies, filler words, LY adverbs and one of my biggest faults is repeated words, such as using Car and car several times in one or two paragraphs. This drones on through my entire chapter to the point that rewriting each paragraph to edit out repeated word usuage actually helps the structure of the paragraph flow better.

    Currently I have my first novel edited exclusively by auto-crit and my wife at the Publishers undergoing review. I will let you know how that turned out in the coming days.

  5. L. Thomas says:

    Cassis Lightening was accepted for Publication. It should be in a bookstore near you in say about 7-8 months. Many thanks to AutoCrit. The 30 dollars per month is a far cry cheaper than the services of a paid copy editor which can run you into the thousands.

    How I used AutoCrit was to cut and paste a single chapter into AutoCrit and then run a summary and once the summary was completed I would then begin working on fixing the LY adverbs, the repeated words, mainly focusing on strong writing. The great thing about AutoCrit is it actually teaches you to correct your mistakes as your writing your rough draft or doing your second and third rewrites.

    So I would have both Microsoft word up and running with the chapter being edited in the background while I looked over AutoCrit’s summary of each category, switching to the appropriate place in the manuscript and making changes. I was able to edit Cassis Lightening, a manuscript of 86,166 words in about forty five days.

    I would only say that if you are an aspiring writer AutoCrit is a worthwhile investment and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wishes to publish.

  6. ROSE KLIX says:

    I love using AutoCrit for self-editing. The program is thorough and teaches me better word choices. I am so happy when I receive a high score on AutoCrit.

  7. JustSaying says:

    I love how the website that you linked the Tom Swifties to literally contradicts you…

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