(This post originally ran on Writer Unboxed.)
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.
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?…