So you’ve endured the self-flagellation that is short fiction writing. Bravissima! Your story is complete, your welts will heal, and you’re itchin’ to start submitting to literary magazines. But please, hold your horses! You haven’t suffered enough yet: that baby-faced story you just delivered still has to teethe, get potty trained, and learn to walk on its own. What you’ve got on your hands is a first draft, and it’ll need to be revised—at least once—before you let any editors look down their noses at it.
But wait, you say! Edit my short stories? That sounds an awful lot like the editor’s job; shouldn’t I just get back to spinning more balla yarns?
Sure—good editors will help shepherd and reshape your manuscript as needed, whether it’s a short story or novel. But good editors also want to do as little editing as possible. Writers who submit to magazines and publishing houses need to recognize the fundamental role of editors. In the world of traditional publishing, editors aren’t service providers who correct and improve your writing. Instead, each editor is a shrewd steward for their magazine or imprint. Their expertise serves the needs of the organization, its vision, and it audience. To the endless streams of writers hoping for someone, anyone, to publish their work, an editor has to play the speakeasy bouncer, curt and withholding.
So when you come knocking for a spot inside, come prepared. Do your research so you know what the bouncer knows: who belongs inside and why. And if you’re confident that your work does belong, then submit it only after you’ve revised and polished it thoroughly. When submitting your writing to any publisher, your job is to deliver an undeniable asset to the editor. There are a number of strategies for matching your best work with the right editors, but your first and most important tool should always be the revision process. When you’re just starting to develop as a writer, this truth is a curveball. As editors and all experienced writers know, revision demands its own set of skills—and most writers have to learn them on their own over time. If you’re just starting to learn revision techniques, or if you want to beef up your process, do yourself a favor and get to know some efficient strategies.
- Give the story breathing room
Resist the temptation to start revising right when you finish the first draft. You’ve developed a bit of a codependent relationship with the story over all this time, so you’re probably oblivious to its worst habits. Congratulate yourself on finishing the draft, let it wallow alone for a while, and go work on another project in the meantime. When you come back to the story you’ll have given yourself enough space from it to revise with a more objective, take no prisoners eye. I usually set my drafts aside for at least a week, but you’ll learn how long it takes you to pass that post-story honeymoon period.
- Improve the story first, not the words
This is what we call “macro-editing”. Its little buddy, micro-editing, is all about specific sentences—grammar, spelling, formatting, finding the “perfect” word. All that should come after macro-edits, because you’re a storyteller, and perfect words don’t matter if they’re in a terrible story. So, focus first on the health of these narrative (macro) elements: plot and character development; emotional appeal and manipulation; themes and subtexts; tone and stylistic effectiveness; the goddamn ending. These are the true elements of a strong story, so they should be your first priority. Distinct wordsmithery is important, of course—editors do love a unique voice—but readers want good, memorable stories first.
- Stay loyal to the story’s core concept
The revision process should make your story adhere more to its core concept, not lead you astray toward unnecessary bells and whistles. Add scenes, cut characters, emphasize different themes, sure—but whatever you do, only do it if it relates to and clarifies the story’s concept. This means focusing on what the story is really about, and I find that easier to do if I have a logline in mind.
A logline is a one-sentence statement that summarizes your story, and good ones are stuffed with thematic information and voice. I’ll give it a whirl for some real stories:
“Kidnapped in Port-au-Prince while visiting family with her American husband and child, a wealthy Haitian émigré endures thirteen days of torture and a long aftermath of broken promises,” (Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State)
“A group of adopted Korean teens fool with a summoning spell, and the motherly spirit they conjure refuses to be ignored,” (Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying”)
“While her boyfriend fights in Vietnam, a working class Vermonter takes up go-go dancing and is offered a job in Florida; when he all but returns, she lets fantasy take over,” (Suzanne Kingsbury’s “Axy’s Girl”).
Those last two examples were for short stories—a short story’s logline should have as much depth and appeal as a novel’s. If you can compress your story’s concept into a snappy, informative logline, then you can make sure the narrative lines up with it as you revise. It’s not the most exciting part of writing, but it’s a marketing tool or some lucrative crap like that. And crapping is healthy.
- Make sure every sentence counts
The best short stories make the most of their brief lifespan, and that’s what makes them so impressive to us mortals. So cut the fat (unless your fat is a carefully considered and well-executed stylistic choice): Keep exposition to a minimum, and give each and every sentence meaning and force. One way to do this is refer to your story’s core concept—or ya know, its logline—and revise sentences that neither present a new idea nor inflect a previous idea. This kind of sentence-level editing can also help you track down those perfect words you’re craving!
- Keep your eye on proportions
Try thinking of your story as a system of weights and measures, like a finicky clock. The measures are its various elements like characters, setting, themes, and so on; the weights are how much narrative attention you give to each embodiment of those elements, and the pressure your plot conflicts exert on them. With thoughtful engineering and attentive tinkering, the system and start balancing the narrative, because readers can sniff out ill-proportioned stories. Keep track of when key characters, objects, references to setting, and plot-advancing statements appear. You could try color coding story elements with highlighters or any old word processor (but I suggest those incredible fruit-scented markers). Too flashy and fruity for you? You could put your story through Orson Scott Card’s meat grinder, the time-tested MICE quotient. This method is popular among SF/F writers, but it can be an invaluable tool for structuring stories in any genre—for a detailed introduction to the MICE quotient, I highly recommend this episode of the Writing Excuses podcast. There are plenty of other excellent tools for this structural aspect of revision—but I’ll put a cork in it for now and save all their nerdy, dirty details for another article.
- Enlist some good beta readers.
Feedback from outside is as helpful as it is terrifying, so maybe start feeding off fear. Wrangle two or three critical readers who’ll provide some feedback on your story, and consider the shit out of their comments. You wouldn’t be trying to publish if you didn’t care about the audience’s experience. Honest friends, dedicated enemies, writer workshops, retreats, and forums—you can force your work all over the place.
- Do not give up on the story.
You wrote it for a reason, and you deserve to see it become the best it can be. Revision takes time, practice, and sometimes pain, but it’s an invaluable skill that only leads to more success as a writer.