I thought writing would be so easy. I’d sit on my back porch with a cup of coffee and my laptop. Or I’d rent a little cottage for a weekend and bang out a few chapters. And when I finally typed “The End,” I’d trot off to The Publishing Place and hand them my book. They, in turn, would gush gratefully and scurry off to print it. A few months later, I’d be rolling in the dough as those royalty checks came flowing in.
Boy, was I ever wrong. Or naïve. Or just plain dumb. Yes, those mornings with my cup of coffee and laptop happen quite often. Just . . . none of the rest of it. There is so much more than meets the eye to writing—and publishing—a book.
You read your work to your critique group who look for confusing sections, or mismatched time lines, or missing commas. You send it off to beta readers who check for flow, plot holes, or tell you if it’s boring. If you self-publish, you find someone to create a book cover for you.
But before you do any of that, you self-edit.
By the way, there are exactly 7,531 writing rules you must check for.
Because you probably broke 7,527 of them.
Today, I found a list. A wonderful, all-encompassing, helpful list. It makes sure I won’t forget any of the 7,531 writing rules, and actually added two or three more. I’m talking about the awesome Chapter Checklist compiled by the awesome K. M. Allan. She graciously gave me permission to post her list here.
Without further ado, here is the list. (I’ll post links to K. M. Allan’s social media at the bottom. You’ll want to follow her.) (Oh, one more thing . . . click on every single link to see more exceptional posts by K. M.)
(This is now in K.M.’s voice:) If you follow me on social media, you’ll know I’ve spent the last few months editing my latest WIP.
It’s book 3 in my Urban Fantasy YA series, Blackbirch, and I’m aiming to have it published in the first half of this year. I spent most of 2020 rewriting the draft I penned back in 2017, and now I’m in an endless editing loop.
So far, I’ve completed a grammar and spell check with ProWritingAid, checked for weak words, found and eliminated repeats, and made sure the punctuation for my dialogue is correct. I’ve even worked through notes I made during my last read-through to ensure all the characters aren’t grinning too much.
But before I pass the MS to my first round of beta readers, I know it needs something more. Checks that aren’t just ensuring I haven’t overused “that” or written every character as constantly nodding.
The Chapter Checklist
For this checklist, we’re going to take each chapter page by page. You can print out the MS and staple/paper clip each individual chapter together to work on using highlighters, post-its for notes, and a red pen for corrections. Or you can work from your screen using digital highlighters and note-taking features in your preferred writing program.
The key is to concentrate on one chapter at a time, so it’s not overwhelming.
As this is a checklist, you’ll be doing just that: checking things. This isn’t the time to edit or rewrite, it’s the time to use a critical eye to look at what your chapter contains and note down what changes to make during your next round of edits. Here’s what we’ll be checking…
Some writers work to specific word counts for a chapter, others write it as long as it needs to be.
Whatever method you use, take the opportunity now to look at your chapter lengths and see if any need to be adjusted.
If a chapter is too long, cut it down or split it up. If it’s too short, brainstorm what you can add to make it longer, i.e., more detailed descriptions, an extra scene, etc. The task can then be completed in your next round of edits.
The Openings And Endings
Or as I also like to call it: the tops and tails of each chapter. Here we will check the opening sentence/paragraph and the closing sentence/paragraph.
These are important to check because it’s very easy to open a scene with a similar description when you’ve been penning a book over months or years. Checking the first sentence/paragraph of every chapter one after the other allows you to see if you’ve made this mistake.
As for the endings, to keep readers turning the page, closing each scene with a hook or a cliffhanger is ideal. Using this checklist to study each last sentence with more scrutiny will ensure you’re doing just that.
Of scene/sequels and unanswered questions.
One of my favorite writing methods is using scenes and sequels within a chapter. If you’re not familiar with it, a scene is when you have an event, like an exciting incident, and the sequel is dealing with the consequences of that incident. For more info on each, check out the blog posts, Writing Tips For Great Scenes and Writing Tips For Worthy Scene Sequels.
For this checklist item, read each scene in your chapter, work out if it’s a scene or sequel (if you don’t know already), and ensure there’s a balance of both.
Another thing to balance is your unanswered questions. Every unanswered question needs an answer in your story (unless it’s a hook for the next book in the series). Use your chapter read to highlight any unanswered question so you, 1) know it’s there, and 2) can look for the answer in other chapters.
If at the end of a checklist, you find you don’t have a good balance of unanswered questions, or there are ones that need answers in this book but you haven’t done it yet (it happens), make your notes to add it to your next draft to-do list.
Looking at each chapter closely gives you the perfect chance to note down the timeline of your book and see if everything that happens is in the right order.
I don’t know about you, but I write my manuscripts on and off and usually over months (if not years), so it’s easy to miss that the characters have lived through two Tuesdays in a row, or you’ve forgotten to mention that it’s been five months between the opening chapter and the end of the book.
It’s also likely that edits might remove a reference to an event or the event altogether, but your characters may be dealing with the consequences in chapter 12.
Use this pass to check every event that happens in your book, big or small, and that those events are happening in the order they’re supposed to. Also look out for day, month, season, or year mentions. If your characters meet on a Monday, but the next scene is a Saturday, the reader might wonder what happened to the rest of the week. Get your timeline, events, days, months, seasons, years in order so your story is as plausible as possible.
The Plot Twists
While a plot twist doesn’t happen every chapter, the foreshadowing and the aftermath of each plot twist needs to be present in the lead-up chapters and the ones that follow the twist.
As you give your chapters a read for the millionth time, highlight any foreshadowing and plot twist consequence so you can confirm they’re enough, in the right place, and working.
As you’re concentrating on each chapter, keep an eye on your descriptions, dialogue, action, and settings. Highlight each sentence that contains those things so you can see if the chapter contains enough of a mix.
This check may make you realize the chapter is super dialogue-heavy and could use a little more action to break it up. Or you may notice you’ve forgotten to add in the room setting so the reader can picture where your characters are as they make life-changing decisions during the climax of the book.
It’s the little details of descriptions and settings, and the combination of dialogue and action that moves your story along, so getting the mix right is important. Checking for that and the other elements mentioned here should strengthen your story. I’m hoping that’s what it’ll do for my current WIP, and if you give these checks a go, I hope it’ll do the same for you.
— K.M. Allan
And there you have it. The wonderful, one-last-pass-through checklist to help you polish that manuscript to as bright of a sheen as you can get it before you brave the world of querying.
Thank you, K. M., for letting me ride on your coattails and share your wisdom.
Follow K.M. here:
Now, open your manuscript and start checking!