Using editorial checklists

A couple of weeks ago, I turned off notifications for one of my accounts. Then the other day I wondered why I wasn’t getting notifications. Was no one responding? I couldn’t figure it out. Then I investigated and I realized that people were responding, I just wasn’t getting notifications because I had turned the notifications off.

You’d think I could remember a thing like that! I had to make a deliberate effort to turn the notifications off. I even had to do some sleuthing to find out how. Yet two weeks later I couldn’t remember that I’d done so.

I’m not an especially forgetful person but I do forget things. We all do. That’s one of the reasons I’m so fond of checklists, even for tasks I do frequently. Another reason is that a few years ago I read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, and it presented compelling evidence that following checklists has a tremendous impact on reducing error.

I use a checklist for developmental editing, even though I have edited so many manuscripts I have lost count. I start with my standard template (posted below) and customize it for each ms, depending on what the author has asked for in the edit, and any issues I’m already aware of (perhaps because of the brief review I do before offering a project quote).

__overall pacing and tension

              __no loose plot threads

              __subplots feed into main plot

              __plot events are clear/understandable

              __logical sequence of plot events

              __plot is plausible/believable

              __action sequences are not confusing


              __characters have motivations for the things they do           

              __characters have arcs—they start at one place and end at another

              __character continuity

—characters sound/act/think differently from each other

              __appropriate number of characters

__appropriate number of POV characters; POV characters are the right ones

__POV is handled appropriately

__clearly rendered setting

__historical/specialized vocabulary or facts that needed checking  (list):

__accuracy within time period and setting

__continuity issues (timeline, repetition, consistency of character actions, descriptions, etc.)

__appropriateness of story (and scenes) to intended audience

(for line editing, when appropriate):

__awkward, lengthy, or confusing sentence structure that requires polishing

__tightening (trimming filtered feelings; superfluous action; repetition)

__dialogue that seems wooden, off, or anachronistic; dialogue tags misused

I also have a checklist for my process from first read-through to final review. Even if you’re sure you’re not missing anything, using checklists can help reduce some of the mental stress of editing.

Effective Scene Construction

A common structural problem you’ll encounter in fiction development is ineffective scene construction: scenes that start before they should, drag on far too long, and don’t establish key information right away. A good scene includes the meat of a plot event – whether that event is an emotional discussion over coffee, a decision to take a certain action, or a footchase across town – but not a whole lot more.

Writing advice often says that a scene should establish setting or character, or do something to advance the plot, but in fact a good scene should do all three. A scene in which the protagonist looks in the mirror and relays what they see in order for the reader to be able to visualize them is not going to engage the reader. Something needs to happen. It doesn’t have to be the protagonist accidentally witnessing the murder in the reflection of the mirror. It can be something like the protagonist noticing that their gray hair is showing and deciding that something must be done about it.

So, something that happens can be a decision, a conversation, or an action (hiding the murder weapon, eavesdropping on Mom and Dad, punching the bully).

But it isn’t enough to merely have something happen if we don’t know where it’s happening or who’s involved. So, a scene needs to establish early on:

  1. Who the viewpoint character is
  2. Where the scene is taking place
  3. Who is in the scene with the viewpoint character

And then it must go on to convey:

4. The scene event (and little more)

How character motivations create meaning

In my teaching I focus a lot on character, plot, and setting. These are the tools with which authors build stories. But there’s another we shouldn’t overlook: theme. Readers read stories not merely to find out what happens but to understand what it means. I often talk about the importance of plot events having causality—they should happen for a reason. It is through those reasons that meaning can be found.

That Sam steals the medicine from the pharmacy because he loves his son and wants him to live shows us one type of meaning, perhaps that people will do things they wouldn’t have thought possible to save the people they love.

That Sam steals the medicine from the pharmacy because he loves his son and wants him to live and can’t afford the medicine because he lost his job shows us another type of meaning.

That Sam steals the medicine . . . because he lost his health insurance when he lost his job shows us a slightly different type of meaning.

That Sam steals the medicine . . . because greedy pharmaceutical companies charge astronomical fees for medicines shows us still another type of meaning.

When authors are not paying enough attention to the reasons—the why of the characters—they risk shortchanging meaning, regardless of how well they’ve explored plot, character, and setting.

Many times authors don’t set out to explore a specific theme or to convey a specific message, but as an observer of the ms, you will often have enough distance from the work to be able to pick out some connected threads that seem to underlie the story events. You can help the author surface these threads, highlighting the meaning they give to the story. Often you can help the author strengthen or tweak a character motivation in order to create more meaning.

Eliminating or Reducing Flashbacks

Authors like to use flashbacks to show backstory. Unfortunately the use of flashbacks can stop the narrative flow in its tracks. Rather than increasing dramatic tension, flashbacks tend to drain it. Readers experience them not as enhancements to the text but as interruptions. Readers, as a rule, don’t care about what happened in the past. They care about what happens next.

Authors often use flashbacks as a way to solve a problem. (In fact, most developmental problems are attempted solutions to other problems.) If you can identify the problem the author is trying to solve, you can offer editorial guidance that will solve the problem in a way that does not require the use of a flashback. Here are three common problems authors try to solve with flashbacks:

  • Author is afraid the character’s motivation won’t be clear without a visit to the experience that shaped the motivation. So the ms ends up with something like: “Anna didn’t want to get involved. She remembered the last time she’d gotten involved. [Cue long, convoluted flashback about how Anna’s meddling backfired once.]”
  • Author is afraid the emotional impact of a current scene won’t be felt unless the reader knows what led up to the scene: “Anthony watched in horror as the dog ran across the street. [Cue long, convoluted flashback about how Anthony’s dog was run over by a truck when he was nine years old.]”
  • Author is attempting to “show, don’t tell.” Take, for example, the following passage: “Regina wondered what her boss wanted. The last time a boss had set up a meeting without explaining why, she’d been fired.” An author may recognize that as telling, rather than showing, and remembering that they are supposed to show instead of tell, may seize upon the opportunity to show: “Regina wondered what her boss wanted. She remembered [cue long, convoluted flashback to a scene where Regina is fired.]”

Depending on the situation, a writer who is overly reliant on flashbacks to tell the story may have started the story in the wrong place or is telling the wrong story. In one of the recent edits I’ve done where flashbacks did too much heavy lifting, I asked the author to reflect on what her story is about. In essence, she is telling the tale of a woman’s disintegrating marriage, but where such a story starts can vary. Is she telling the story of how the marital problems arise? Or is she telling the story of what happens after the protagonist realizes her marriage is in jeopardy and she must make a decision? My author wanted to tell story #2, but she was telling story #1 in the flashbacks.

Now, of course it’s possible for an approach like this to work, with flashbacks expertly entwined with the forward action, but probably not, and rarely in an inexperienced author’s hands. So the solution was to have the author commit to telling story #2 and to prune out as much of the backstory as possible. For story #2, how the protagonist got to where she is when the story opens isn’t as interesting to the reader as what happens next: “Marriage is in trouble? Okay, got it.” That’s basically all the reader needs for the story to get underway.

Creating Satisfying Resolutions

I’m not talking about those resolutions we all make on January 1. I mean the way a story ends: how the plot comes together and the character arcs are ended. Every narrative arc has, or should have, a resolution. (I once purchased the first volume of a two-volume book, not realizing it was only the first half of the book. It ended mid-scene. This is not unlike the way some manuscripts end, which leaves the reader saying, “What?”)

Some resolutions are more satisfying than others, by which I mean readers feel that the time they’ve invested in the book has been worthwhile. This is not to say that a satisfying resolution = a happily ever after. A satisfying resolution can evoke sadness or righteous anger or any number of emotions, but the reader should feel that the story has ended appropriately to its content. Typically, a comic novel needs a comic ending. A romance needs a happily ever after. A thriller needs the villain to be stopped. In any type of novel, readers need to feel that while the characters may be getting on with their lives afterwards, they, and we, have been changed by what happens in the story.

It can be difficult for authors to understand that readers read novels not just because they may be thought-provoking but because the experience is emotionally rewarding. It may be appropriate to the novel for the ending to be some sort of intellectual or literary game, but such approaches will often disappoint readers who expect more from the author.

Many inexperienced authors favor ambiguous endings (did she or didn’t she?) but readers want authors to have a point of view—to say something. Love triumphs, power corrupts, the world is absurd, whatever. Ultimately, an author isn’t saying anything if they leave the resolution up to the reader. Thwarting expectations in general is always a risky business, but can in the right circumstances be of literary value (the criminal gets away at the end of mystery, for example, to prove a thematic point that, say, knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily mean justice prevails). Abdicating one’s role as author, on the other hand, is a bit pointless.

Readers don’t experience cliff hangers as compelling bits of art designed to get them to read the next book. They experience them as tricks. Ambiguous and cliff-hanger endings are ultimately unsatisfying. Each book in a series must reach some sort of resolution, even if an overall narrative arc isn’t concluded until the end of the series. Not every author will believe this, and of course you can’t make someone provide a satisfying resolution if they’ve chosen not to, but it’s important that you at least raise the concern.

A satisfying resolution should not rely on deus ex machina, where a person or thing suddenly solves the knotty problem. It should be the culmination of what has come before. Endings are difficult to get right, and often a tweak to an ending will require making a dozen other changes going back to the beginning of the book. A book that is fantastic for two hundred pages but fails in the last two still, in the reader’s mind, fails.

As the editor, you have to help the author see possible resolutions that may not have occurred to them.

Editing Timelines

A common developmental concern is a problem or error in the timeline of a story. Usually the copy editor is expected to track the timeline very carefully, but you want to avoid having a big problem at the CE stage that could have been solved at the DE stage if only you’d been paying attention. (And with indie authors, there may not be a CE stage.)

So, you need to be able to spot that if in story time today is Tuesday and tomorrow is Friday, something has gone wrong somewhere. Similarly, if Penelope is in Los Angeles at 9 a.m., she is almost certainly not getting off the plane in New York at lunchtime. In other words, we have to keep track of clock time as well as elapsed time.

For the author, fixing a timeline isn’t always as simple as changing the reference from Friday to Tuesday. It may require significant revision, depending on the story—which is why it’s better to catch the problem in dev than to hope the CE catches it.

You can use a spread sheet to track the timeline. If you’ve done a chapter-by-chapter summary, you can add timeline (and even location) tracking to that (Chapter 1—noon on Tuesday—Rome).

For beginning editors, tracking this in a chapter summary document can be extremely helpful. I still do this for complex edits. You wouldn’t send the author the tracking spreadsheet—that’s for your use. You would use queries and any necessary ms edits to deal with timeline issues. If they’re extensive, you would also need to address them in the revision letter, as fixing the issues may require the type of rewriting that’s beyond the DE’s typical role.

Tracing a Story Arc

Many developmental concerns relate to the story arc—what happens and why. The what and the why are of course interconnected but they can also be looked at separately (at least to some degree) to help you identify problems in the narrative. For example, a story may have a clear conflict, interesting characters, and carefully explored cause-and-effect (the “why”) but if the pacing is too slow or uneven, none of this matters. The reader will lose interest and wander off.

One technique I often use, especially with beginning writers, is to simply summarize what happens in each chapter of their novel. This approach that helps you see whether each chapter is pulling its weight as well as how the chapters (and the scenes within chapters, if necessary) link together – or don’t.

The chapter summary is just a sentence or two that describes the action of the novel. Note that by action I don’t necessarily mean guns blazing. It can be a decision made, a conversation that moves the plot in another direction, etc.

Recently I edited a novel where I came up with an outline of the first five chapters that went something like this:

In Chapter 1, the heroine rents a car.

In Chapter 2, the villain tells his minion all the things the author wants the reader to know.

In Chapter 3, a secondary character moves back to her hometown and has some mixed feelings about it.

In Chapter 4, the hero has an inciting incident but it’s told as a flashback.

At this point I made a note to myself: I have no idea what any of these characters want and I don’t know what makes them unique, interesting, engaging. What are their quirks and foibles?

In Chapter 5, the hero and heroine meet. They info-dump about their pasts. We are told he immediately feels deeply about her but this not shown. Then we find out that the two are “meant to be” together.

My note to myself says: “Meant to be” just doesn’t work in fiction. It robs the narrative of uncertainty and suspense. If everything is meant to be, then all these characters are just playthings of fate and nothing they’re doing matters. Their goals, choices, decisions, and actions are meaningless. They have no consequence. But what drives narrative/fiction? It’s the character’s goals, choices, decisions, and actions. You can’t tell the reader these don’t matter and then expect the reader to follow along.

At this point, the end of Chapter Five, we’re a hundred pages in and nothing has really happened. The author couldn’t see this because there were lots of words involved and any number of conversations and descriptions. But boiling it down into a brief outline helped her see that her novel consisted almost entirely of telling the reader things instead of showing them unfold. (The pacing was glacially slow.)

Once she was able to see that she made big improvements. Doing the outline also helped me identify what my concerns with the story were, as evidenced by the notes I made to myself as I went along.

While the outline is meant for your use, you can share it or parts of it (carefully edited for tone) with the author to help him/her understand where the manuscript is failing to live up to its potential.

Exploring versus Judging Character

One of the curious conundrums I’ve experienced as a book editor is encountering characters that the author clearly has contempt for but expects readers to be interested in engaging with.

Contempt is as poisonous in writing as it is in relationships.

The goal of the author should not be to judge character but to explore character. The reader can judge.

One of the reasons this contempt happens, or seems to happen, is when authors view characters as tokens to be moved around on a backdrop—chess pieces, as it were, having rules of engagement but no volition.

In other words, Beatrice does not murder the blackmailer Malcolm because that is the type of thing Beatrice would do when threatened with exposure, but because the author needs a dead body on the floor. Action then becomes motivated by the author’s need to check off a plot point on their outline rather than as something integral to the character.

The most important question we can ask in helping authors develop characters is: “Would this character really do/think/say this thing right now?”

Showing Character through Testing

Authors often create characters who are perfectly suited for the story that is being told. The brilliant detective is put to the task of finding out whodunnit, the brilliant surgeon must operate on the life-threatening tumor, the brilliant commando must rescue the hostage.

If these characters have suitable antagonists to oppose them, then enough conflict can be generated to make following along on their adventures engaging enough that readers will do it.

Fish Out of Water

But readers like to see characters both in and out of their element.

One of the best ways to define character is to plunge the character into unfamiliar territory.

So, what happens if the author promotes the robbery investigator to homicide detective? What happens if the life-threatening tumor must be operated on in a field hospital miles from the nearest blood bank? What happens if the commando is injured and tactical support for the operation completely withdrawn?

Now the character is tested in ways that will engage readers.

Who Are (All of) You?

One of the most common character development problems I come across in developmental editing is the introduction of the cast of thousands. We’ve barely met Harry and Sally when we are also introduced to Bernadette, Jose, Terry, Maximilian, Duane, Lisa, and their children and pets. The reader can barely figure out who any of these characters are, let alone develop any kind of interest in or empathy with them.

Unnecessary Characters Create Character Development Problems

When there are too many characters jostling for page time, it is difficult for the author to develop any of them in a way that will engage a reader’s interest. It is true that certain stories require a lot of characters, but when and how they are introduced matters. As with any type of exposition, character introductions can turn into info-dumping:

“And that’s Miranda, married to Michael—the blond—and their children Margaret and Mitchell, not to be confused with Michel, over there, who is seeing Angelique, whose ex, Antonio, is standing by the bean dip.”

I can’t keep track of any of these people and further I don’t care about a single one.

Authors sometimes try to fix this problem by turning all of the characters into viewpoint characters, thinking that this will allow us to engage with them more fully:

“Miranda overheard Penelope pointing her out to the new neighbor. She went over and introduced herself. When Michael saw Miranda abandon the shrimp cocktail, he knew something was up and went to follow her. Margaret, their daughter, watched her parents leave the buffet table and decided now was the time to snag all the crab cakes.”

But while this is a slight improvement over an undifferentiated list, the approach still creates only superficial engagement with the characters.

How to Reduce the Cast List

Some suggestions I often make for authors who have overcrowded their pages:

  • As with any exposition, characters should only be introduced when they are needed for the story to make sense.
  • Only the most important characters to the story should be viewpoint characters
  • Character roles can often be combined to reduce the number of characters readers have to remember, especially minor characters who only show up occasionally. For example, in the above scenario, maybe only one child really matters to the story, so Margaret and Mitchell can be rolled into one character.
  • Minor characters should be defined by their role, not given names (as the giving of names implies that the character is important and needs to be remembered). So unless the barista is a close confidante of the protagonist, she can just be “the barista.”