Revision Checklist for Writing Contests

On Wednesday’s last 7th on 7th, I reviewed the previous pages I’d revised and winning pg70pit entries I’d deconstructed, showing you what to do, what not to do, and how to fix red flags in your entries. Today I have a checklist for you to improve or strengthen the style and voice for one page (and hopefully beyond).

Revision Checklist for Writing Contests (and hard-core writer nerds)

1. Read the page aloud.

I say this all the time because writers still don’t do it. Voice is how the text sounds, whether to your literal ears or to your brain’s internal ear. The words might not look awkward to you on the page, but they might sound awkward. Print out two copies of your page(s) and have a friend read the text aloud. On the other copy, you highlight parts that sound awkward or where the reader ran out of breath.

If the reader is running out of breath, that means your breath units are too long. The number of syllables between punctuation marks should be fewer than 25, with most falling between 8-15.

30 syllables—For Tess, a Russian student alienated from her school’s state championship bound basketball team in suburban Ohio, forgiveness is a foreign word.

20 syllable—For Tess, a Russian alienated from her suburban Ohio basketball team, forgiveness is a foreign word.

If the reader is stumbling over words, look for sticky words (two- or three-letter words in quick succession) and alliteration (words that have the same sound, especially at the beginning of the word, but internal alliteration is distracting, too).

“Still standing in sequence” has alliteration, but “circumstances notwithstanding” has plenty of internal alliteration with the c/s sound. Both create a hissing sound that might distract the audience. Same goes for plosives: p, b, t, d, k/c, g. If you have three or more within four consecutive words, it might be too much.

2. Look at content.

CHARACTER—Is your character actually doing something, or just thinking? Could a filmmaker film the page without relying on text or a narrator? Would you want to watch a movie version of this page?

CONFLICT—Is your character facing external obstacles or conflict? Do the character’s internal reactions disagree with his or her external actions?

If your page has no conflict and your character is passively observing without doing, you need to cut or rewrite the scene.

3. Ask critique partners for input.

If you can meet up in person, you can address #1 and #3 at the same time—asking for input after your critique partners are read the page aloud.

Were any words misused or spelled wrong? Is the punctuation wrong? Are you being too clever? Is anything confusing? Do your descriptions make sense? Could some words be deleted? Does the dialogue sound natural? How is the pacing?

The most important thing to remember about critique partners is that their opinions are opinions. Take what they say with a heap of salt, especially if they have no background in writing. If multiple critique partners point out one area they don’t like, then yes, you should probably change it. But listen to your gut first, others’ opinions second. I sent my first novel off to a dozen beta readers, and half of them loved POV character A but loathed POV character B. The other half felt the opposite way about the characters. You’ll never make everyone happy.

3. Create a sentence graph.

This is a serious audit of your writing style. I don’t recommend doing this for every page, but I do recommend doing it any time you’re getting rejections or a critique partner tells you that something “feels off” but can’t explain what.

Don’t worry—this “sentence graph” actually has nothing to do with math. You don’t even have to count if you don’t want to.

Take a section of your page and hit “enter” after each period. So this:

There was nothing special about it, other than its very existence. She knew she could make it, but could he? She was concerned for the safety of the elderly man. She didn’t want to see him killed for helping her. Sarah then remembered the sofa. She grabbed the cushions, threw them into the hole and jumped down, carefully holding the lantern so as not to set the cushions on fire.

Turns into this:

There was nothing special about it, other than its very existence.
She knew she could make it, but could he?
She was concerned for the safety of the elderly man.
She didn’t want to see him killed for helping her.
Sarah then remembered the sofa.
She grabbed the cushions, threw them into the hole and jumped down, carefully holding
the lantern so as not to set the cushions on fire.

Creating a “graph” of your sentences lets you see the variety of your sentences. This section has fairly good variety in sentence lengths, but notice that 4/6 start with “She.”

You can also make a graph of breath units:

She knew she could make it,
but could he?
She was concerned for the safety of the elderly man.
She didn’t want to see him killed for helping her.
Sarah then remembered the sofa.
She grabbed the cushions,
threw them into the hole and jumped down,
carefully holding the lantern so as not to set the cushions on fire.
“Come on, it’s now or never.”

That’s a pretty good variety (6-3-14-12-8-5-9-19-7), but it doesn’t feel like a rollercoaster, even though this is a pretty tense scene. Let’s look at the graph of my revision:

She could make it,
but could he?
She didn’t want to see this stranger break his back or be killed for helping her . . .
The sofa.
Sarah grabbed the cushions,
threw them into the hole,
and jumped down,
holding the lantern above her head to avoid setting the cushions on fire.
“Come on, it’s now or never.”

4-3-19-2-6-6-3-19-7. These long breath units (15+) are read quickly, urgently. The shorter ones (1, 2, or 3) have an emotional or mental punch to them.

Use short and long to your advantage. If you have a long breath unit that isn’t urgent, the reader will tire quickly. Rewrite in a way that breaks up the breath unit (usually with commas), or cut several words.

Revision Checklist

  • Did you use spell check?
  • Did you read the page aloud and highlight awkwardness?
  • Is the POV character being active, not passive?
  • Does the page have conflict, either between the character’s goals and external obstacles or between the character’s internal and external goings-on?
  • Did you get feedback from critique partners?
  • Are your breath units too long?
  • Do you have any sticky words or alliteration that sound awkward or cause a reader to stumble?
  • Is the punctuation wrong?
  • Are you being too clever?
  • Is anything confusing?
  • Do your descriptions make sense?
  • Could some words be deleted?
  • Does the dialogue sound natural?
  • How is the pacing?
  • Do your sentences have good variety in length?
  • Do your breath units have good variety in length?
  • Do the lengths of your breath units correlate to the feelings in your scene?
  • Did you use spell check?

Did you find this post helpful? Consider enrolling in my revision workshop, which includes a workbook full of practical applications of grammar and editing for storytellers. If you fill out this survey, you’ll be entered for a chance to win free tuition!

For more revision tips delivered to your inbox each week—along with writing prompts and publishing tips—subscribe to the Writer Reveille.

11 thoughts on “Revision Checklist for Writing Contests

  1. Lara says:

    Reblogged this on MS Editors and commented:

    This weekend is the annual pg70pit submission stretch! MG submits 7/1, YA submits 7/2, and adult submits 7/3. Before you submit, run that page through this wringer:

  2. emilydamroncox says:

    It always amazes me how many ways one can deconstruct a page and then improve it. Thanks for sharing your valuable tips and for co-hosting #70pit16. It’s so helpful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s