Self-editing Checklist: How to Know When Your Story Is Finished

Self-editing Checklist: How to Know When Your Story Is Finished

Authors spend so much time perfecting our writing—making it say just what we want it to say as effectively as we can, trying to get our vision onto the page—but it’s hard to know when we’ve actually reached that finish line and the story is ready.

Yet because story doesn’t fully come to life until it reaches readers, at some point you have to push your fledgling out into the world or it’s never going to fly. There’s no objective marker for when a story is “finished,” but here’s a checklist that may help you know when it’s ready to leave the nest.

The Über-question

Is it on the page? This is the overarching question for each element of story below. As authors we know our stories, characters, and worlds so well that it’s hard to objectively assess how well we’ve actually conveyed all of it on the page, versus how much we’re “filling in the blanks” in our own heads. For each question below, refer directly to the manuscript itself—not your notes, memory, or mental image of the story—and ask yourself, How do readers know? Specifically where and how can they glean it on the page?

Editing Checklist Overview

The big picture

  • Is your overall story question clearly established early in, and does it propel the entire story? This seems so basic, but I’m often surprised how many manuscripts I work on haven’t yet clarified what main question the reader is turning pages to answer. This won’t necessarily be your manuscript’s only big uncertainty, but it’s the overarching one that should be posed early in the story and answered in the resolution (or its lack of answer should be intrinsic to the character’s arc). For The Vanishing Half it’s Will twin sisters Stella and Desiree be reunited? For The Hunger Games it’s Will Katniss survive to keep her family safe and together? In Little Fires Everywhere it’s Why did Izzy light the fires? This question is a main engine to define, unify, and propel your story. Without it your manuscript may feel muddy or unfocused to readers.
  • Do readers know who your main character(s) are—broadly and granularly? That means more than just the logline description—a resourceful sixteen-year-old who provides for her family in an oppressed society (Katniss Everdeen)—but the fabric of who your protagonist(s) are, foundationally, intrinsically, and who they are in the world: who and what shaped them, and who and what influences them still; their preferences, ideology, temperament, foibles, vulnerabilities, personality, way of communicating; who they care about and who cares for them. Have you fleshed out every main character so they are three-dimensional, relatable, and real on the page?
  • Is what your protagonist wants—internally and externally—clear, vivid, and strong throughout the story? This encompasses both the character’s main goal—Katniss wants to survive the Hunger Games—as well as her internal one(s), what drives her: to protect her family and keep them together. What your character wants should be intrinsically tied to who she is—how did all the above considerations create the person driven by the thing she is driven by? Do we see how that pressing goal is an intrinsic part of driving her through the story throughout?
  • Do we understand exactly and specifically what your protag stands to gain or lose—and why it matters? Whatever is at risk or potential reward for your characters must be high-stakes enough for them to care desperately about getting or avoiding it—and thus for readers to care. Do we see those reasons on the page—and consistently throughout the story? Do those stakes clearly motivate your character throughout her journey, driving her actions, reactions, behavior—her plans, hopes, state of mind, emotions, fears, etc.? Do they rise as the story progresses, becoming ever more urgent? By the end do we see her gain or avoid that thing—and how it impacts her?
  • Is there something standing in her way at every step toward her goal? Are bad/undesirable things happening to your protag(s) throughout the story? If it’s smooth sailing for your protagonist, readers may fail to invest in her journey. Story is dependent upon ups and downs, setbacks and triumphs along the path toward your character’s final destination. Flat lines are narrative dead space.
  • Is there any easier or better way out of each challenge, obstacle, or mess? The answer must be no—human nature pushes us toward the path of least resistance; if there’s a less onerous way forward your character would take it. Have you left her no other option but the hardest path at every turn?
  • Does each setback and triumph move her along her arc? It’s not enough that these story events propel the plot—they should also propel the character along her arc, meaning the path of growth or change she undergoes in the course of the story. Do we know how your protags are reacting to and processing events, how they are affected by them along the way? How does each story development affect that arc? Does it challenge her beliefs, broaden her understanding, influence her choices, strengthen or weaken her resolve, shift or change her goal?
  • Does her pursuit of her goal directly drive the story and her arc? Does your protag(s) have agency? Is she the main force propelling the action of the plot—not necessarily the events that happen, but is her response to them the thing that pushes the story forward? If not your character may seem passive—a witness, bystander, or victim rather than the engine of the story. Does she overcome each obstacle or challenge, attain every step forward through some direct action or inaction on her part?
  • Is every scene essential to her journey? Does each scene move your protagonist toward the next step on a clear path toward her ultimate goal? Action is not plot, and plot is not story; if your character is not moving toward a clear goal, the journey to which affects and changes her in some key way, then you may have a series of interesting events, but no cohesive, satisfying story. Does every single scene move the story forward by developing character, furthering the plot, or raising stakes in some way—or ideally some combination of all three?
  • Is every main (or point-of-view) character essential to the protag(s)’ journey? Does each character play some key role in affecting your character’s actions or reactions in the events of the plot or pushing her along her arc, or both? Could you combine any characters more effectively for impact, resonance, or story cohesion?
  • Does every single main plot event follow from the previous and push the story and character forward to the next? Try my favorite South Park hack: Is each scene connected with either the word “but” or “therefore”? If the connecting words are “and then,” you may have an episodic story without consistent forward momentum.
  • Does the plot hold together seamlessly and cohesively throughout the story to the end? Are there plot holes? Loose ends? Unanswered questions? Anything unresolved? Any unmotivated actions? Is each development plausible, realistic? Believable? Do you rely on the “cheat” of a deus ex machina, an unjustified or unpaved-in “act of God” that comes out of nowhere to resolve the plot? Do we have enough “connective tissue” between scenes to orient readers and allow the story to seamlessly flow? Or is there too much, stalling momentum and bogging the story down?
  • Does the protagonist change? Is she different at her point B than at point A? Is that change a direct result of her journey—the challenges and victories she experienced along the way as a direct result of her own actions (or inaction)? Does each main character have an arc of his own, in addition to the overall story arc?

The micro-elements of story

  • Is there some question or uncertainty in every single scene? Suspense keeps readers on the hook, turning pages to find out answers or resolution. Maintain the big overarching suspense questions throughout—will Katniss survive the Hunger Games?—but make sure you’ve seeded in microsuspense elements in each scene as well: Will she be chosen as a tribute; what will she do once Prim has; will Haymitch actually train them; can Katniss hone her skills enough to stay alive against more experienced tributes; will she get a good weapon in the first moments of the games, etc. As soon as you resolve one question, do you introduce another?
  • Do you have opposing forces keeping your protagonist from what they want throughout the story? Tension is a main motor of story—incorporating some element of obstacle, friction, resistance, or conflict in every scene helps keep readers invested and drives them through the story.
  • Do you incorporate suspense and tension elements at the beginning and end of every single scene or chapter end? Think of story as a series of Tarzan vines—Tarzan needs enough momentum from the previous vine to reach the next, which had better get swinging or he’s going to miss getting a handhold on the vine after that. Suspense and tension propel the reader through the story and drive momentum forward; grab readers from the very beginning of every scene, and don’t give them the chance to let go at scene and chapter breaks.
  • Have you grounded the reader from the beginning of every chapter and scene? Readers need their feet planted early in each scene so they can orient to and invest in what’s happening. Do you establish the setting, the characters’ states, and the action from early in every chapter and section?
  • Is the story vivid and visceral where it needs to be? Do you “show” rather than tell key developments in the plot and character’s arc—turning-point moments, for instance, realization moments, high-stakes developments, essential plot points? Do we see who your characters are through their actions, reactions, interactions, words, behaviors, demeanors, etc., rather than just through exposition or description?
  • Do you keep pace clipping? Do you consistently propel the story and keep action moving by using expedient “tell” where it serves the story more powerfully than “show,” like character movements from one place to another, passage of time, minor or inessential developments or backstory?
  • Is each character’s and the narrative point of view (if different) consistent, clear, and strong? Have you used POV consistently throughout, without slipping, uncertain, or weak POV? Have you used your chosen POV most effectively for the story—e.g., creating immediate, direct, strong characterization in first-person or deep third, or using the panoramic perspective omniscient third offers you? In multiple POV stories do you orient readers to which character’s POV each scene is in from early in the scene? Does the point of view you’ve chosen deepen the story, give it “voice”?

The mechanics of prose

  • Is it lean? Is the prose streamlined, efficient, and economical in most clearly and vividly conveying your intentions? Check that you haven’t established the same things more than once, expressed a thought inexactly, used multiple modifiers where one would do (or perhaps none). Do you have echoed words or pet phrases that appear multiple times, potentially calling readers’ attention to the prose rather than keeping them within the fictive dream of the story? Have you overused dialogue tags or performed extraneous verbal gymnastics with them? (You know who you are, gaspers, exclaimers, and yelpers of dialogue.)
  • Is it elegant? Is the prose original, memorable, distinctive? Does it clearly and specifically convey your intention? Check that you haven’t defaulted to cliches or tired phrasings rather than found fresh, original ones, or written in passive voice where active would be stronger. Have you chosen the most precise word(s) to evoke the shade of nuance or meaning you intend? Does the prose have visual and visceral impact? Does its rhythm and meter reflect the mood of the scene, of the story, of the POV character? Does it have distinct, original “voice”?

This isn’t an exhaustive checklist—the infinite nuances of story and style are part of why it can be hard to know when to let go of a manuscript and release it into the world. But checking that these key story elements are clear and vivid on the page—whether you write fiction or nonfiction—can ensure that your story’s most important elements are rock-solid, and give you the confidence to test its wings.

(For my extensive downloadable self-editing checklist, click here.)

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