Writer’s Checklist

REVISED! I’ve now included descriptions of each bullet point.


I have the following things posted on a bulletin board near my desk when I write:


  • Voice...This comes first. Don’t proceed until you nail it. POV can always be changed later.
  • POV (point of view)…TIP: write in 1st if it helps you get close to the narrator, then switch to 3rd if you need to. It’s really easy to make the switch. Don’t forget about omniscient, which can be done, despite what they say. I really like Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections for a good illustration of how this can work. People keep saying to avoid Om. because it’s “God-like.” Well I say nonsense.
  • Tense…Keep this consistent. In my opinion, present tense can grow tiresome unless you know what you’re doing.
  • Dialogue…This will stand out no matter what, so make sure your characters are saying something revealing and important. I tend to err on the side of realism, but realism can be boring. You want your dialogue to be better than real. Indirect dialogue can be a good way to speed things up. When cleverly done, it can be more effective than direct dialogue.
  • Pacing…Are you revealing too much too soon? Are you wearing the patience of your reader by being too mysterious? Does the scene seem to jump around too fast? (Rarely do writers make the mistake of including too many details. Go for the details. You can cut them later.) SLOW DOWN TIME. It’s always the best way to err.
  • Symbols (objective correlative)…Sometimes you might not even know they’re there. They might have slipped in through your subconscious. A second pair of eyes might reveal interesting things you can play up later. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.
  • Mood…I often forget this. Connect to the reader by picking the right adjectives to lend emotional context. Don’t go for the description that’s closest at hand. Find the one that nails it.
  • Tone…Consider whether you want the tone to contrast or correspond to the protagonist’s emotions. Contrast can be really interesting. I wrote a short story about a high school kid who is far above average in intelligence, but he’s dealing with difficult stuff and he’s not mature enough to deal with it just yet. The tone is very academic and articulate. But when the character speaks, out comes this typical high school dialogue, which never fails to embarrass him, pulling him further into isolation and distress.
  • Relevant details…First draft, write ’em all down. Then pick through the crap and retrieve the one thing that ties it all together. One really apt detail has more impact than a thousand lousy ones.
  • Inner thoughts/outer behavior…Similar to the point I made about tone. We don’t always reveal our thoughts. Sometimes we only think we aren’t revealing our thoughts, but we’re really transparent to everyone around us. Sometimes we know we’re revealing our thoughts through our behavior although we put on a pretense to hide them (say, I really want my husband to buy me flowers and I keep mentioning flowers and how so-and-so bought them for his wife). Same goes for characters. It’s a complicated matter that requires a good deal of thought, based on the context of your writing.
  • Real world/narrator’s biases…This is also super complex. The narrator is always biased, but sometimes he/she can be reliable. If you choose to have an unreliable narrator, the reader should be able to guess the truth that’s off the page. Unless, of course, you don’t want that. Rare cases where you wouldn’t want that. But I’ve seen it.
  • Narrative arc…Why are we reading? We want to see the character change. Make sure this happens with each POV character, otherwise, why are we going into his/her POV?
  • Syntax…Complicated matter again. If the character is a simpleton, more than likely you’ll write short simple sentences. If your character is an intellectual, sometimes long complex sentences with many clauses are the way to go. But there’s more to syntax than sentence length. Can’t go into it here. Consider whether your character is a native speaker, what generation he/she grew up in, where he/she grew up, etc.
  • Dialect…Use sparingly. Sum times die ‘lect cun be annoyin’.
  • Authenticity…It’s good to take a step back and think about whether or not your character resembles other famous ones. If he/she is too much like everyone else, or like a famous one (cough, cough, Holden Caufield, cough) then maybe it’s time to rethink things.
  • Puzzles to solve…More than just a plot twist to anticipate. Little questions to keep the reader engaged. Why does this character keep noticing yellow things, for instance. What is the significance of this color? I have actual logic puzzles in my novel, so that’s a bit more literal. Doesn’t have to be, though.
  • Setting…Setting should be character revealing. Two people see the same room differently. Mood comes into play here.
  • Consistency…My hobgoblin. I use other people to call me out. I have no choice. Kevin Sterne just pointed out something my entire writer’s group failed to notice—I had my protagonist drinking coffee then suddenly he’s putting away his dinner tray. Where the hell did that come from? It came from the fact that I, the author, didn’t give a shit about the dinner tray and it probably needs to be cut. But sometimes these little things will get on your reader’s nerves and they’ll stop reading. I just suck at this, so I have lots of people read my work.
  • Climax…Lots of little peaks before you get here, but this one should explode. I’ve also heard that the plot diagram has changed since I was in school. It’s no longer an upside down “V”,  but instead more like this.
  • Relevance of each scene…This should be self-explanatory. Don’t cut anything until you’ve finished your first draft. You never know.
  • Description of character… Avoid “looking in the mirror” descriptions. I say this, but I have one. I broke this rule, but I did it deliberately. In any case, this one’s a hard one for me. I really don’t like hearing too much description of a character because it can seem unnatural. Make it seem natural, whatever you do. If you have one character describing another, make sure the description is revealing of the person telling as much as or more than the person being described.
  • Theme…Go back to your symbols, the mood, the voice, etc. to make sure they’re all adding up to what you want your theme/s to be. Sorry, not much advice I can give you about this in a few sentences.
  • Development of characters, changes…Make sure they change.
  • Plot and its relation to subplot…don’t let the subplot take over. Don’t let it fall away either.
  • Hero’s journey (see Joseph Campbell), archetypes…What I said earlier about authenticity is important to keep in mind here. It’s great to have an archetype so long as you make sure the character remains unique.
  • Satisfying conclusion…Don’t be vague. It’s really not that cool.
  • Wrapping up loose ends…Sometimes we aren’t trying to be vague. We’ve just forgotten that thing at the beginning hundreds of pages ago. Don’t let anything hang loose just because it makes sense in that scene. It has to be played out. Just because you forgot it doesn’t mean your reader did.
  • Expectations and set ups…If you start out writing a horror and switch genres to romance, things can get weird. Maybe you want that, but be sensitive to your reader. Don’t make this too much of a shift or things can get irritating. Also, consider the format. If you’re writing in several POVs in a certain alternating pattern, and then you suddenly shift halfway through to some new pattern, the reader will think there’s a great deal of importance in that fact. There had better be.


The last one is handwritten, added much later. Take Risks…I think this is one of the most important things to remember. We often filter ourselves before the words make it to the page. We think, “What if my husband/wife/mother/father/sister/brother/BF/lover read this?” Or we think, “This is really dark. What if people think I’m a freak?” These thoughts are impossible to shut out. The best way I’ve found to deal with them is to act like no one will read what you’re about to write. Just write it. Later you can decide whether or not it would be immoral/painful to publish. In any case, you’ve got to write it. So what if you’re a freak. You probably are. Nobody has to know. It’s just you and the words.

If you do decide to publish your freakiest piece, more than likely your readers won’t be able to put it down. Because truth be told, we’re all freaks.

A little anecdote. In my writing class a year or so ago someone submitted a story in which a young woman touches her asshole and sniffs it in pleasure. When I looked to see who had written it, it was this sweet older lady. I loved that detail. Everyone in the class loved that detail. We were shocked and amazed that she had the courage to write it. Then we slowly started submitting our sex scenes…very slowly, but she got the ball rolling.

Some new ones (see comments):

  • Observe
  • Five senses

Any others you’d like to share?

7 thoughts on “Writer’s Checklist

  1. I always find little reminders like this interesting and helpful. I like one–I think it was Carver–that just said “five senses.” In a different direction, I taped an old love letter from a happy, meaningful time to my desk. It had a lot of meaningful life stuff that offered as reminders.


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