Editing a Short Story in Five Steps
Over the last week of December and the first week of January, we worked on fairly long short stories. Now it’s time to talk about editing.
Editing a short story is a much less painful process than editing a novel. It’s a shorter process, and if you go through each of these steps you can make it a lot easier for yourself. I recommend taking a day or two away from your short story before you start editing it. You don’t want to stay away a long time. Particularly if your end goal is to make money, it’s a good idea to have several of these on the market at one time.
When I edit a short story, I usually follow these steps:
1. Proofread on the computer. Sure, you don’t see all your mistakes on the computer, but spelling and grammar aren’t necessarily the most important things to focus on at first. It’s a good idea to reread it on a computer first and edit anything that stands out to you. If you can, read it somewhere other than where you wrote it. Your brain will automatically pay attention because of the new surroundings, and that should be enough for you to see the worst grammatical mistakes. If you can already see a flaw in the structure of your story, you can try to fix it now. If not, move on to the next step as soon as you’ve proofread your work.
2. Get feedback. Some writers go through several edits of their work before anybody looks at it, and I’ve always done that with longer works. With short stories, I find that getting feedback right away is the best. I see stories as movies in my head, and most of the time I don’t notice when it doesn’t look quite as nice on paper. There are a lot of critique groups out there and forums where you can look for a long term critique partner or beta reader. Feedback is a great thing to have.
3. Print it out. Armed with the feedback that you’ve gotten, look at your story again, this time on paper. Make a note about anything you find awkward either on the margin or on the back of the page. Cross out sentences you don’t like. Add details you left out because the image is so clear in your head. Proofread. You can either do this in one really long reading, or you can read it a few times, each time with a different goals. I like to take the intense, one read approach to my short stories. After you’ve gone through it, list the important changes you need to make on the back of the last page.
4. Edit your story. This is the long part. While it takes only a couple of minutes to notice most of the errors on any given page, it can take a while to fix them if they’re structural. Of course you can always get stuck looking for the right word too. Either way, it has to be done. Armed with your annotated story, go into your word processor and start editing. Make all the changes you’ve already noted, but take your time to read through it and fix anything new you notice. While the proofread on the computer was just a skimming to make sure it wasn’t awful, this is an edit to try to make it good.
How long this part of the process takes depends on two factors: how long the story is, and how badly it’s messed up. If you’ve written a ten thousand word story, it’s probably going to take longer to edit than a two thousand word story. However, if your ten thousand word story is relatively clean grammatically and sound structurally, but the two thousand word story is just a mess, the shorter story might take longer to edit. No matter how long it takes you to edit, don’t forget to reward yourself after you’ve done it.
5. Get more feedback. Now that you think you’ve got an awesome story, it’s time to send it back out into the world. Get more than one opinion if you can. If you’re lucky, people will notice improvements and they’ll only be pointing out grammar issues and spelling errors. Odds are that your readers will still see something that throws them off, but that’s okay. That just means it’s time to start the process again.
How many times should you go through this process? Well, that depends on how much experience you have as a writer, and it also depends on the story itself. Some stories take a long time to really become what you’ve envisioned. Other stories come together almost fully formed and only need the most superficial polish. Only you can know when it’s time to send a short story out into the world.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be talking about the process of finding feedback, critiquing etiquette, and the submission process.
How do you usually edit a short story?