Writing Tips

Revise and Consent:
A Writer’s Checklist

Revising is more than fixing what’s wrong; it’s making what’s passable better. The Latin word revisere means “visit again.” Going back and revisiting your work isn’t just an afterthought, something to do if you’ve got the time. If you haven’t revised, you’re not finished.

There’s no right or wrong way to revise. Some writers begin at the beginning and work their way through to the end. Others take care of obvious trouble spots first, then work their way through the whole piece. It doesn’t matter how you go about revising, as long as you do it.

The idea is to cast a critical eye on what you’ve written. Here’s a checklist of questions to ask as you revise. You can read more in Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing.

  • Do I still like the beginning? Your ideas probably evolved as you wrote, so be sure the head now sits comfortably on the body. (Chapter 4 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Can I be simpler? Replace the long word with the short, the trendy with the tried-and-true, the pompous with the plain, the foreign with the domestic. (Chapter 6 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Can I be clearer? Every word, every sentence, every paragraph should be as clear as you can make it, with no chance the reader might misunderstand. (Chapters 6, 9, 10 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Do I make sense? Check for any contradictions or lapses in logic. (Chapters 12, 17 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Do my numbers add up? Check every figure at least twice. (Chapter 19 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Do my sentences hang together? They should follow one another smoothly. And don’t make them all the same length or you’ll put the reader to sleep. (Chapters 12, 13 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Do my verbs pull their weight? Replace the 97-pound weaklings and weed out unnecessary passives. Then move verbs as close as you can to their subjects. (Chapters 7, 8, 21 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Do I need every modifier? Ditch any adjectives or adverbs you can do without. And be sure the ones you keep are where they belong—close to the nouns and verbs they describe. (Chapter 11 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Am I using the right image? Try to picture the imaginative flourishes in your writing. Careless images can create the wrong picture and make you look plain silly. (Chapters 11, 17 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Have I got rhythm? Listen to the sound of your writing. It should be rhythmic and easy to read, without unintentional jingles or rhymes. And the rhythm shouldn’t clash with the subject matter. (Chapters 11, 24 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Am I in tune? Listen to the tone of your writing and make sure you like the person you hear. The tone should be in harmony with what you’re writing about—not too flippant or too grim, for example—and it should be consistent. (Chapters 2, 20 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Can I trim? Cut whatever you can. If you’ve said anything twice, make it once—even if you love both versions. (Chapters 6, 16, 21 of Words Fail Me.)
  • Have I made my case? Step back and consider what you’ve written. Did you say what you set out to say? Try to imagine the reader’s overall impression. (Chapters 2, 3 of Words Fail Me.)
  • How’s my English? Check your grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If you aren’t sure, look it up. Never guess. (Chapter 18 of Words Fail Me.)

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