A Useful proofreading tool I’ve developed

When prepping a manuscript for submission, whether for an agent, editor, publisher, or even a critique group, I prefer to have my submission as clean and perfect as possible. I was inspired to become a better proofreader and revisor by the Agatha Award-winning book Don’t Murder Your Mystery http://bellarosabooks.com/dontmurderyourmystery/ by Chris Roerden http://crimespace.ning.com/profile/ChrisRoerden . She’s a well-know, highly-respected editor and writer, and DMYM gave me a bucketful of tips on how to write a great mystery novel. I made a checklist of her best suggestions, then added my own items to the list, mainly words I tend to overuse and lazy writer’s tricks that I fall back on without being aware I’m doing so.

I compiled my checklist into an Excel spreadsheet, listing the checklist items down the left side, and marking columns for individual chapters (or complete short stories, sections, articles, whatever unit of writing you want to proof). Then I work my way down the list, checking off each item as I complete it to my satisfaction. For example, one of the points that Ms. Roerden suggests we evaluate is our use of static verbs like have and had. I go through my submission looking for spots where I can replace those two words with more active verbs. Once I’m through the submission to my satisfaction, I go to the next item on the list.

Another example is reducing backstory, especially in the first few chapters. Using Word’s highlighting tool, I’ll highlight in color all backstory paragraphs in a chapter, compare them to non-backstory paragraphs, and trim backstory until I’ve got the balance I feel is right for that chapter.

Here’s my checklist so you can see how I set it up:

      Proofreading Checklist                     
CHAPTER NUMBERS; COLUMNS>>>                         
CHECKLIST ITEMS; ROWS v                         
Word count- start of proofreading                         
Word count- end of proofreading                         
Reduce backstory                         
Check time and logistics                         
POV conflicts or switches                         
minimize descriptive details                         
paraphrase instead of repeating                         
minimal slang & phonetic spellings                         
eliminate greetings, chitchat, etc.                         
eliminate unneeded tags and beats                         
WHOLE WORDS                         
But/And that start sentences                         
“You know, Bobs”                         
Conversational “Well, ah, um, etc”                         
that, it                         
judicious use of like, as, similes, metaphors                         
started, began, thought about, etc.                         
just, first, only, even                         
felt, realized, sensed, etc.                         
something, them, they, other vague words                         
excessive use of proper names                         
hunch, really, incredible, beautiful                         
ALL WORD FORMS                         
improve ‘to be’ verbs                         
have-had replacements                         
PARTIAL WORDS                         
“-ly adverbs, espec. suddenly & finally                         
smil*, paus*, laugh*, breath*                         
excessive -ing verbs esp. stunning & amazing                         
should, could, would (use *ould*)                         
Ellipses, em dashes, exclam. pts.                         
semicolons, periods, commas, questions marks                         
eliminate unneeded ‘thought questions’                         
Final spell/ grammar check                                    


I make a lot of use of the ‘find’ feature in Word as I locate all the weak words—it, that, felt, have, had, etc.—and inconsistent POVs, extraneous tags and beats, repetitive words and phrases, and everything else on my list. Note that only after I’m done with the entire checklist do I use the spell/grammar checker. NO point in correcting anything that might not live through the editing process.

When I’m done, I know that each chapter is as good as I can make it at that point in time. Of course, after it gets critiqued, or the manuscript gets rejected by an agent or editor, I’ll probably make revisions or do a complete rewrite. Once I’ve completed the rewrite, I start the entire process again. It takes time, but it keeps me “honest”, and certainly gives my critiquers a much easier submission to evaluate.

Feel free to use my template and expand upon or adapt it to your writing style. I’d love to hear what your writing Achilles heel words, phrases, or weak spots are. My checklist has evolved over almost two years, and I drop items from the list once they no longer weaken my writing, and add new items as I refine my style. Here’s the link to my checklist:

P.S. – “You know, Bobs” were taught to me by Jimharris, an excellent storyteller, first-rate critiquer, and member of  my critique group, critiquecircle.com. They are essentially trivial bits of information or detail tacked onto the end of a paragraph, usually after some dialogue or action has taken place. They normally bring the pace to screeching halt, but can be effective if placed earlier in a paragraph. An example might be (from my own writing):

Swanson winced at the volume. “I had to, Matty. Flannery said Seith would stop payment on the check for Schmidt’s land if I didn’t. I don’t have that kind of cash. I woulda been in deep shit with the bank, maybe go bankrupt, lose my farm. My farm. I can’t lose my farm; it’s all I got. All I ever wanted. Me ‘n Amy put our hearts and souls into this place.” (You know, Bob,) His eyes begged for mercy.

 Had I put that last sentence anywhere inside the dialogue, it would have worked better, but sometimes ‘You know, Bobs’ need to be deleted.

I’d love to hear your comments, questions, suggestions for other weak spots to look for while proofreading, or take me to task on my checklist. Good luck writing.


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