I am someone who learns the hard way, and so, while I suppose I could put together a list of things to look for while editing based on books or classes, I do it based on real-life experience. Doing a revision with the help of an editor is a painful process, despite my deep appreciation for the editor’s time and advice. Part of what’s painful is that I have to break through my illusion that I can deal with everything on my own. When I get edits, my first reaction is to make excuses (“I would have caught that if I’d done one more edit on the story before turning it in” or “That’s only there because this is a stylistic departure for me”). But that’s nonsense. If I want to grow as a writer, I have to swallow my pride and see what I can learn from the edits.
I recently had an editor point out a few words that I use as crutches. The typical excuses jumped to mind, and I decided to do an experiment. For about two months, I’ve been working on an agonizing, sentence-by-sentence revision of a hard science fiction story. The sections of this piece that I’ve managed to finish represent the most polished writing I’m capable of creating on my own. I checked this target of obsessive revision for those crutch words the editor had pointed out. They were there, and I had to believe that she was onto something. Her suggestions weren’t just about the particular story she had edited (though they certainly helped it). They were suggestions that I could apply to my entire body of work.
I can almost always pull out some universal suggestions from a good set of edits, and that’s where I get my revision list. The things that have caused me pain are the things that go on the list–I’m not one to just waltz through a piece and check the transitions. I need to know why I’m doing what I’m doing. Painful revisions and nasty reader comments are the source of the things that I check for. I seem to need that turmoil to understand how to make necessary changes to my work.
I’d recommend that every writer make a revision list based on criticisms. My experience is that it’s a good way to transform what can be a negative experience (the pain of criticism) into something that I can appreciate (a general lesson that improves my writing as a whole).