In an earlier post titled Revising Your First Draft: The First Read-Through I teased you all with mention of a Revision Checklist and going into a deeper dive of my own revision process. Before I go there, I want to caution you: if you are still in the middle of writing your first draft, you do not want to read this post.
You heard me.
If you’re still producing your first draft, close this browser tab and back away from the blog. Better still, bookmark this post for later review…then step away from the blog.
Ok. We should be alone now. If any of those “first drafters” come back, someone nudge me or something. We can’t have them poking around here just yet. They’ll get overzealous and start editing themselves prematurely.
The Common Revision Checklist
I’m a big fan of Google Drive for organizing my writing-related files. I like that my files are accessible from anywhere, and that someone else has the headache of making and maintaining backups. I keep a local copy for safety, and another at an alternate remote location, but that’s because I’m paranoid about data security.
I created a document on my Google Drive that I called “Common Revision Checklist”, and this document contains all of the elements that I will be targeting throughout my revision process. Why “Common” and not some other choice descriptor? Because this checklist is for items that apply to the entire work as a whole, and aren’t specific to a single chapter/character/section. It contains everything from style recommendations to grammar usage mistakes that I am prone to make during my first draft process.
I want to make an assumption before proceeding: these suggestions apply primarily to third-person perspective narration. It’s my personal philosophy that anything goes in dialogue (as long as communication is not compromised). First-person perspective is often indistinguishable from dialogue in its tone, so I feel much of that “anything goes” philosophy applies there as well. A character speaks the way a character speaks, and they’re not all grammar professors. Here’s part 1 of the checklist I used while revising Necromancer Awakening
, my debut fantasy bestseller.
Track Pre- and Post-edit word counts.
Taking advice from Stephen King, I aim for a target reduction-in-size of about 10% from draft to final. Obviously this depends on your approach to the first draft, and some sections must become larger instead, but this is a good general guideline. Tracking your word counts can’t hurt, so get used to doing it using whichever tool you’re most comfortable using.
As a fantasy author, I tend to have a lot of fancy titles and proper nouns in my work. I find that sometimes, during the draft process, I slip on the rules of title capitalization. This checklist item reminds me to go over those titles and make sure I’m using them properly. (e.g. it’s ok to write “the archbishop told me not to,” but not “archbishop Jones told me not to.” In the latter example, Archbishop should be capitalized).
Fix Word Choice Issues
Began to / Started to – Characters should do something, not start to do something…unless the intent is to interrupt them in the process.
Whether or not / Whether – See whether “or not” is superfluous in context. If it is, kill it.
The fact that – Always revise out. No exceptions.
Thing – Be more descriptive where possible. Thing is usually not sufficient.
Nearly – Make people do something, not almost do something.
Almost – Same as “Nearly”.
Not – Try to speak affirmatively where possible (e.g. “He forgot” rather than “He didn’t remember”).
Once more / Again/ Once again – Make sure these usages add something or clarify meaning. If they don’t, then eliminate them (“Elements of Style” rule #17: Omit needless words.)
Causing – This is a mistake I’m prone to, particularly in action sequences. I’ll often write something like “Such and such happened causing something else to happen next.” The problem with “causing” is that it can take the reader out of the PoV and make them remember that they’re reading a story and not living a story.
Qualifiers are words which often modify adjectives. Their presence typically indicates a weak adjective or noun was chosen over a strong one. Qualifiers weaken sentences. Try to revise out wherever possible. Try a couple of your own sentences both with and without the qualifier and see which version sounds less tentative and more descriptive. The list of qualifiers is as follows:
- a bit
- (a good/great) deal
- kind of / sort of
- (a) little
- a (whole) lot
Evaluate Your Adverbs
So what is an adverb anyway? It’s a word that modifies a verb. It’s that simple. It’s the difference between “he walked” and “he walked slowly.” Such an innocent concept, yet it causes arguments that often grow to holy-war proportions.
It may surprise some of you that I have mixed feelings about adverbs. Do they weaken sentence structure? Often. Do they leech some of the authority out of the narrator’s voice? Often. Are they the result of poor word choice? Often.
In the example I used above, “he walked” doesn’t convey enough information. “He walked slowly” seems to convey what I’m after…but that’s because I’m feeling a little lazy at the moment. When I stop to think about what I’m trying to communicate, and really focus on the imagery, I realize that “he ambled” is what I’m after. It conjures the precise word image that I want to paint in the reader’s imagination. So…adverbs are bad, right? Not so fast. Take a look at this:
It was a perfect sphere, geometrically speaking.
Geometrically is an adverb. When you read the above sentence, do you get the sense that it weakens the meaning? Does it obfuscate the imagery rather than make it clear what the writer’s intent is? Look, a lot of this is subjective, granted. In this case I like the adverb. Someone else may highlight it and press delete with extreme prejudice. Why do I like the adverb in this case? For starters, geometry is not the only attribute of a sphere. It could have the paint job from hell, yet be a perfect sphere…when referring to its geometry.
So…adverbs are OK, right? Not so fast. Take a look at this:
“I’m going to the party,” John responded smugly.
Let me be clear about this: Adverbial dialogue attributions need to die a horrible death. Dialogue attributions are little more than visual landmarks for the reader. They’re not even seen as words to be read, for the most part. Many readers won’t internally vocalize dialogue attributions because they interrupt the flow of the conversation that is playing out in the reader’s mind. So, when you add an adverbial attribution (he said, emphatically) you’re injecting yourself into the conversation and lifting the reader out of the “fictive dream state” that you’ve worked so carefully to create. But that’s not all. Adverbial attributions tell rather than show: 1. We should know he was responding to something because we would have already read the question he was asked. 2. We should know the response was smug based on his/her character or context, not because of your dialog attribution. If you’re tempted to use anything other than “said” to indicate spoken dialogue, rethink what you’re about to do. Outside of dialog attributions, however, the water gets murky. I tend to go through my prose and kill as many adverbs as I can. For me, they’re usually the result of my own laziness. But there are always a handful I can’t bring myself to delete…and that’s OK. The idea is to use them sparingly, not eliminate them entirely. There’s no such thing as a bad “part of speech”. Just know when to use them and when to refrain from using them. This is something you’ll just get a feel for as time goes by and you discover your voice. Incidentally, this post is full of adverbs. And I’ll probably leave it that way.
Tomorrow, in part two of this two-part post
, I’ll complete the checklist with the following items:
- Commonly misused words/expressions
- Filter words
- “Something of Something” constructions
- Superfluous Movement Verbs
- Passive voice
- Dialog attributions
- Superfluous “That” usage
- Confusing “ing” constructions
So, what do you include in your personal revision checklist? What’s your opinion on adverbs? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to continue the conversation!
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
Instead of adverbs, I’ll sometimes use internal monologue and motion:
“I’m going to the party,” John said, in the same smug-bastard tone I’d come to hate. “They love me.”
“I’m going to the party.” John’s lip curled in a smug, half-smile. “They love me.”
Excellent examples! And I concur with the internal monologue idea. Monologue should always be in the voice of the character speaking internally.
Fantastic post. So useful. I am particularly guilty of began to/started to. Just checked my MS and I have used these 33 and 4 times respectively.
It’s quite common because of the way we think when we imagine the scene. We even use words like “plays out” to describe what a scene does in our mind. When you think about that, scenes play out from beginning to end, so we tend to see them in a more-or-less logical progression.
That often means we see someone “begin to” or “start to” do something before they actually do it. In first drafts, since we’re often writing for speed, that’s exactly what’s going to spill out on paper.
Excellent post. 🙂
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An absolutely brilliant checklist and definitely being bookmarked! Thank you so much for sharing it 🙂
Thanks, Mishka! I’m glad you find it helpful!
Ditto on bookmarking.
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Excellent list, Nat. For me it’s repeated words. My characters smile, sigh and grin too much so I always run these words through a search at the completion of a manuscript.
The funny thing I’ve found is how there’s always a repeated word issue…but the repeated words change from work to work! The subconscious is a powerful thing. 🙂
‘So, when you add an adverbial attribution (he said, emphatically) you’re injecting yourself into the conversation and lifting the reader out of the “fictive dream state” that you’ve worked so carefully to create.’
I always took such attributions as being the interpretation of the POV character, not the author. *shrug* Nevertheless, I agree that adverbs in dialogue attributions are not a good thing about 99.99 percent of the time.
Definitely, Thomas. It really comes down to knowing when and where to use them.
You never can have too many editing checklists! I find it helpful to see what other writers look for in the editing process. Looking forward to part 2!
Wait no longer! There’s a link at the end of the article that will take you straight to it! 🙂
Excellent post, and I’m starting part 2 right after this comment.
First, though, I wanted to ask a question that I thought about after the “Eliminate Qualifiers” section. If you’re anything like me, I edit, edit, edit once the first draft is written. One problem I run into with that method is that things just start to sound more natural after having read them five or six times. I try to put space between my edits, but sometimes I start to fall in love with a phrase that I know is wrong. But it just doesn’t sound any better after trying different revisions.
Granted, indie authors tend to be a frugal bunch out of necessity, but do you have any thoughts on using an independent editor at some point in the revision process, especially as a way to take a step back from your own feelings on your work?
I ABSOLUTELY recommend using outside pairs of eyes on your work. I’ll be honest, I can’t afford independent editors, at nearly any price. I have about a $200 budget per title, and 95% or more of that (sometimes I go over) is spent on the cover. The reason I put the lion’s share on the cover is because I have between 20-30 beta readers who go over my work in *fine* detail. I have one beta reader in particular who, because of her knowledge, experience, and our relationship, I weight far more than the others.
Anyway, all that to say find as many external readers as you can. At first, it’s going to be hit or miss. Cast your net wide and see what you haul in. With every cast, there’ll be a few more keepers.
When you get a chance, take a look at this article. It’s about the beta process and how to approach it: https://www.erindorpress.com/2014/07/4-things-every-writer-know-beta-readers/
And, as always, if I can answer any questions, just fire away!
Thanks, Nat! Helpful as always. I just saw that article title today, so I will absolutely check it out.
Another great post. I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing and then re-read my MS. I even deleted a good deal of the adverbs and some I found it hard to let go of. I have never read a King Novel. Maybe that is my problem. As a female who was into romance novels growing up, the adverbs or plentiful-even overwhelming, but it is what I got used to reading. It makes sense that I would want to write in that style. I should probably read a Stephen King book for a good example of this, but horror is something I have a problem with. My imagination is too fertile for it. LOL Any suggestions for a calmer example?
I actually believe you’re on the right track. Stephen King hits the point a bit too hard. I’m a great proponent of the notion that writing is a learned craft. But when we boil it down to little more than a set of rules (and even checklists, like this very post), we risk losing sight of the “art” of writing.
Adverbs *usually* weaken the verbs they modify (and the sentences that contain them). But not always. The art is in knowing which are weakened and which are strengthened. Use the rules as strong guidelines that should only be deviated from with good reason. But evolve your craft to the point where you recognize those good reasons and when to employ them. 🙂