Updated: Mar 27, 2019
Saying that we like short stories because they are short is an understatement. An absurdity. The wackiest of lies that we can tell ourselves. Ever read a story that felt like an emotional body-slam? Reeling, you read it again, again, again. Same with the stories that thrill us, hypnotize us—we like them because they are luscious, dense with sentences that ooze and words that keep them moving. The best short stories keep us hostage.
How does a freshly written story achieve this appeal? It begins with an edit.
Fact: short stories are easy to write
I wrote my first short story in the 5th grade. It had robots, aliens and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, my teacher made me write it.
Opinion: writing a short story for publication is an arduous affair
Forming the idea is the easiest step; writing the first draft is the second easiest step. And sometime before you try to get it published, you must comb through the nasties and shape it into a more developed piece. Creativity alone doesn’t make a strong writer; having the ability to edit your work is what will elevate your writing to a publishable level.
Fact (probably): Faulkner’s first draft of As I Lay Dying was rife with errors and inconsistencies
Remember that pointer about revision being more than editing… well, I’m here to tell you that editing and revising do in fact cross but it’s better to view them as separate practices. Revision is a rewrite. Editing is a procedure. Both are important, but there is little space to mishandle editing in your short story.
Oh, and there are different stages of editing since the single word isn’t enough:
• Line editing is a sentence by sentence inspection of how your style & content serves the story
• Copyediting looks at grammar, usage, accuracy, and consistency
• Proofreading double-checks mechanics and formatting
All three form comprehensive editing—it’s what book publishers do before they publish your material. For productivity’s sake, we’ll focus on line editing and copyediting, in appliance to your craft. Proofreading—as an industry practice—gets the short stick.
When to Edit
After your first draft, then again following revision. Editing before you finish the narrative will likely cause distractions, and the prospect of your story ending will shrink to cursor-thinness as you scan the page. Same goes for revision.
Having to stop and fix every they’re, their, there while trying to expand your characters’ complexities is counter-productive. Part of being an editor is being able to distance yourself enough from your story to make these quick fixes in one go so that you can concentrate on the critical reworking.
Recommended: print your story and read it aloud. Get ready to mark the page.
Prelude to Revision
Think of line editing as a developmental strategy for revision.
It will help you think about the macro-vision of a story (themes, character arcs, conflict, etc.) by focusing on the micro-unit: the sentence. Not only how your sentence establishes character, tension, tone, and atmosphere, but how well your language communicates what the sentence is trying to set up. What this does is improve clarity, influence plot progression, refine dialogue, and fine-tune narrative voice, among other particulars.
This is where you make notes in the margins or add comment bubbles if using a computer. My notes look like this:
Run-on sentence, restructure
Information is repetitive/has already been said or shown
Dialogue/paragraph can be tightened
Confusing scene; choppy transitions; action is flat
Unwanted shift in tone
Narrative digression…is this necessary?
What purpose does this character even serve?
If you’re having someone else critique your work, they are more-or-less doing this, but they aren’t changing your sentences for you. In other words, fix what is obvious—omitting a sentence that has no place—but for the more constructive bits, such as dialogue, mark your edits and leave the changes for revision.
Line editing is a bulky stage. Here are other considerations before you jump into revision:
Destroy cliché: make your phrase original, describe images with the uniqueness of a memory
Show, don’t tell us how to feel: instead of stating that your protagonist is depressed, give them a blanket to hide under before they emerge into daylight, only to return to their blanket…
Tell, don’t say how: make a character’s emotion evident in their dialogue, rather than adding dialogue tags or adverbs (he growled, she said angrily)
Trim the extraneous: remove filler words and don’t abuse metaphors
Expand conflict: exchange five paragraphs of world-building for five of brooding tension
Activate your voice: overuse of the verb “to be" can muddy any narrative; look for instances of "was," "is," "would be," and replace those with an action verb or remove if unnecessary
You can develop your story in a multitude of ways by paying attention to the micro-units of your writing. Line editing will not only improve your given story, it will boost your craft and make you more conscious of the macro-elements of fiction.
Hello Grammar, My Old Friend
Copyediting is the more technical stage of editing. Think of it as a corrective process, as it:
Corrects spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax
Ensures internal consistency, i.e. narrative continuity
Checks the legitimacy of factual statements and tags historical inaccuracies
Looks for logistical flaws in a scene, i.e. poor character placement
While the technical demands of copyediting might seem like too much, know that you can still harness this stage for story development. You’ll also find that many copyediting issues can be solved through line editing, so remember to mark those margins!
Take grammar; for example, we touched on activating your voice. Why is this an important change?
The passive voice produces action that is indirect. It shushes the urgency of your writing, overall limiting the degree of conflict in your story. The active voice gives your writing execution. If the subject of your sentence performs an action, let them, don’t steal their agency.
Ex. The cat was scared when the dog snarled and showed its razor-sharp teeth, snapping fiercely to protect the injured bird.
Is better written:
The dog snarled and showed its razor-sharp teeth, snapping fiercely at the cat and scaring it away from the injured bird.
Activating your voice promotes syntax and inspires you to maintain the movement of your sentence.
Give similar attention to adverbs. Using too many of these modifiers means that you are telling, not showing. Adverbs, when used efficiently, create seamless writing that stresses or clarifies. Those that modify verbs (the -ly words) or adjectives (“very” strange) burden description. Once you remove the adverb from your sentence, you have more creative room for active content.
Ex. The dog snarled and snapped its serrations at the cat, dispatching it from the injured bird in a panic.
Do this in your story and you’ll be surprised at how you can alter your grammar—even your punctuation—to improve the narrative.
Book publishers use their own copyeditors who rely on accuracy over creative wit, proving that this stage should not be overlooked, especially if you choose to self-publish, or if you have your sights set on magazine submission.
Unfortunately, not all of us are master linguists, though you needn’t be. If historically accuracy is a worry of yours, or if grammatical case really boggles you, you can always find copyediting services online. Or ask other writers. Collective thinking is better suited for bewilderment, copyediting included.
And because we want you to succeed, here’s a helpful guide to grammar and punctuation that WE ALL NEED.
Where Do I Go From Here?
After a successful line edit, you can now target the macro-elements of your story. Going into revision, think about what you are trying to do with your story. What’s the purpose of the story? Not the reason behind why you are writing it, but why you feel it needs to be written in this way—what you are trying to show through character, conflict, setting, tone.
If you are worried about sharing a messy story with your friend/editor and haven’t had time for a copyedit, at least do a light proofread, checking for spelling and obvious mechanics. Before you submit a story for submission, ensure that your manuscript is up to submission standards (font type size, file format, etc.). That’s the extent of proofreading for you.
Make your story juicy. Know that there is more than one way to tell a story, but you’ve decided to tell it this way. And you have your edits to support it.