final edit checklist

By the time the ink dries or the keys stop tapping on a draft that’s nearing final, I hope a satisfied smirk settles on your face. All that’s needed are a few tweaks and a final polish and it’s done.

Over many years of writing for fun and profit and helping others write, I’ve developed a list of factors I check during the final stages of writing, factors with the potential to easily take the piece to a higher level of clarity and readability.

Of course, how you edit and revise depends on what you’re writing, who you’re writing it for, and what your purpose is. The tips below may not all be appropriate for experimental pieces written in funky formats. Whatever you’ve written, use the tips that help and ignore the rest.

1. Make sure the bits serve the whole

Can the reader, who’s like a traveller, get from the beginning to the end without getting lost? Do the parts – sections, paragraphs, stanzas, sentences, phrases, or whatever elements you’re working with – interact with each other in a way that serves your purpose?

Review your piece with your logic cap on, imagining you’re a reader who’s never seen it before. If there are places where you stumble or look around in contextual confusion, then rearrange, massage, or fiddle with the order of things until the bits interlock to connect the elements as a whole.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when you read it through and find yourself focusing on the content rather than the structure.

“The length of a paragraph isn’t a measure of its intellectual depth. A paragraph expresses a train of thought, and some trains are longer than others. When one gets too long, it should probably be two. If the engine is too far from the caboose, it’s hauling too much freight.”
Patricia T. O’Conner, Words Fail Me

2. Less is more

Is every bit of your creation pulling its weight? Are there lazy bits of text hanging around with nothing to do? Are there paragraphs that divert or distract? Removing those bits can clear the way for your meaning to come through more strongly.

If a section, sentence, or phrase seems puffed up, boring, or out of focus, try taking words out one by one. If you can take out a word and the sentence gets better or doesn’t change, leave it out. If taking a word out wrecks what you’re trying to say, leave it in.

Less is more isn’t about creating writing that’s streamlined to the point of harshness. Even chatty writing can contain words that aren’t serving the piece’s flavour or purpose. This step is about being conscious of what’s there, wanting what you’ve got, and giving slacker words the heave-ho.

3. One space between sentences

Two spaces between sentences is a convention left over from typewriter days, when a single space was considered insufficient. These days, published pieces usually go through a digital process. Two spaces between paragraphs can get in the way of that computerized, finely-tuned process. By using one space, you’ll make your editors and designers happier, save them time and save you money if you’re paying for their services, and type many fewer keystrokes over your writing career.

Join the modern world. Retrain your typing fingers to put only one space between sentences. Or remove one of the two spaces during your final edit.

4.  Get rid of it

Going through your piece and looking critically at each it can be illuminating. Clarity is usually improved by replacing it with something more specific. Not every it will want to or need to go, but assessing each one can turn up great opportunities for trading vagueness for certainty.

5. Avoid -ing verbs

Often, shifting a verb with an -ing ending to one without improves the strength and closeness of the action. Without the -ing verb ending, sentences tend to feel more immediate and impactful, even if the action is in the past. Notice the difference between They were yelling and waving their swords as he was running for his life and They yelled and waved their swords as he ran for his life.

There are certainly situations which call for -ing verb endings. Consider which form serves your purpose best in each instance. Be conscious of your options.

6. Use contractions

A contraction is created by replacing a letter or letters with an apostrophe, as when do not becomes don’t. Using contractions is a subtle way to bring the reader closer because it’s more like the way we speak to each other. Writing that doesn’t use contractions can seem formal and stiff.

In my experience as an editor, most people (including me) write their drafts without using contractions, so at some point in the revision process, it can be useful to go through and consciously check for instances where converting to a contraction reduces starchiness.

Using contractions as a rule can get you into trouble, as sometimes a contractions won’t ring true. Try reading the passage aloud. Would you speak with a contraction (don’t, can’t, won’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, hasn’t, didn’t, they’ll, etc.) … or not?

7. Check spelling

Make sure your spelling review system is under your control and not the other way around. Check your spell-checker’s settings. Is the default language correct for your purpose – American, Canadian, or British English?

Rather than automatically accepting every spell-checker suggestion, actually consider what it brings up for review. Put on your super-sight goggles as you review, because not all suggestions are friendly. If you’re not sure you agree with a spell-checker suggestion, look the word up in a dictionary. The spell-checker is the robot. Make sure you’re the one who knows.

8. Read aloud

Reading what you’ve written aloud gives you another route to noticing what spots could use a tweak. Not everyone will find reading aloud useful. Try it to see if you like it.

“Want to get really daring? Take what you’ve written and have someone read it to you. See how you like the sound of it.”
Joel Saltzman, If You Can Talk, You Can Write

9. Re-read until done

Re-read your creation from start to finish as many times as it takes to be able to read it through without making any changes or adjustments. An all-is-well, untweaked read-through means both your creating brain and your editing brain agree. That’s something to celebrate!

Final Edit Checklist Review:

  1. Make sure the bits serve the whole. Can the reader get from beginning to end without getting lost?
  2. Less is more. Is every bit of the piece pulling its weight?
  3. One space between sentences. Do you need to delete any spaces between sentences?
  4. Get rid of it. Can it be effectively replaced with something more specific?
  5. Avoid -ing verbs. Would changing verbs with -ing endings improve the action?
  6. Use contractions. Would using contractions smooth the flow?
  7. Check spelling. Is the spell-checker program serving you and not the other way around?
  8. Read aloud. How does the piece sound when read aloud?
  9. Re-read until done. Can you read it through without making any tweaks?

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Related reading: Ponder – Write Better by Organizing Your Ideas

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