Questions to Ask While Revising

21 March 2016

Joanne Merriam, Upper Rubber Boot Books1

Grammar, Syntax, Usage:

  • Is the grammar, punctuation, and spelling correct?
  • Does wrong or non-standard syntax serve the purpose of the work?
  • Does the diction [ornateness/simplicity] fit the meaning?
  • Is there music? Is the music serving the work?

Serving the Reader:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it ethical?
  • Does it go deep enough?
  • Is it based on cultures I don’t belong to or don’t have a deep knowledge of? If so, have I run it past people who do belong to those cultures, and/or done extensive research to avoid misrepresentation and mistakes?
  • Are there places that would be confusing to an outside reader or where I’ve assumed non-general knowledge or mind-reading?

Serving the Story:

  • Is it predictable? Are there clichés in words, images, ideas, or plot? (Strange Horizons lists cliché plots:; Teresa Nielsen Hayden lists dreadful phrases:
  • Can I strengthen the story by changing my world-building assumptions? (Charles Stross’ list:
  • Are the transitions serving the work? Is every scene serving the work? Are the ideas and rhetorical gestures in the right order?
  • Is it in the right voice [first person/second person/third person]?
  • What does it actually say on the page (as opposed to in my mind)? Is it saying what it wants to say? Is it confused?
  • Would saying less be stronger?
  • Does it follow its own deepest impulses, rather than my initial idea?
  • Do I know more than I did when I started writing it? Did I discover anything?
  • Do characters follow their own goals and impulses, or have I forced them to act against their own character to fit the plot? Do they talk, act, and think authentically?
  • Is there anything that doesn’t belong?
  • Do any digressions serve the work?
  • Is it self-satisfied/smug?
  • Does it allow strangeness? Is the strangeness it allows accessible?
  • Should it go out into the world or is it the seed for another story (or poem)?

1 Also includes questions from a talk given by poet Jane Hirshfield at Vanderbilt University, and from a workshop given by poet Sue MacLeod at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. Feel welcome to reproduce or excerpt this list, provided attribution and this notice are included.

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