Be your own writing critic

A suggested checklist of tasks that not only will identify and solve common writing problems, but could reduce the amount of time you spend rereading, tinkering, rewriting, and re-editing.

You have spent the past three weeks interviewing, researching, gathering and organizing your facts, and double-checking quotes. Now you have a first draft of your article, ready for editing.

At this point, many writers make the mistake of sending their work to their editor. This, seasoned editors will tell you, is where their curmudgeonly reputation comes from. They don't want to read raw copy, full of mistakes and potential pitfalls in logic and meaning. Instead, editors recommend that you take a cue from airline pilots, and avoid major mistakes by using a checklist and applying it systematically to each project.

Writing checklist

Here is a suggested checklist of tasks that not only will identify and solve common writing problems, but could reduce the amount of time you spend rereading, tinkering, rewriting, and re-editing.

  • Be sure that your article has a beginning, a center, and a conclusion.
  • Feature stories are easier to understand if told in a story format.
  • Does your first paragraph engages the reader and introduces the article in a factual, compelling way?
  • Does the article contain a “nut graph” within the first few paragraphs that explains in a sentence or two why a reader should bother reading this report, article, or memorandum?
  • Read the text once to ensure you've included all relevant facts, being on the lookout for lapses in logic that indicate missing information.
  • Read the copy to detect, reorganize, or eliminate repetition.
  • Read for grammar and punctuation; turn a long, awkward sentence into several punchy ones; vary the tone to keep the text from taking on a sing-song cadence; and rewrite passive sentences to give them more power and clarity.
  • Double-check mathematics, telephone numbers, and other potential error sites.
  • Have I identified all of the sources or characters in my article by their full name and title or occupation when introducing them in the text? Did I include relevant viewpoints in their most logical order?
  • Does the report or article flow easily from one thought to the next?
  • Do quotes lend spice, color, and depth of meaning? If the answer is no, paraphrase them or delete them.
  • Did I attribute the quotes correctly, with first names and titles included on the first reference and without double attribution?
  • Does my article contain simple, declarative statements of fact? If too many sentences contain words such as “might,” “could,” or “potentially,” you might need to go back and pin down facts, so you can report factually.
  • Ruthlessly eliminate extra adjectives. Think of adjectives as salt. A sprinkling intensifies and amplifies flavor and meaning. Too much, and readers tune out.
  • Rewrite sentences that begin with “And,” “But,” “Therefore,” “Although,” and “There is.” Lesser writers often use such words to start sentences, hoping they will create a transition between paragraphs. These words form a clumsy knot between sentences or paragraphs, rather than a graceful transition. If paragraphs don't flow easily and a transition seems elusive, you can use the simple approach. State a fact, ask a question a reader might be asking at that point, or introduce a source who makes a statement that introduces the next paragraph.
    • Some examples of this transition: “What does this water shortage mean to Farmer Ted?” or “The water shortage is becoming a personal issue to John Smith;” or “John Smith's take on the water shortage is similar to James Doe's.”
  • If your article doesn't have a logical note on which to conclude, you may try a pithy quote that either sums up what has been said in plain English or provides drama, humor, or a glimpse at the future, known as a “forward-spinning ending.”
  • Finally, find a writing partner with whom you can exchange editor-ready copy before it goes to the editor. A fellow writer will be invaluable in pointing out gaps in logic or fact that you missed or awkward phrases and repetition.

As long as you are your own toughest first critic, there's less chance your editor will be your worst critic.