Self-Editing Redux: Spot Checking

Oops!I’m in the final stages of polishing my latest manuscript and going through my checklist for those tiny little nits that always manage to slip through. Rather than doing a complete read-through for like the millionth time (which at some point becomes counter-productive because you know it too well), I pick random passages and scrutinize them for errors. I use the search function on Word (a total lifesaver) to see how many times I’ve walked on the dark side and which allows me to clean up blunders quickly. I’ve collected these little nits over many years, not like lice, which crawl across your skin surreptitiously and require toxic chemicals to banish. This is easy peasy, albeit a tad tedious.

Here’s my Quicky Checklist:

  • How many –ing and as phrases do you use.
  • How many –ly adverbs?
  • Too many short sentences? Trying linking them together.
  • Too many long sentences when you’re writing a dramatic scene? Break them up.
  • Are you using a lot of italics? Use them only when a character is speaking to him/ herself and when you really want to emphasize a word or phrase. If the writing is good you shouldn’t need italics for added impact very often.
  • Overuse of profanity? It loses its effect if used too frequently.
  • Overuse of: that, very, suddenly, really…you know your bad words… (check my list from the post below.)
  • Cliches? Use sparingly and in character dialogue only.
  • Too many passive verbs? Search for “was” “were” and phrases like “started to” “hoped to” “began to”. They’re the mark of weak writing.
  • Only one punctuation mark allowed when ending a sentence!!!
  • Overuse of dialogue tags. Abandon them when only two people are speaking and it’s obvious who it is. And make sure the name always comes first. Michael said, not, said Michael.
  • Make sure none of your dialogue tags use an action. He sighed, he laughed. They’re not dialogue tags.
  • Overuse of the ellipsis… Know the difference between hesitation, interruption and just drifting off. Look it up online if you don’t know.
  • Read aloud random dialogue sections to see how they sound. Or have a friend read with you. Wherever you stumble, revise. Did you use enough contractions? Because that’s how people speak. Is the dialogue indicative of that particular character? Assign certain expressions to individuals to set them apart which helps your reader easily identify them.
  • Flip through your manuscript looking for white space. Is there a lot? Hardly any? A paragraph that runs for a half page, or maybe even the entire page? Do you have pages where there are no paragraphs at all? Just dialogue? You’re looking to vary the beats and rhythm.
  • Are all your chapters approximately the same length?
  • Look for repeated words. Only one per page, please. Several pages is even better.
  • This final one is a biggy. Every writer learns this as the first rule of writing. SHOW DON’T TELL. And yet, I’m repeatedly reminded of this by my editor. It sneaks in, just like those pesky little lice. One of the best ways is to search out the word “felt” or “was” or variations of “to” as in: I was angry. I was sad. I felt morose. I wanted to cry. I tried to smile. None of these show us the emotion, they tell us. You’d be surprised how often this creeps into your writing. Frequently, I feel those are powerful statements, emphatic and simple. But they’re not. They’re never as powerful as showing the body language or inner monologue: the blood rushing, the pulse quickening, the sweat forming, the hands fisting, the teeth clenching, the jaw set; the glass crashing into the wall, splintering into tiny shards of angry light.

I’ve written on self-editing before, so for more detail check out these posts, one from October 4th and one from October 11th.

You probably won’t catch them all, but you’ll catch a lot. And then your editor will hit you with a hundred more. Just hope he doesn’t use a big stick. (That was only half a cliche, so it doesn’t count.)



Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

11 thoughts on “Self-Editing Redux: Spot Checking”

  1. Thank you for sharing, Caryn, i have jotted down some of your suggestions. Will check to see how many of those mistakes I’ve made. I can see a big revision coming.

    1. Unfortunately, as much as I edit, I always find something else to change. I hear even published authors still find things they wished they reworked long after their books are in print. Glad to be of help!

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