I love checklists, especially ones that I can use to easily improve my manuscript. My master editing list is always a favorite, and I like to bring it out at least once a year for the new readers. For long-time readers, I've added a few new words as well.
One of the last things I do with a novel before I call it "done," is to go through a list of words I know I overuse (or misuse), words I shouldn't use many of, words that often spell trouble, and words to avoid. I check each one and decide if I really need it or if the sentence would be better without it. It's boring and tedious, but it does force me to focus on those little edits that can really tighten a manuscript.
I call it the spit shine.
This long list has developed over years from various books, posts, conferences, etc. on how to write and edit. I've found it very helpful in cleaning up stragglers and tightening my prose.
One caveat though--don't cut anything simply because there's a "never do X" rule attached to it. Sometimes a "bad" word says exactly what you need it to say, or provides the best rhythm for word flow, or works as a judgment word for your POV. Just because a word is on this list does NOT mean it has to be changed at all costs. It just means think about why and how you're using it and if there's a better way to say what you want to say. Usually you can. But if you can't (or don't want to), leave it.
Words Commonly Goofed
These are words that are often misused. I'm always surprised at how many wrong ones slip in there. Makes me cringe when the copy editor spots them.
Who vs that
Few vs less
Farther vs further
Which vs that
Only and just (are they modifying the right word)
Bring vs take
In vs into
On vs onto
(Here's a quick refresher on how to use these commonly misused words)
Words to Avoid
These words I can almost always cut without losing anything from the sentence. Often there's another word that makes them redundant.
(Here's more information of hunting down unnecessary prepositions)
Words to Rethink
These are words that often show up in told prose.
(Here are some more telling red flag words)
Words That Often Spell Trouble
These are words that keep readers out of the moment or aren't as active as they ought to be. Adverbs, passive verbs, passive writing.
Was, were (especially the was -ing forms)
(Here are some more words that often spell trouble) and one on (fixing passive writing)
Words That Often Indicate Weak Prose
Some words read just fine, but I've discovered if I tweak them a little, I can strengthen my story and turn a lot of "good" sentences into great sentences.
Now the Hard Part
I go through each word and do a "find" and then look at the sentence. Then I ask:
- If I cut the word, does the sentence read better?
- If I reword the sentence to eliminate the word, does it read better?
- Is there a stronger verb or noun I could use?
- Can I rewrite the sentence in a more active fashion?
- Can I be more descriptive or am I relying on boring words?
- Can I rewrite it so it's more in the voice of my character?
Yes, it's a pain, and it does take a ton of time, but this stuff creeps in without us even realizing it. I've found checking sections at a time makes it easier (I break the book into quarters before I edit)
A little extra polish can make the difference between good writing and great writing. And that can make the difference between "you're a talented writer but..." and "let's talk representation."
ETA: Tech Tools for Writers made a macro using this list (and others) to help writers spot troublesome words for those interested.
Do you have a spit shine list? Are there things you check last before submitting your work?