Sometimes it’s hard to catch mistakes in our own manuscripts. That’s why we join critique groups: to help us improve our work. I think, though, that we can derive even more from critique sessions if we strive to do our best on our early manuscripts. I’m not saying that we should wait to submit to critique partners until the manuscript is perfectly polished. But if we can do a better job of self-editing, then our writer’s group will be able to spend less time catching glaring errors, and more time helping us to push our manuscripts to their absolute best.
Here is a checklist for self-editing. It is geared toward picture books, but some items apply to all manuscripts.
1) Main Character. Is there a strong enough introduction to the MC? Is the MC’s problem clear from the beginning, and are we immediately rooting for the MC to solve that problem? Or are we rooting for the main character to change in some way?
2) Secondary Characters. Is every character necessary? Consider the purpose of each character. Is each character distinctive, or do you have some characters who do not stand out? Have you given names to your important characters? Can you improve your manuscript by adding emotion or humor through your characters’ words or actions?
3) Dialogue. Does the dialogue that you have chosen for your characters sound authentic? Is the language too stilted to sound like real conversation?
4) Story Arc. Does the plot flow logically from beginning to end, with an adequate build-up to the ending? Or does the ending seemed rushed and abrupt? Are all plot elements necessary, or is something present that does not in any way further the PB to its resolution?
5) Language. Is the language at the right level for a PB audience? Have you avoided excessive redundancy? Are you stumbling over any words or phrases when you read it out loud? Are your word choices consistently fun and playful, making it a great read-aloud? If not, can you key in on sections of the manuscript that are better than others, and if so, can you put more of the "good stuff" into the sections that are paling in comparison?
6) Clarity. This is, of course, the touchstone of all writing. Are the wording and images clear and within the grasp of your audience? Do your transitions work, or are there scene changes that leave the reader confused? Don’t assume that the illustrations will take care of clarity (unless you are an author/illustrator). As the writer, you need to use specific language so that the reader is clear about what is transpiring.
7) Ending. Is the ending satisfying enough? Does it strike just the right chord with the reader, so that people will want to reread your PB? Have you resolved everything in the plot that needs resolution, or is there a dangling plot point? If you have left anything unclear, is there a valid purpose in doing so?
8) Length of Manuscript. Is it too long? Are there portions that drag? Does it take too many paragraphs to get to the main problem? Or, is your manuscript too short? Do we not have enough of a flavor of the setting, characters, and problem?
Go through your PB manuscript and see if you can make some changes based on these suggestions. Good luck, and enjoy the revision process!