Updated: Jun 17, 2020
In this third and final part of How To Write A Short Story – How to Write A Short Story: Revising And Editing The Final Draft - you will be guided through the endgame writing process in order to finish an original short story, either for your own pleasure or for submitting for publication to anthologies, online journals, and/or entering short story competitions.
However you happen to have fetched up here – organic browser search, back-link from a generous CW blogger, social media marketing, or because you have been slavishly working with the previous two instructive posts in this three-part guide (How to Write a Short Story: A Quick 3-Step Guide to Finding Idea and Getting Started, and, How to Write a Short Story: Rewriting the First Draft) and have subscribed to The Writing-Class Blog and are eagerly awaiting to learn what to do next – you should know, what follows is not an infallible guide to revision and editing that will guarantee you see your work in print.
Such a guide does not exist.
Like any creative facilitator, the publishing industry is a critically subjective and fickle factory conveyor belt. What one loves and lets through, another will not. Any number of now famous novels have at one time been rejected many times and more.
Rather, it is designed to help you understand and think about the numerous aspects of revision and editing you should consider as you shape, reshape, buff and polish your work in order to get it into the best possible finished state.
So chip up and forge ahead and let the dream of seeing your name in lights be your incentive to keep going.
And remember . . .
So, ready for the final push?
Revision & Editing
In the previous tutorial you were shown how to pick out all the useful bits from your first draft, which you had written in a free-association, passionate flood of words and let them act as your story’s DNA.
Then, from them, you stitched together the anatomy of a never-before-seen new short story.
Or, put another way, from a body of loosely related words and ideas, you identified all the strands that you imagined would fit together to create something fresh, and then you sat down and wrote your story again.
From beginning to end.
That was your “rewrite”.
And so now you have a second draft –yeah?
One on which I could recklessly gamble all my jellybeans is considerably more whole and coherent than your first?
One that is held together by at least one character and a singular conflict that is drawn through the pages from first to last?
Of course you do, because you're a diligent, industrious and determined go-getter!
Which, given you started from a point of nothing, is incredible progress.
Still – your story isn’t quite ready yet.
You now need to carry out a “revision” – not the same as a rewrite.
Meaning: you won’t have to completely write your story a second time.
For the revision, you will take your fleshed-out second draft and perform upon it the writing equivalent of a forensic autopsy.
That is, you will carry out a thorough, meticulous, close-up, analytical examination of your body of text, searching keen-eyed for inconsistencies and incontinuities, vagaries and blemishes, and any excess flabbiness that can be cut out or grafted elsewhere, and other such observations.
And it is accomplished in two editorial stages:
Depending in what kind of writer you are, speaking practically, in both the macrorevision and microrevision you will either be adding words, subtracting words, swapping words, or moving words around.
That, essentially, is what editing is.
While some writers are notorious for layering more and more words upon those already written, packing out scenes they deem sketchy and unclear or lacking in detail, preciously unable to let go of the babies they have birthed and keep birthing - others will be gleefully mercenary in killing their darlings.
But really, how much work is required will depend on where your story is at and what is needed, how finished or unfinished it is.
And that will differ from one project to the next.
In general, though, you will probably do both - add and subtract. And so should you learn to do so.
And the rest is just fine tuning.
And like writing itself, you will only get better with practice.
In the first instance, as with your rough first draft, and with all and any thereafter, you will of course need to read your story through several times and get to know it intimately, and as you do so, take notes, mental or otherwise, and ask yourself:
Does my story start in the right place?
Is the conflict set-up soon enough?
Is the story visible or too obscured?
Does each scene convey something revelatory to the narrative and/or about the principal character or characters?
Are some passages unnecessarily descriptive – others not enough?
Is there too much dialogue or not enough and what there is, does it provide appropriate information to carry the narrative in the right direction.
Is there a proportionate equilibrium between show and tell?
Is the setting appropriate?
Is the pace well-balanced and befitting of the story?
Now let’s take up a magnifying-glass and look at these points a little closer.
Almost invariably, short stories start in media res. That is, the reader finds themselves dropped into the middle of a pre-existing, untold narrative whose conclusion is still waiting up ahead in the unknowable future.
For example, the reader peeks in through a window on to the Dearlove’s marriage whose breakdown has long been simmering but just at that moment has reached boiling point, and now you glimpse teary Diana tiptoe on a teetering chair feeling for the revolver her husband keeps on top of the wardrobe.
Whilst your opening may not be this glaringly obvious nor hyperbolically dramatic, and if you haven’t already got it spot-on right, it is probable you will recognise some subtler triggering moment someplace in the second draft of your story.
At which you could either:
a) Cut out entirely all the paragraphs preceding it and by doing so find the narrative’s central conceit isn’t made any less certain, and neither is anything meaningful or important lost, and indeed you may see those deleted sentences are still somehow apparent in what remains, anyway.
b) Move the passage from its present place and insert it at the beginning of your story and leave most else exactly where it is – for now.
Or to put it simply, to hook your reader your conflict has to be established pretty damn quickly. Probably in the opening sentence or two. At least by the end of the first paragraph some hint of what will thrust your story forward should be shown.
The scenes that follow must then build on that opening, and follow a natural progression towards a resolution, likely to be some kind of change in your character.
If any passage seems to stick out awkwardly, uncomfortably, jarringly, first try moving it elsewhere. With copy & paste, if it doesn’t work, you can always move it back again, or move it somewhere else entirely.
If it still doesn’t work, perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be in there at all: every word, every sentence and paragraph must earn and justify its place in the narrative. If it doesn’t, delete it.
Next, ensure you are slowly and continuously developing your characters throughout the narrative, establishing who they are and why they do what they will do, revealing a little more about them with each new sentence.
If any sentence is not saying something, if it is not adding anything new or revelatory about your characters, if it is not driving your narrative forward, or if it is unnecessarily too-descriptive or is plodding and sluggish and slowing down the pace of your story - rework it.
And if you still cannot make it work, again, cut it out.
A story rarely suffers by making it more concise.
Now consider the setting.
Does the environment where your action take place agree with the tone of the scene? Does it cause a dissonant fluctuation in the narrative? A beautiful garden in full, colourful bloom is likely to be an incongruous place for a tempestuous disagreement. In real life, it is not difficult to imagine this happening. But in fiction, it offers nothing to the tension nor drama of a scene.
In literature, this is called a “pathetic fallacy”.
Now consider the narrative’s scales of Show and Tell. Some old-school fiction writing pedants will snap a quill if they notice even a single passage where the story is “told” rather than “shown”. But these days, a combination of both is acceptable practise - especially when writing a short story, where space is limited and a scene would suffer from being laboured.
After all, sometimes, summarising an event, particularly when it’s a flashback, is necessary to keep the narrative ticking along, and a long exposition of “showing” would serve only to drag the pace and bloat the story.
Striking the right balance is not, however, always obvious or straightforward, and sometimes you have to trial and test both to know.
Which provides a smooth segue into dialogue. For often, an exchange of dialogue can be a useful solution to telling over showing. Some event that happened in the past can be explained more succinctly through a verbal exchange, indeed propose the presence of a conflict more effectively, adding an element of tension and drama.
Remember, then, the function of dialogue is not for idle chit-chat. Dialogue in fiction has a very specific purpose.
Every word spoken must convey something meaningful about your character or your characters' relationship with one another and their past history or future expectations, the former of which is likely to inform and impact on the latter.
To ensure your dialogue sounds as realistic as fiction allows, read your story out loud. Better still, enlist the help of someone else, and each take a part, as though auditioning for a part in a stage production. You will instinctively hear what is clunky.
The final step in the macrorevision, is to ensure everything you want the reader to know is clear to see and understand, and not obscured by acutely nuanced, clever-clogs subtext.
While it is perfectly okay not to strive to explain everything and hence make your reader think a little bit for themselves, if your story is too vague and/or pretentiously over-symbolic, you will only cause them to scratch their head or claw their face in frustration and making them feel intellectually inadequate, or in the least curse you for wasting an hour of their lives which they will never get back.
If you can’t decide, or are unsure, get a friend to read it and insist on honest feedback.
And then listen, and take any criticism – any criticism – on the chin.
And cry only when they’ve gone home.
Before rallying and evaluating everything they said, now more objectively.
Once all of the above has been effected, your story will exist in its most structured, intelligible, living and breathing, exciting state so far.
And now it's all about scrutinising the tiny details – the tweaking and tinkering.
Line. By. Painstaking. Line.
Until your story is as lean and taut as a sixpack.
If then, for the macrorevision you looked at your story through a magnifying glass, for the microrevision, something more powerful is needed. For in the microrevision, you will need to look at your story at a celular level.
You start, as always, by reading your story out loud.
Listening for the easy flow of the sentences as you transition from one to the next.
You should hear a rhythm, a musicality, in your prose. It should sing a harmonious song in your ear. If you hear a clang, or it sounds a bum note, try reworking the order of the syntax, until you find the right structure to compliment the overall symphony.
Pay attention to the length of the pauses, indicating whether you have chosen the correct punctuation. Perhaps a comma will work better than a full stop here, increasing its fluidity. Or vice versa, inhibiting the drama, interrupting the pace.
If you find your tongue sounding sticky on any group of words, look out for gluey alliterations or an overuse of sibilants too closely compacted, and consider finding an alternative synonym that frees your tongue’s movement.
Notice the length of your sentences.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that good writing is a combination of both short and long sentences, organised just so.
Each narrative passage and scene should dictate its own order.
A succession of short, snappy little sentences will carry your narrative quickly along and create a thrilling tension of pace. While longer sentences might work better for descriptive writing, where a scene needs to be painted broadly and in detail.
If you suspect your story contains too-many too-long sentences, can you split any into two independent sentences? Or better still, can you reword any and say in 10 words what you have said in 20?
Economy is key.
Now check your metaphors. Do they work? Do they better illustrate what plain prose failed to?
Or are your metaphors clunky clichés? Have you seen them written a thousand times and more?
Remember, then, always try to describe something in a new and original way.
Now count all your adverbs and adjectives. Fewer the better. Too many is the sign of a lazy writer.
If you can replace any adverb for a better verb, or indeed replace a weak verb for a stronger one, then do.
For instance, rather than saying, Simon hit his brother hard - say instead, Simon belted his brother.
Rather than saying, It was an extremely hot day - say instead, It was a scorching day.
Likewise, keep to a minimum any speech modifiers. Unless the intent isn’t clear from the dialogue, a simple he said or she said will suffice every time.
Like this: “I beg you not to take me back to the hospital,” Simon said imploringly. Without imploringly, the reader will still infer Simon’s desperation well enough from what Simon said.
Ensure that your tense is consistent. If you are writing in the present tense, unless you describe a flashback and must necessarily switch to the past tense to differentiate one historical moment from the now of the narrative, see that it remains in the same throughout.
And the same goes for point of view. While you can be a little more flexible with a novel and change perspective from chapter to chapter, and on occasion even employ multiple viewpoints, if handled expertly – in a short story, it is probably best to keep to one character’s POV, either in first or third, to avoid any confusion and misunderstanding.
And last but not least: spelling.
There is nothing more certain to send you work to the reject pile than a series of glaring spelling mistakes on the first page. So run a spellcheck, or import your story into Grammarly and correct anything it flags up.
So if you have attended to and ticked off everything on this checklist, you will hold in your hands a beautiful, creative, awesome short story, when only a little while back, you had only blank pages and an aspiration.
You did it. Your're a winner.
But before you get carried away and go posting your shining ouvre to Inky Biros Literary Journal, put it away for 3 to 6 months. Then pull it out and give it one last going over with a clearer mind, ensuring you haven't missed something small or vital.
You have nothing to lose by being patient.
Besides, the truth of it is, any work of fiction will never seem truly finished to its author. The temptation is to go on tweaking it and tweaking it until your hair has turned grey and a careworker has given you a blanket for your knees.
The estimable American novelist and shorty story writer Richard Ford recently published his latest collection, Sorry For Your Trouble. In the one of the stories it is written: "She pressed her nose to the window, her glasses frames ticking the pane." This same story had been previously published in the New Yorker, but had read: "She put her nose to the window and ticked her glasses frames against the panes."
See what I mean? Even giants of literature remain eternally anxious about attaining the near-impossible attainment of producing the perfect short story, and will be lucky to turn out in their career one piece of work that will be widely acclaimed as a being a masterpiece.
But eventually, we all have to walk away and move on to the next story.
If you have been following this series of How To Write A Short Story blogposts, you will know I had used examples of my own work to help guide you through the writing process. To find out how the final draft looked, you can read the full story here: What The Fire Gives Back.
You're very welcome.
In the next Writing-Class Blog, I will provide some pointers to consider when submitting your work. As well as providing links to journals and short story competitions. To stay one step ahead and be the first to receive these, you can subscribe to The Writing-Class Blog.
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