Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Sue Dawes' self-editing checklist for prose fiction

Based on my experience as a writer and my experience working as a part-time editor for 'The Writers' Company', I have put together a self-editing checklist for beginners. This is based on the things I look for when I edit a manuscript and from reading widely around the subject.



  • ·      Is it clear to the reader what your characters look like? E.g. height, weight, clothing, hair colour, monster qualities (if applicable).
  • ·      Do we know what motivates them to act - what drives them?
  • ·      Do we know what they fear and love?
  • ·      Do they have a tic or habit when nervous? E.g. pushing their hair behind an ear.
  • ·      Can each character be easily distinguished, or will the reader be muddled?
  • ·      Perhaps they are a bit flat? What could you add to fully realise them? 
  • ·      Have you avoided stereotypes and other, over-used descriptions (golden hair, twinkling blue eyes etc)?
  • ·      Is there consistency? Does Fred suddenly start wearing glasses halfway through the story?




  • ·      Is your dialogue authentic in terms of the diction and dialect of your character? Is it age appropriate?
  • ·      Does it say what it needs to without over-explaining?
  • ·      Have you remembered to remove anything the character already knows? E.g. a child talking to their parent would not say ‘I am your son’ - find a different way to show this information.
  • ·      If you strip the dialogue from the text, is your character’s voice recognisable without relying on speech tags? 
  • ·      Have you used contractions within speech (‘they’ve’ rather than ‘they have’)?
  • ·      Is there a good balance of dialogue and description?


Point of View 


  • ·      Have you chosen the best way to tell your story? E.g. might switching ‘I’ to ‘he/she/they’ give you more distance from your character?
  • ·      Is the right (or most interesting) character telling the story? 
  • ·      Is your point of view consistent throughout the story?
  • ·      Have you checked (if you have chosen close third or first person) that you are not jumping into other character’s head and explaining how they feel?




  • ·      Is the setting recognisable to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
  • ·      Have you used metaphor and other imagery to describe it?
  • ·      Have you focused in on the detail?
  • ·      Does the sense of place add to the conflict/ atmosphere of the story? Might a different setting work harder?
  • ·      Does your character interact with the setting? How?
  • ·      If your character moves around, is it clear to the reader that the setting has changed?




  • ·      Watch out for cliché!
  • ·      Have you used all the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch?
  • ·      Have you checked that you’ve used appropriate imagery without overusing or mixing your metaphors? E.g. her coat was as green as the Kale smoothies she liked but it smelt like the inside of a shoe and rotting seaweed that pops like blisters. 
  • ·      Have you overwritten any passages that might be simplified?
  • ·      Are there sections that might benefit from more detail?
  • ·      Have you checked for duplications in your descriptions? E.g. the narrow road was thin (where narrow and thin mean the same thing)
  • ·      Have you checked your spelling and grammar?




  • ·      Do you need your first paragraph or is it backstory? Could it be cut?
  • ·      Is there an inciting incident near the beginning that triggers the character to act?
  • ·      Is there a good balance of conflict and action (emotional or otherwise) to draw the reader in and keep their attention?
  • ·      Have you thought about the different types of conflict you might include within your story (with the self, with others, environmental etc)?
  • ·      Does your story slow down too much in the middle – do you need to add something to lift it (an incident or a chance meeting with another character perhaps)?
  • ·      Do you have an ‘all is lost’ moment?
  • ·      Have you used the best narrative style to tell your story?  E.g. chronological or non-linear.
  • ·      Is the plot convincing?
  • ·      Is there a resolution? Has your character or their circumstance changed by the end?
  • ·      Does your title work hard enough?

Here is an example of a simple character arc using the story of Cinderella.
  You might find using a table like this useful for your characters.



What do they want?

What stops them

Who helps them

All is lost when …

But is it?

Do they succeed?


To escape from servitude

Their sisters, stepmother & their circumstance

Fairy godmother

They meet the handsome prince, but the clock strikes 12

They have tiny feet which works in their favour

They wed the prince and escape their family.

Ugly sister

To find a husband/ marry royalty

Their looks and personality

Their mother

A beautiful stranger rocks up at the ball and the prince is besotted.

Yes. Feet are too lumpy to fit in the magic shoe

No. Karma!




  • ·      Is your layout as per the requirements for submission? Always check the guidance. 
  • ·      Have you used a standard font for ease of reading?
  • ·      Have you checked your word count?


And lastly, the very best thing you can do before you submit is to find a reader to give you honest feedback. If you decide to give feedback to a friend, remember - be positive!


  • ·      Let them know what works well
  • ·      Let them know if there is anything that confuses you
  • ·      Discuss a solution or creative idea.


 Further reading

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Writing fiction by Linda Anderson & Derek Neale
  • Story by Robert McKee









No comments:

Post a Comment