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A Self-Editing Checklist From an Editor-in-Chief

Examine your article with a series of ‘lenses’ to ensure you have the crispest, cleanest copy

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

For the launch of Creators Hub, Indrani Sen delivers a self-editing checklist she’s used to fortify her copy for 10+ years. Sen is the Editor-in-Chief for Forge.

In newsrooms, editors often talk about the text that writers file using a hygiene metaphor: “Clean” copy is grammatically correct, solidly written, and generally needs only light editing to be publishable. If you’re working with an editor, filing clean copy will make them love you — and want to work with you more. If you’re publishing directly, it’s even more important that your copy is spotless!

The best way to make sure you file (or self-publish) the crispest, cleanest copy possible is to create your own process of self-editing — catching errors, fact-checking, and smoothing the language.

My favorite way to self-edit is to examine my article with a series of different “lenses.” Think of the machine an optometrist uses to check your vision: She’ll swap in different lenses for you to look through, one by one. Similarly, you can look at your writing with “lens” after “lens.”

You might first read it with a data-accuracy lens, for example, and then reread it with a lens on how the quotes flow. If you know you have a tendency to overuse the passive voice, read it over with a passive voice lens, making sentences more active as you go through. (Personally, I always make sure to read with a wordiness lens — deleting needless adjectives and clauses to make every sentence simpler and more succinct.)

The Self-editing checklist

Think of these questions each as a “lens” to look at the story through. Not every lens will apply to every story. And make sure to create lenses that account for your own writing habits and tics.

Did I tell the right story?

  • What is my story focus/theory/angle?
  • Is it clearly and succinctly stated at the top of the story?
  • So what? Why should readers care about this story?

Have I told it the right way?

  • Is the story clear? Compelling? Engaging?
  • Is this the best “lede” for the story? Why? (Your lede, the first lines of a story, should essentially tell the story, either in anecdotal or straight form.)
  • Does the “nut graf” (the paragraph explaining what readers are in store for) clearly and directly lay out the story’s focus/theory/angle, tell the who/what/where/when/why/how, and show the reader why they should care about it?
  • Do the quotes help tell the story? Are they vivid and colorful, and do they express emotions as necessary? Do they tell dull information that would be better paraphrased? Are they presented well, with clear transitions and setups?
  • Does every scene, detail, and anecdote function to help the reader understand the story? (No matter how fascinating the scene is or how eloquent the quote, if the answer is no, cut it.)
  • Would more details or visual descriptions help bring the story to life?
  • Does the piece provide adequate context? Have you included history, previous news, supporting statistics, data, explanations?
  • Are expert voices included where necessary, and are their comments useful in telling the story?
  • Is the last line or “kicker” structured for maximum impact? Does it relate back to the lede, or the story focus, or does it look forward?

Is everything true, and are all the necessary perspectives included?

  • Develop your own system for “skeptical editing”: Double-check all names, facts, dates, spellings, quotes.
  • Are numbers, statistics, and data clear and accurate? Is additional data needed to substantiate the story?
  • Weed out assumptions and vague statements.
  • Make sure terms are explained, acronyms spelled out on first use.
  • Check the background of every source or person cited in the story and for each ask: Are they credible? What is their agenda? What biases do they bring?
  • Whose perspective is missing from the story? How might you include that missing perspective?
  • What are the factual holes in the story? Instead of “writing around” them, do the reporting or research to fill them.

Are the mechanics correct?

  • Check spelling, punctuation, and style.
  • Check that the story is the length it needs to be.
  • Check for passive voice, gerunds, wordiness, clichés, or whatever your grammatical crutches are.
  • Get rid of fancy words when simple ones will do.
  • Does the story do enough “hand-holding” for the reader? Is its logic easy to follow? Are the transitions clear and does the story flow sensibly?

Does it sound okay? (Or more to the point, does the story sound awesome?)

  • Read your copy aloud to see if the story flows. Listen to the language.
  • Make sure there’s a mix of shorter and longer sentences and that each sentence is clear and straightforward.

Is the story due now?

  • Accept that no story is ever perfect or finished. When you’re at deadline, or it’s time to publish your story, you must be ready to pull the trigger, knowing you’ve done the very best you can.

Editorial director at Medium, mom, gardener, cook. Formerly at Quartz.

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