Your seven-step checklist for tip-top writing
Published: March 4, 2010
Now that your manuscript is completed, take a bow. Well done. Before you can wrap your writing in a bow and send it to an agent or editor, though, you'll want to look it over carefully. What first comes out of our heads isn’t always brilliant, and we all make mistakes. Of course, you don’t want important thoughts to evaporate, so scribble away while your ideas are fresh; you can shape your sentences during subsequent drafts. You do write more than one draft, right? Bonnie Trenga
Run down this checklist to ensure your piece is in top shape. You may already do some of these copy-editing tasks. If not, get busy!
1. Become familiar with the kinds of mistakes you tend to make, and then check for them.
I personally suffer from Overuse of Em Dash Syndrome and Long Sentence-itis. You, on the other hand, may mess up your apostrophes, or perhaps you tend to confuse similar-sounding words. Whatever your bugaboos, keep them in the back of your mind as you read over your work. If certain words trip you up, search for them using your word-processing software’s find and replace feature. Or keep a list your pitfalls and manually check for them. The more you become aware of mistakes you always make, the easier it will be to find them—and eventually you won’t even make them.
2. Look for lapses in consistency.
If you’re writing something in the nonfiction arena, it's a good idea to keep a style sheet of terms you’re using. That way, you can refer to it to see how you’ve capitalized words or spelled certain terms. Readers will look down on you if you sometimes treat words one way, sometimes another. If you’re writing fiction, you, too, might find a style sheet helpful to keep track of characters’ names and identifying features (you don’t want to call a minor character a redhead in one chapter and then later turn her into a brunette, for example). Another consistency issue that often crops up, whether in nonfiction or fiction, is the verb tense you use. Sometimes writers begin in past, switch to present, and then go back to past. Decide at the outset what tense you’re going to use, and then stick with it.
3. Cut out passive phrasing.
You can check if you’ve written a passive sentence in at least two ways: check your subjects, and check your verbs. Unless you write about buildings, bugs or other non-talking items, most of your sentences are probably about people. But do people populate your sentences, or is your audience reading about a ghost town? Take, for example, this vague and passive sentence: To overcome the challenge, certain objectives were set forth. I am certain that people are involved here, but I have no idea who specifically. I also don’t know what the challenge is and what objectives the workers must meet. Do a census in your own work and see if you’re paying enough attention to the people. Another easy way to find vague and passive sentences is to examine your verbs. If you use a lot of “to be” verbs, chances are you have overused passive voice or have written many uninteresting sentences. As with No. 1, you can find and replace; at least half of your verbs may turn out to be blah.
4. Aim to cut each sentence by a little.
You’ve probably been wordy. Ask yourself if you really need to use so many words to get your point across. Search for this list of common wordy phrases and consider replacing them with the items in parentheses:
despite the fact that (although)Also look for places where you’ve said the same thing twice.
even though (although)
in spite of the fact that (although)
not only … but also (and)
on a [adjective] basis (adjective + ly)
in a [adjective] manner (adjective + ly)
each and every (each; every)
is/are able to (can)
has/have the capability of (can)
the reason that … is because (because)
5. Do me (and yourself) a favor and learn what misplaced modifiers are—and then never use them.
Misplaced modifiers often make writers—even bestselling authors—look ridiculous. As I’ve said in columns past, you need to watch out for three common kinds of misplaced modifiers: those at the beginning of a sentence, those involving a “who” or “that” clause, and those involving a prepositional phrase. Don’t write doozies like these three Criminal Sentences:
1. As First Lady, the agents acted as my protectors. (The agents cannot be the First Lady.)
2. Soon after, he grew a swelling in his foot and in his groin that had to be lanced. (Ouch; the swelling, not the groin area, had to be lanced.)
3. The man watched him and the girl with slow eyes. (The man watched the girl slowly; the girl did not have slow eyes.)
6. Do a quick grammar check.
Common grammatical errors include incorrect subject-verb agreement, non-parallel sentences and incorrect comparisons.
7. Do a quick spell-check.
You shouldn’t turn something in without running your spell-checker. However, doing so does not absolve you from carefully reading each word you’ve written. Your spell-checker does not catch word-usage errors such as “if” instead of “in.” I suggest reading your work aloud in a monotone so that your brain does not skip over incorrect words. You should also put aside your work for a time so that you can look at it with fresh eyes.
Bonnie Trenga is the author of
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing, available for purchase online and at bookstores nationwide. She blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com,
which features the daily Criminal Sentence and other posts about
writing. She is also a guest writer for the popular Grammar Girl
podcast. She's been a copy editor since 1996 and a mom since 2001. You
can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.