Friday, June 19, 2015

Being Your Own Text Doctor

Image by Oliver Symens, via Flickr
Not long ago, I came across a folder of materials I used while I was teaching at the University of St. Andrews. Among the files was a questionnaire I devised for my Creative Writing students to help them assess their own work from the perspective of an editor (or, as in this case, the members of their academic examining committee).

There are four categories of five questions apiece: Plot,Characterization, Setting and Atmosphere, and The Writer’s Craft. It occurs to me that this self-assessment questionnaire might be helpful to fiction writers in general who are trying to gauge whether their manuscript is ready for submission.

A) Plot
  • Does the work feature a strong/striking central idea around which the action of the plot revolves?
  • Is the central concept sufficiently robust to be conveyed in a single "pitched" paragraph?
  • Is the action well-paced, reflecting a balance between incident and exposition?
  • Does the main plot advance logically in terms of cause and effect?
  • Are all subplots accounted for, or are there loose ends in need of resolution?
B) Characterization
  • Are the principle characters well-rounded in terms of back story?
  • Do characters behave consistently with respect to their age, gender, social and educational background, experience and temperament?
  • Does character dialogue and interaction contribute to the development of plot and theme?
  • Do the characters use language appropriate to the characters themselves and the work’s target readership?
  • Do important characters undergo significant change or growth in response to their experiences in the story?
C) Setting and Atmosphere
  • Is the setting well-established in terms of time and place by means of descriptive imagery and selective detailing?
  • Have relevant back story elements been artfully accounted for in terms of background research and character profiling?
  • Are atmosphere and mood effectively generated by means of figurative language?
  • Do factors relating to setting and atmosphere enhance plot action and character tensions?
  • Does setting and atmosphere contribute to thematic development?
D) The Writer's Craft
  • Is exposition conveyed via a variety of expository techniques?
  • Is character dialogue crisp and to the point, or is it wordy and overblown?
  • Does the writer employ foreshadowing and/or irony to good effect?
  • How effective has the writer been in "staging" scenes, paying due regard for the use of props and choreography of action?
  • Does the work throughout exhibit a polished command of diction, syntax, and the ornaments of language?
If you’re honest with yourself, the answers you provide will help you identify aspects of your story that may need of further polishing.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. This is a great list. My revision/editing folder grew so large, I turned it into a book so I could easily flip through it. :)

  2. That's a great list. The first draft I'm working on missed the mark on a number of them at least in places. Lots of revisions to be done.

  3. Not that it would make a difference, MM, but will there be a test monitor present while I complete this evaluation?

  4. Wow, Debby, this is a humdinger of a list. Its value lies in its coverage of several areas we may neglect when we're writing/self-editing our stories. Needless to say, our work is cut out for us. Thanks much for this keeper! :-)

  5. I printed this out. Sometimes I don't think of anything but the story. This is a good reminder of what I should be doing.


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