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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Making a List, and Checking it Twice

I must confess, I have always been a list-maker. I make to-do lists. I make pro-con lists when trying to reach a decision. I make lists for goals, both long-term and short-term. I make numerous lists for trips: what to do, what to pack, what information to leave with the sitter, etc.

I learned early in my editing career the value of lists. Style sheets have long been a staple in copy editing (although the term now applies more frequently to web design and desktop publishing), but I also made other kinds of lists. I wrote out lists of trends I was seeing in various authors’ works. I identified frequently occurring errors, and made notes to myself about how best to address them. I also jotted down things that I should always look for, creating an “editing checklist” that I still use today. Most of it is committed to memory, but having it down on (virtual) paper helps me to avoid overlooking something simple.

But one area where I never thought about making lists was in my writing. Writing had always been more of an organic experience for me, so the idea of creating lists felt too rigid and forced, I suppose. I was list-making out the wazoo everywhere else in my life. But in my writing, it completely escaped my notice.

When I finally thought to apply list-making to my writing, more specifically to editing my own writing, I realized how much I’d been missing by not doing it sooner. I created lists for issues specific to a particular work (character lists, timelines of events, plot points, etc.), but I also started creating lists for more general issues. I’d applied my editor’s list-making skills to editing and critiquing clients’ writing, but not to my own.

It worked wonders. I was able to detect trends and habits in my own writing that had escaped my notice. I discovered that I was over-using certain filler words across the board and my penchant for adverbs often became even more pronounced during particularly intense scenes. I realized that just as lists had made me a stronger editor, they were slowly, but surely, making me a stronger writer too.

Not only did these lists help me to figure out what to look for when editing my own work, but they also started to bleed into my “writer’s” brain. I started to catch myself using filler words during the drafting stage and cutting it off at the pass. I started becoming more aware of my weaker writing tendencies, and I was able to develop better ones to replace them.

In the end, while I realize that list-making isn’t for everyone, I know that it’s helped me to become a better and more self-aware writer.

So, if I were to make a list of advice for fellow writers and self-editors, at the top of that list would definitely be to start making more lists.


Denise Long holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in English from the University of Illinois. She has been teaching college-level English courses since 2006, including literature courses and writing courses, ranging from English Composition to Professional and Technical Writing. She has been editing, in some capacity, since 1998, and she has edited many works of fiction and non-fiction and numerous academic articles, dissertations, and theses. Her scholarly work in American literature has been presented and published regionally in the Midwest, and her short fiction has been published in a handful of print and online publications.

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1 comment:

  1. I make daily to-do lists for my writing, my personal life, and everything in-between. It feels so good to mark things off the TO-DO list. But I love the idea of making lists about your own actual writing--the words, the overused words, the trends, etc. GREAT IDEA! Thanks for sharing!


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