Julia S. Mandala's Revision Checklist
Look at big-picture issues first. You don't want to spend hours fixing the prose of a scene that ends up getting cut.
--Does the story start in the right place? Most authors start too early.
--Get your "story question" out as early as possible. The story
question tells the reader what the main plot issue of the book is.
--Make sure the plot is always building, that the stakes are always getting higher for the characters.
--If any major plot point relies on author convenience or coincidence,
find a better reason for it happening or change what happens to
something that follows logically from what has come before. Make
sure you don't contradict yourself or give illogical setups
--Build suspense, but make sure the reader understands as much as the
point of view (POV) character does about what's going on--i.e. don't
try to build suspense by being vague.
"middle sag." If your plot stalls in the middle, you may need
different, more dramatic events to occur. Or you may have
included scenes which don't need to be there.
A chapter is more than just a scene. Its structure should be like a min-novel.
--The scenes should get more dramatic as the chapter evolves
--The chapter should end on a high dramatic point, leaving the reader
wanting to read on. Don't give them a reason to put the book down.
Beware of the unnecessary or lazy scene.
--Ask yourself, what is the purpose of this scene? A scene should
perform as many purposes as possible--moving plot along,
characterization, world-building, etc.
scene only has one or two purposes, see if it can be deleted or
another scene can have a few things added to accomplish the same
main character and possibly your secondary characters and antagonist
should have a "character arc." Like the plot arc, the character
arc should progress over the course of the book.
--The character arc deals with a character's
personal issues. These issues affect how the character
deals with the plot issues. In turn, the plot should cause the
character to face his issues and change (unless your point is that this
person will never change).
--Even if you're not
writing a classic, white-hat hero, you must give the reader something
to make them root for this character. This can include the
importance of his fight or a few redeeming qualities that are VERY
--When a character is being
treated badly, don't have him dwell on the fact. Let the reader
feel outrage for the character to avoid him or her sounding whiny.
--Make sure your characters are distinct from one
another. They should serve different purposes in the story.
If two characters serve the same purpose, consider combining them into
--Characters should talk
differently from one another. Characters with different social
status will speak differently. Even among the same social status,
each character should have their own pet phrases and style of
speech. Consider education level when choosing a character's
--Major characters should have a
history, including parts not related to the plot. This will make
the character seem more real. Don't try to force this information
into the story, though. Just let it come in where it arises
naturally. You will always know more about your character and
world than your readers do.
character's strengths and flaws before they become crucial to the
plot. Otherwise, they will feel like author convenience.
your world to feel real, you must take into account many factors.
Some things you need to know in advance. Some things will evolve
as you write. Try to keep a file with your world-building
notes. For help world-building, check out Patricia Wrede's
world-building questions on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of
(http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/) or email
me for my outline, which contains a synthesis of her questions and some
other ones my writers group came up with).
--Make sure your world is unique and interesting. Stretch your
imagination. Put in as much cool stuff as possible in the context
of your world (and good story-telling). Remember people read SF
and Fantasy because of the cool stuff.
parts of the world make sense together? If you have a magic
college, how do mages earn a living after they graduate? If you
have a totalitarian ruler, people need ways to blow off steam, etc.
--Examine your central speculative elements (i.e. your magic system or
your speculative science elements). These elements should always
have a price and limitations.
--Have firm rules
about how your speculative elements function. Establish your
rules early on (preferably before you start writing) and stick with
them if you can. Many times, forcing your characters to live with
the rules you established will create more interesting plot
developments than you had previously thought of.
Once you've done your big-picture revisions, you can move on to the nit-picking that will smooth and polish your work.
I. Opening Scene and/or Chapter
--Does the opening paragraph grab the reader's attention? Does that carry through with an exciting scene full of conflict?
the book's viewpoint choice: first-person or third-person, limited
viewpoint, multiple character viewpoints or omniscient.
--reveal what the story is about (the story question) by the end of the first page (short story) or chapter (novel).
--An instigating incident should set up the character's story goal.
--Create a sense of place using concrete details. Do you give enough description--or too much?
try to force too much information on the reader up front, especially
before the reader needs to know it and doesn't yet care about it.
introduce too many characters or places at once. You will
overwhelm the reader with trying to learn names, descriptions, etc.
exposition (back story), narration, flashback, numbers of characters,
and only include what is minimally necessary to introduce characters,
start the plot and reveal theme.
--End the first chapter with a high point of tension, with conflict begun but not resolved.
II. Paragraphs and Scenes
--Establish how much time has passed since the last scene.
--Who is present in this scene?
--What is the key issue or conflict?
--avoid large paragraphs
--use paragraph length to control pacing--shorter paragraphs=faster pace
--check scene and chapter enders for "punch"
--If you have a multiple viewpoint story, the POV for a scene usually
should be the person with the most at stake in that scene
--set the scene before the action begins, if it creates atmosphere or
anticipation, but don't take too long. Check for author
"throat-clearing," where you were trying to get going.
--Start a scene as late as possible and end as early as possible to accomplish the scene's purposes.
--does each scene contain something "cool"? Can you make it cooler?
give too much detail--don't try to make the reader see the scene
exactly as you do. Just give a few key, evocative details and let
the reader fill in with his imagination, making him an active
participant in the reading process.
--Set the scene early. Include the following:
--A few key pieces of furniture or scenery--What makes this place unique?
--Light source/time of day
--Who is present
--What is the key issue or conflict
--If the character is highly emotional, start
focused in on one thing and spread the view outward. If the
character is in a low emotion, focus out and zoom in.
--Choose descriptive words that also create mood and atmosphere
--Work the setting into the action (characters can be using a piece of
equipment, or even just opening the curtains, which lets you describe
them, the window and the view through the POV's eyes).
--Inject the POV's opinions about the setting as he's looking
around. You not only get description, but characterization.
--Describe each character using 2-3 bits of information
--Use other descriptors besides hair & eye color and build
--Use description to characterize
--have the character describe the location or person using his own opinions about them or
--if it's a person's private room, describe things
that tell us something about the character
--if describing a person, what unique about his or her style?
C. Show, Don't Tell
--Use narrative to give minor information, to slow pace, for transitions to avoid showing repetitious actions
--Summarize minor events leading to major ones so major ones seem more immediate by contrast.
--Don't show then tell
--Resist the urge to explain, especially a character's emotions.
If a character's emotions aren't shown, but merely explained, rewrite
it. What makes the POV assume his friend is angry?
--Describing objects--don't say it's "old". Show the things
(cracks, mildew smell) that give that impression.
--Have character develop through action instead of summary or exposition.
--Give only as much background, history or characterization as the
reader needs at the time. Don't try to force feed them
--Avoid dialogue and interior monologue that is poorly disguised exposition ("As you know, Bob...").
--When information must come out, see if you can craft the scene to
where a character requires an explanation. (Sidekicks often serve
E. Cause and Effect/Stimulus & Response
--does every cause have an effect and every effect have a cause?
--does every stimulus invoke an immediate response and every response have an immediate stimulus?
--does the response follow the stimulus?
IV. Characterization On the Micro Level
A. Realistic/Distinct Characterization
--are characters different from each other?
--do they speak differently, react differently?
--specific mannerisms and speech patterns for each character
--do characters act consistently with how they were previously
portrayed? If not, is this difference explained logically or is
it author convenience?
--do the characters act intelligently or do they behave stupidly for author convenience?
B. Ways to Characterize
--through other characters' reactions to the character
--through that character's expressed views on matters (either in dialogue or interior monologue)
--through what he says and how he reacts.
--through description of his possessions/personal space
C. Point of View/Character Filter
--Keep all description in POV character's viewpoint, unless you're writing in the omniscient.
--establish POV in first paragraph, preferably the first sentence of each scene
--Use only words your POV character would use, even in narrative
--Avoid using "he knew", "he realized" and "he wondered", etc.
Instead, show the character realizing or wondering. If you say
it, we assume he knows.
--Immerse yourself in your POV character. Consider:
--What is his physical condition? Has he been
through anything that would affect him now (long riding, sleeping on
the ground or a bad mattress, a wound, pulled muscles, etc.).
Make sure these factors continue to affect him.
--What do the character's five senses pick up about
the locale? What sorts of things would this character notice
about his surroundings and the people there? What are his
attitudes about those things and people? (Reveals character as
well as describes). What is the light source (don't have a
character stumbling around in the dark, yet give minute details about
--What is the POV
character doing? Do it with him in your mind, or act it out if
necessary, then pick a few key specific details that bring it to life.
--What are others doing around the POV
character? How much of it can he see, hear, smell, taste or
touch? Know where everyone is, and if you describe a non-POV
character doing something, make sure the POV can see him do it.
--don't tell about the non-POV characters' emotions. Show what
the POV character sees them doing and saying and let the reader surmise
what emotion that is. If the POV character knows the other
character well, he may be able to read the more ambiguous body language
better and have a thought on that.
Trust your reader to get it. Don't over-explain.
the author overuse cliches? Or does he use poetic or showy
phrases that call attention to themselves or which are inappropriate to
A. Beats (i.e. action or reaction during dialogue).
--Don't interrupt dialogue too often with beats. Don't describe
every movement, just enough to give the reader a few visuals (unless
the character is doing something really unusual or the action is a
parallel to the dialogue).
--Use fewer beats to heighten tension, more to slow pace
--Select beats that characterize
--Avoid cliches and repetition
--Pay keen attention to the beats you overuse (nodding, grinning,
etc). Do a computer search on them and try to come up with more
interesting and original description.
--Don't put emotional descriptors after the dialogue. Make the
emotion clear through speech and action (trust your reader).
Don't explain dialogue that needs no explanation.
--Make dialogue appropriate to the character (his status, education level, etc.).
--Don't include exposition that's also revealed in dialogue
--Avoid adverbs beside dialogue tags.
--Use said or asked almost all the time. They are invisible to the reader.
--Put "said" after the character's name.
--Don't use too many beats in dialogue. It interrupts the flow and ruins tension.
--Eliminate "empty" dialogue. ("Good morning. How are you?" "I'm fine and you?")
C. Interior Monologue
--Don't have characters think about the mundane aspects of their life,
unless the point is that their life is mundane
--Would action show the information better?
--Avoid excessive italics (i.e. first person interior thoughts)
--Avoid long passages of interior monologue
--Avoid conveying the same information multiple times in one scene or
in other nearby scenes. Only repeat information if the reader
needs to remember it and it hasn't come up in a long time.
--Eliminate characters that perform the same role as another.
--Avoid repetition and circular thinking in interior monologue.
--Only use repetition for effect--to bring out subtle personality traits or plot points.
--Don't spend too much time and detail on minor and/or unimportant
points. The reader will think it's important and you may raise
wrong expectations, resulting in reader disappointment.
--Don't overuse "ing" and "As" sentence beginnings. If you use,
make sure the actions are truly simultaneous and somehow
--avoid cliches, both in expression and in minor characters.
--avoid excessive italics and exclamation points.
--avoid poetic or showy phrases that call attention to themselves or
which are inappropriate to the scene/mood.
the work out loud. This takes a long time, but will identify
rough patches in prose and also repetition, missing words, etc.