Marc’s Copy Editing Checklist
An incomplete list of stuff to try to make your writing suck less so you write good
1. Quick Search and Replace
Just do a simple find for these words, and straight up cold delete them. Replace them with something better only if you absolutely have to. This will solve like 65% of your problems.
Words to delete
- Will: you’ll, they’ll, I’ll, shall, must
- Badverbs: very, really, honestly, absolutely, literally
- Badjectives: amazing, awesome
- Vagaries: that, stuff, things
- Modals: can, could, should, would, may, might, maybe, some
- Wigglers: be/are able to, start, attempt, try, begin
- Qualifiers: now, where, “there was a time”, always, never, however, irregardless, just, often, sometimes
Words to replace
- In order to => to
- Will be able to => can
- Has been => was
- Appear as => are
- And so on. You see what we’re doing here, yeah?
2. Make It Strong!
Yeah, we want our writing to be “strong”, but what are we talking about, and how do we do it?
2.1 Destroy All Adverbs
That’s it. Find all the adverbs in your writing, and either brutally cut them or squint at them and find a better way to do it. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the core of things.
If you can just delete the adverb without changing the meaning of a sentence, cut it.
If an adverb is an essential modifier to a verb, try finding a stronger, more accurate verb.
When in doubt, delete the adverb. Just delete it.
2.2. Passive Voice Should Be Eliminated
You know what passive voice looks like, right? It looks like the section header up there. Basically, any time you can add “by zombies” to a sentence without contradicting anything that’s already there, that’s probably passive voice.
“Passive voice should be eliminated… by zombies!”
Sentences using passive voice are just sitting there having things done to them. You can use that intentionally, when you want to highlight someone or something being a “victim”, but in general, passive bad.
Make your sentences active! Whenever possible, write in the present tense! Say what happens, not what will happen, or what might happen. If you have to meander about in time, lean towards using simple present or past to -ing verbs. (Gerunds!) In fact, steer clear of those in general, especially at the beginning of sentences.
2.3 It is not what it is…?
This is somewhere in the neighborhood of badverbs and passivity, but doesn’t really fall under either. Make your writing stronger, more evocative, and more specific by removing all forms of “to be”. (It’s a thing called E-Prime, and it feels weird at first, but it’s pretty cool.)
This is mostly a me thing, but you’ll see this advice elsewhere too, so let’s go for it. Warning: this is one of the things that can drive you up the wall, because you have to break some of the other rules to make it work, sometimes. Don’t let it get to you. Just keep hammering.
- be, being, been, will be, is, am, are, was, were, isn’t, wasn’t, weren’t, won’t be
Also, avoid these super bland, wishy-washy general verbs like the ones below. There’s always a better way to do it, so break out that thesaurus and make with the synonyms.
- have, has, had, do, does, did, go, going, went
3. Dumb It Down
Unless you’re writing for a specific technical audience, or writing in a specific style, or just writing to look “impressive” for whatever reason, favor clarity over cleverness.
- Split complex sentences.
- Watch for commas, semicolons, em-dashes.
- Find specific alternatives to overused words.
- Do a reading level check.
- Check sentence lengths; too long is too bad.
- Vary lengths up, though. Everything the same length is dull.
- Establish a pattern, then break it. Use repetition purposefully.
Zoom in and out to vary the focus of your writing.
Use dialogue to advance the story.
Reward the reader with high points (“gold coins”) to let them know they’re doing okay.
Don’t stress about putting advice in the wrong section.
4. Clean It Up
Run through your document backwards and forwards to strengthen it throughout.
- Ensure tense and person is consistent.
- Clarify anything that’s ambiguous or vague.
- Strengthen sentence starts
- Watch for sentences that begin with There, It, And, etc.
- Spell check and grammar check one more time.
- Watch for things you removed or changed in editing.
When in doubt, write for brevity first, then clarity, then emphasis and color.
Begin sentences with subjects and verbs. Make meaning early. Dig into concrete, specific details that appeal to the sentences. Order words for emphasis, strongest first.
This is less of a checklist now, and more just general writing advice, but I DO WHAT I LIKE.
5. Make the Computer Do It For You
These writing tools will make your life easier, and make everything terribly by showing you all the different ways that you still suck. Many of them will contradict each other. Run your text through them anyway. If nothing else, it will allow you to feel good about deciding to keep all of your bad choices.
Pro Writing Aid:
This is the most thorough of the tools, and one of my OG favorites. The basic stuff is free, but the paid version is very thorough, and gives you access to all the fiddly little OCD bits.
This is brutal. Make all your red sentences shorter. Delete every adverb. No passive voice. There’s also an app you can buy to download.
This one is thorough, but friendly. You can use the app online, pay for a full-featured version, or install it as a plugin or whatnot.
I know there are dozens of others out there, and you should use what works for you. These are just the ones that work for me. (Most of them are free, or at least as free as these ones are.)
6. Get Out There!
This is clearly more general advice that you can’t do at a word processor or text editor, and can’t be immediately implemented, but you gotta think about the long term too, yeah?
Study language! Be curious about etymology, learn just enough of another language to be dangerous, find common word roots and see how words have been used historically. Play word games. Make puns. Listen to how different people talk and write. Copy your favorite stuff!
Get more eyes on it! It’s easy to overlook your own errors when you’ve been staring at them for hours, or days, or months. It’s hard to let go of your ugly little babies that you love so much, but that don’t make a lick of sense. Let someone else take a look at what you’ve written, or read it out loud, and listen to what they say. You don’t always need to take their advice, but another perspective is always refreshing, and might allow you to see something new, too.
Do stuff besides writing! There’s nothing worse than a novel about writers, a play about playwrights, a song about singers, and so on. Spend time putting in the hours at the keyboard, yes, but don’t make that the only thing you do. If you’re gonna write about stuff, you’ve gotta have stuff to write about, yeah?
Be playful! Sometimes, just, you know, fuck the rules. If James Joyce, Mary Shelley, Lovecraft, Shakespeare, JK Rowling, Stephen King, or even old man Hemingway had followed every word of this advice — even the contradictory bits, somehow — they would all suck, too. Use this checklist to burn your rookie mistakes down to the bone, then build them back up into the monster you want.
7. Let Me Know What You Think
This is all pretty much all my opinion, based on what I’ve dug up and drilled into myself to make my own writing suck less. I default to a very conversational style — as you can clearly see here — and I have to break rocks to make it look like I’m wearing a human suit. Or something. Basically, I don’t follow all these rules, and neither should you. They’re just happy little pokes.
Point being, if this is useful for you, great! If it’s not, that’s cool, too. If you have some advice that you think should be in here, or something that you think is totally dumb, or just want to send me some unearned compliments, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will read it.
Thanks for reading! I hope some of this is useful to you. It’s been useful to me, just writing it down.
(There’s also a better formatted, comment-able version on my google drive.)