Being a Better Writer: Checklisting

Hey readers! Welcome back to another installment of Being a Better Writer. Not only that, but it’s a normal installment! That’s right, the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is over and done!

It was a huge hit too, especially with some of the more common sayings. However, just because it’s over doesn’t mean that if you missed it all is lost. Just check out the tag ‘Summer of writing advice” to locate the whole set once more if you’re looking for them.

So, we’re back to regular Being a Better Writer posts, which means we’re back to discussing the topic of writing and all the various aspects of it we can improve at. So, for today? I’ve got an interesting topic for all you readers and writers out there. Readers, I’m sure, have noticed it, as I myself have found it on display in more than one book. And writers? Well, let’s just say this is a common error that anyone can slip into. Even with Jungle I’ve found this issue cropping up more than once and had to make some edits. Today’s trap is something all writers, novice and experienced, can fall into.

Today, I’m talking about checklisting.

Okay, this is actually a pretty straightforward trap to fall into when writing (which, in turn, does mean today’s post may be a bit shorter, but no less useful). Most of the time you’ll hear the term, it’s in relation to action sequences, but in truth it can crop up a number of other places as well. In editing Jungle (sorry, it’s on the mind with a release so soon, so you’re going to hear about it) I had to cut it out of a segment—no joke—in which a character is pondering one of the mysteries of the story while preparing lunch. So yeah, this can show up just about anywhere.

But what is checklisting. While I’m sure some of you readers are nodding your heads and thinking of times when you’ve run into it yourself (maybe even in your own writing) a few of you may be left in the dark. So, let’s clear this up and turn on the lights.

Checklisting is whenever one writes a series of events, commonly actions of some kind that once written, read like a checklist. In other words, if you took every individual sentence of the paragraph and made them bulleted lines, you’d end up with something like this:

  • Adreya did this …
  • Then she did this …
  • Then she did this ….
  • And then she did this …
  • Lastly, she did this …

New paragraph.

Now, some of you might be thinking something along the lines of “Oh come on, who would do that?” but the answer is that it’s a pretty easy mode to slip into sometimes. For a new writer, because it’s a natural progression of their thought process. Said character is going to do X, then Y, and then Z. And so, as they translate that into text, well, those thoughts become pretty close to what actually appears in front of them. Because they’re focusing on making sure the sequence goes down pretty much the way they thought it, in getting things like the order right, and so when it actually goes all the way down, well … yeah, it comes out in much the same way.

This is especially an issue that crops up with young writers trying to write out fights or action scenes (though again, I’ve seen this crop up elsewhere). In part because fights are hard to write, especially for a new author, and in part because the writer is often focused on making sure that they get the main points down (so and so does this, so then this happens, and then they do this, and then this, and then this) that they sort of slide into checklisting by default. They’re so focused on making sure that the reader knows the beats of the fight that the list becomes almost inevitable. Especially if they don’t know what the “beats” of a fight should be, and devolve into a back-and-forth “who hit who” (something about which I recommend you check out some of the BaBW posts on fights if you’re having concerns about it).

Point being, this is an extremely common problem among young writers. Checklisting is extremely easy for new, inexperienced writers to slip into, fairly easy to write … and boring as anything to read, as well as awkward and unwieldy.

And sands, even experienced authors fall into the trap sometimes. It’s very easy when thinking about moving a character (or the reader) from point A to point B, while hitting beats along the way, to slip into “X did this, then X did this, then X did this.” Sometimes it’s even a little hard to spot due to the larger complexity of a paragraph. In the example I mentioned above from Jungle it was a checklist, but I didn’t notice it until one of the early Alpha runs. Why? Because it was a large complicated paragraph that was actually quite long and had a lot going on in it. But, during the edit, I noticed that each of the three sentences in the paragraph started with “Jake [did an action] …” I’d checklisted, without even thinking about it.

Okay, now before we dive into ways to fix this, I’m sure some readers out there may be thinking “But surely this isn’t that bad? After all. we’re okay with phrases like ‘he/she said’ being repeated. Shouldn’t a form of ‘X did this’ be all right? What’s the problem here?”

Well, it’s true that there are some words that are basically “filler words” like “he/she said.” Or “the.” These are words in the English language that bridge things together. But even then, we like variance to our language. The rule of thumb with “said,” for example, is that you swap out said for another word or drop it entirely around one-fifth of the time, especially in a sequence with a lot of dialogue.

But here’s why this doesn’t apply to checklisting: Because the subjects of checklisting are the focus of a sentence, not a filler. A word like “the” or “said” is a word we’re trained to slide our focus over because they’re not the primary locus of that sentence. They’re mostly just there to help our minds hone detail on the actual focus.

But a character name? Doing something? That’s exactly what the sentence is about. When you drop “X does something” in a reader’s view, it’s the equivalent of looking your reader in the eyes and saying “Hey, this is important, pay attention.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that the sentences coming after it aren’t important for not starting with that same attention-grabbing “X does something” but they’re already given the context by the first sentence.

However, if we make every sentence start with “X did this.” what does that do to the reader? Well, it’s as if every line of a paragraph is shouting at the reader’s focus.

And that’s one reason why checklisting is rough on a reader. It’s unaesthetic to a reader because it doesn’t flow in a most basic level. It’s like having lights flashed in your eyes every single line. Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.

It’s jarring. Awkward. The flow that’s usually kept as a reader cuts through a paragraph is disrupted over and over again by seeing that constant “Hey, look!” everywhere.

Oh man. Checklisting is Navi. “Hey, listen!”

Right, back on track here. See, checklisting wrecks a flow with that constant attention-grabbing. But there’s another issue it can bring to the writing as well: It discourages clever writing.

I realize that sounds a bit weird, but roll with it for a second and it’ll make sense. See, one of the titanic challenges of writing is picking the right words to use, in the right order, so that the reader not only knows what’s going on, but can even get evocative imagery that’s quite thrilling. Blades humming through the air, for example. Metaphor! Simile! All that jazz, right?

Well, checklisting reduces all that neat language. Or rather, it reduces the need for it. Again, this goes back a bit to novice writers falling into this trap. Well, one of the reasons they do is because they’re trying to hit the “beats” of something and get that info across, and well … Checklisting makes that easier because rather than coming up with a clever, descriptive way of saying something, they can just tell the audience “X did _____.”

Hold up. Notice yet another problem there? Tell? That word?

Yeah, it’s not an evil concept (it’s Show versus Tell, not show don’t tell after all) but a lot of that balance flies right out the window when you’re checklisting and telling your readers step by step what happened. Checklisting slips into tell like corruption slips into politics: it’s practically there from the very start.

Starting to see why it can be such a dangerous trap to fall into? Checklisting is easy to fall into, especially for a new reader, but it’s not entertaining at all to read. In fact, it’s actually kind of distracting and simplistic.

Okay, so all that said … how does one avoid checklisting? Or, if one has realized they’ve become a checklister, how do they fix their paragraphs so that they’re much smoother reads?

Well, the easiest way to catch it and avoid it is to watch what you write. Are your paragraphs little more than “X did this … He/she then did this … He/she then did this …” stretching on and on? Well, that’s checklisting.

Avoid that. If you’ve found that you’re often slipping into checklisting, try training yourself to check back over previous sentences and looking to see if you’re repeating a trend of “She/he did ____.” Send your eyes back to the last sentence you wrote each time you start a new one and double-check to make sure you’re not repeating a checklist.

Okay, so that’s good for spotting it, but what about fixing it? Well, that’s a bit trickier, but ultimately what it’s about is finding another way to say something. So we could take this quick example:

Tyris stepped over to the microwave and opened the door. She took out the meal inside, now warm. She sniffed it and smiled. She knew it would taste good.

Side note, that almost physically hurt to write. But to get rid of the checklisting, we can go more show starting with the second sentence. Which gives us this:

Tyris stepped over to the microwave an opened the door. A wave of hot, mouth-watering smells rolled past her, rich and tangy, and she smiled. Mom’s lasagna is always the best, she thought as she cradled it, heat sinking into the palms of her hands.

Right, see what happened there? The first sentence stayed the same. But in making the second sentence not a checklist, we had to look at what it was accomplishing (as well as the sentences behind it). And so the second sentence combined the second and third sentences of the original to become a new sentence that focuses more on the sensation of what she’s experiencing, then her reaction to those sensations. And the last sentence? It’s a rewrite of the final sentence that tells the audience it will taste good, swapping it for the character’s thoughts on the matter.

Seem tricky? Well, it may, especially if you’re new. But a good rule to start with for fixing a checklist problem is “leave the first sentence, check the second one.” See how you can rephrase that second sentence so that it’s conveying the same information (and maybe, you’ll find, even more) without just dropping it as “X did ____” followed by what they did.

How can you describe the action they performed, rather than just telling us what they did? Or the sensation they feel as a result of performing it? For example, rather than tell the reader in the example above that the character removed the warm meal in the second sentence, we focus on the sensations brought about by her actions in opening the door (scent and warmth). Sensation becomes an aspect of the final sentence as well.

Think along those lines. How can you show the reader what happened by, perhaps, results, or maybe sensation? What other ways can you convey what you wanted to?

Hard? Well … yeah. Writing is difficult. Part of the learning process is figuring out how to make something evocative and gripping through clever wordplay. But if you’re new, all is not lost. If you’re a young writer struggling to figure out how to get past checklist syndrome, even when you know you do it, here’s what I’d suggest.

Figure out what it is you’re writing. Action and swordfights? Romance and high adventure? Whatever it is that’s tripping you up, figure out what it is … then head to your nearest library and find some books that tackle the same topics.

Read them. And as you do, pay close attention to how those authors avoid checklisting as they write the same paragraphs. If your fights are turning into checklists, pick up some books known for their frantic, gripping action and then pay close attention to how those authors keep their own fights from being checklists. What sort of tricks do they use to keep the fight clear to the reader while avoiding checklisting?

There’s no shame in learning from how other’s overcome an issue. Read a few books, paying close attention to how those authors get around the issue, and then see if you can reproduce it in your own work. Don’t worry if at first you feel a bit derivative. Just keep at it and your own style will develop.

As in all things, practice makes perfect. It may take some time, and again, even experienced authors occasionally fall into the trap of having a checklist paragraph here or there. Just keep working on it.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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