Self-editing Checklist for Young Writers

Most self-editing checklists for young writers–and older ones, too–seem to focus on details of grammar and punctuation. But having edited a number of anthologies of writing by young writers (ages 8 to 18), I have collected a list of other common issues that youth writers–and adults, too–should watch out for in their writing. Hope you find this checklist helpful 🙂

  • Fix those common errors of spelling, homophones, tenses and punctuation.
    • Don’t forget to use a good-quality spell checker and grammar checker.  Remember that spell and grammar checkers are not infallible, so use your knowledge of grammar and spelling, and your common sense in deciding whether to accept the checker suggestions. Especially check homophones, and remember that if a word is spelled correctly, even if it’s totally the wrong word, many basic spell checkers will accept it–so watch out!
    • Ask a couple of good readers who have an eye for these kinds of simple errors to check your work. They’ll catch things you’ve missed.
    • Return to your piece after 2 or 3 days and give it another good read-through with “fresh eyes.”
  • Use interesting, strong writing to emphasise a word, phrase, sentence or even a paragraph rather than using incorrect, lazy-man methods like bolding, italics, exclamation marks, multiple/mixed punctuation (!!!, !?!?), or full capitalization of words.
  • Be careful about using italics for a variety of purposes such as thoughts, memories, foreign or defined words, emphasis, etc. A mixed-up overuse of italics is very confusing and distracting to the reader. Always try to rewrite in a way that doesn’t require italics, and save their use for at most one or two situations where they are truly necessary.
  • Use strong, interesting, accurate, specific words. For example, a “sloppy” outfit is more descriptive than a “bad” outfit; a child “skipping” along provides a better action image than a child “going” along; a “skyscraper” is a much clearer noun than a “tall building.”
  • Mingle names and pronouns to avoid repetition. No one wants to read a paragraph in which a person’s name is repeated over and over, nor do they want to read the same pronoun repeatedly. Find ways to rewrite your sentences so you don’t need to names of pronouns at all in some of them.
  • Use synonyms so particular nouns (or verbs or describing words) are not used repeatedly.  But be sure the synonyms make sense. Use your thesaurus and dictionary together. And avoid words that your reader won’t understand or that don’t fit your story or your character’s voice.
  • Avoid repeated ideas. For example: “She was patiently waiting. She waited and waited.”
  • Avoid using the same word to start several sentences in a paragraph.
  • Avoid too many transition words (first, second, then, next, finally, etc.). They are mostly appropriate to move from one paragraph to another, rather than from sentence to sentence. Ideally, if you are using a lot of transition words, rewrite your sentences so the reader is moved along through action or dialogue.
  • In describing a character, include information necessary to the story. And fit it into the story as the plot develops, rather than giving a long, boring description up front. Use action and dialogue to develop a character: show us characters rather than telling us about them. Remember to go beyond physical description or characters to their personalities. Avoid cliched descriptions; for example, “Derek had sleek brown hair and he was absolutely gorgeous” or “Sadie had long blond hair and she was a total fashionista.”
  • Avoid over-using “There is” or “There are” and avoid overuse of the “to be” and “to have” verbs.
  • When you want to build tension, short sentences can be really effective.
  • Generally, use a mixture of sentence lengths to build interest and help the story flow. Avoid long rambling sentences and run-on sentences.
  • Start a new paragraph when you move from one idea to another. On the other hand, if your paragraph is only one or two sentences (other than in dialogue), you probably need to develop that idea more fully. Remember that well-developed paragraphs usually include a topic sentence, a concluding sentence, and relevant sentences in between that provide details and develop the idea.
  • Punctuate and paragraph dialogue correctly. Here is a good PDF to download and keep handy for when you’re writing conversations.
  • Make sure references are clear. For example: “I went into the store. It was wet, cold, and slimy.” (What was wet, cold, and slimy? The store, the floor, the air…?) Or: “For breakfast, Dee attempted to cook the rabbit over a campfire that the hunter had brought her.” (But the hunter had brought her the rabbit, not the campfire). Or: “The three of them flew back to Ella’s backyard amongst the stars.” (Actually, they flew back amongst the stars to reach her backyard, which was on Earth, not amongst the stars). I’ve given so many examples because this is such a common error, and it’s often hard for a writer to catch. You know what you’re saying … but will your reader understand? Be careful!
  • Watch out for awkward wording, for example, “A small piece of crushed shell lay on the floor; brown, yellow and dirty on the ground.” Rewrite until the sentence is clear and flows smoothly.
  • While imagery is important to create a picture in the reader’s mind, don’t overdo it! For example: “Slimy green bubbles of stinking drool slid disgustingly out of the dark, terrifying figure’s gaping, black, sharp teeth-lined mouth as it intensely growled.”
  • Don’t overdo explanations of what is going on. Give the reader a chance to get involved and figure out things for themselves. Don’t fill in details that make readers feel like the writer thinks they are stupid. Don’t make explanations overly obvious. Show, don’t tell.
  • Be consistent in details. For example: “The two girls were completely different. Isabelle had a slender build and [lots of details]. Ella had [lots of details] and a slender build as well.”
  • Be really careful with the order of events. If, as you’re writing, you remember you wanted to put in a certain detail or action, go back and put it where it belongs, don’t just add it later on in whatever random spot in the story you’re at during the writing process.

What other common mistakes could we add to this list? Why not mention them in the comments, and I’ll add them to the post. Thanks!


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