Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

From First to Final:
Steps for Honing Your Short Story

By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2004, Margaret McGaffey Fisk


Short stories require tight ideas that can be told in approximately one-to-five scenes.  For science fiction and fantasy, this is complicated by the need to provide a sense of the distinctive properties separating the story world from real life.  Most writers accomplish this effect by using familiar fantasy or science fiction motifs around one unique idea.

A short story, because of its length, can be written relatively quickly; however, what most writers produce in that short time is a rough draft.  Therefore, the critical element in short story writing is often the edit process.

My edit process, detailed below, can span several months or a few short weeks depending on deadlines.

Step One: Do Your Initial Edit

This is a crucial step because simple errors, such as using "with" instead of "will" for example, can confuse your critiquers and make it harder for them to focus on places where you truly need their help.  You want to avoid asking for help with obvious rough drafts because they create a poor impression, indicating that you either do not care enough or cannot do better. Neither will help you in the long run.  This is especially important with online critique groups where professional writers and editors could see your work.

There is another benefit of taking the time to make your story as good as you can before soliciting feedback. If you can make the reviewing process fun for your reviewers, they will look for more of your work.

1.                Reread the story yourself as if you found it in a magazine.

2.                Think about the story.  Can you identify the plot?  Was the background clear?

You may not be able to answer these questions completely but should still ask them in case some problems are obvious.

3.                Fix the plot or character problems you found yourself.

4.                Check for typos, misused words or awkward phrasing.  Here is where you should check for overuse of "that," "was," ellipses and other traditional "do nots."

Note I said overuse.  None of the traditional things to avoid are hideous when used correctly and sparingly.

Step Two: Get Some Feedback

I strongly recommend getting someone else to read your short stories.  The short story market is difficult both because the competition is steep and because there are very few well-paying markets for short works.  Whether you are a new writer or one with several publishing credits, getting feedback on at least some of your stories keeps you aware of bad habits you may have, whether old or new ones.  Your story only has one chance with each editor you send it to, with rare exceptions, so you should do your best to polish before you submit it.

Even an experienced writer can miss things in her own work.  The mind fills in concepts or changes words before they get to your conscious awareness.  Though getting and giving critiques may seem a big drain on your time, that story only has six-to-ten top markets, and if an editor receives it with glaring errors, there is little chance it will stand out among the other three hundred or more received that month.

A quick word on critiquing:

Especially for short story writing, critiquing others' work, that of both those starting on the path and those at or above your current skill level, is an excellent way to recognize weaknesses in your own writing.  You can improve your skill more by critiquing than by receiving critiques.  Though the critiques may help that particular story, what you learn while critiquing others can improve all stories to come and even older stories that are given new life through an edit pass.

I would recommend a writing group, whether in person or online, when you seek comments.  Though you might receive some harsh critiques that bruise your ego, it is better to hear the comments from a critiquer than an editor.  A single, detailed, if harsh, critique received before submission is worth its weight in gold.  When you open that hoped for but dreaded SASE, the words "did not stand out" or "did not hold my interest" give little information to aid you in resolving the problems.  You are equally unlikely to get a detailed and in-depth critique from those close to you because, whatever their intentions, they do not want to hurt you.  Therefore, seeking a group of writers to give you an initial review is optimal.

Finally, to receive critiques, you often must give them in advance.  Not everyone will return your efforts or return them promptly so expect to do two-to-three critiques for every one you need.  My preference is to receive four-to-five critiques per story.  Too few and it is difficult to tell a critiquer's personal bias from a true problem with the story.  One person might have missed a clue, but if everyone else saw it easily, the first might have skimmed.  Too many critiques and implementing changes can become so overwhelming you shelve the story not because it is lacking, but because you cannot face the necessary work. 

Step Three: Use the Feedback to Craft Your Final Version

Note: This process is an electronic-only edit, though the steps can be modified for use with a paper copy.

A few things to remember before you reread the stack of feedback you have received:

*      Everything written there is about a single story and does not reflect on your past, current or future work beyond that piece.

*      Each reviewer can only provide opinions.  It is up to you to agree with an opinion and implement a change, or reject it.  A word of caution, however: rejecting changes because you do not like them, or because fixing them would be too much work, may result in a weaker, potentially unpublishable story.  There are also those opinions that, while they do not resonate with you now, you cannot quite throw away.  Those you should keep in a separate pile for later review.  You may not be strong enough a writer yet to appreciate what that person said but you are in the process of improving and may be able to use the feedback later.

*      You do not have to make all the suggested changes.  This is critical enough to emphasize.  You must keep your initial vision in mind as you revise and only adopt those suggestions that work toward your vision of the short story.

And finally, on to the edit.

I have a specific series of steps I follow that have allowed me to significantly improve stories, sometimes taking them from 1st or 2nd draft to final in one sitting.  I recently had a short story accepted after a marathon effort using this technique to get it edited and in before the deadline.

1.                Choose appropriate music.  Not everyone requires this step, but I use music to focus.  Cat Stevens and Deidre McCalla are my current short story writing artists.  When they come out of the speakers, my mind pushes away novels and other concepts in favor of short stories.

2.                Read all the feedback.  This step puts the comments you have received at the top of your mind so when you actually approach the story itself, you are already thinking of ways to resolve the issues.

3.                Copy the general comments into a separate file.

4.                Implement line edits using some form of edit tracking, whether Microsoft Word's redlining or putting them in another font color.  This is how you should make all changes through this process.

5.                Save the modified copy with a date stamp and "b" to indicate it is the first version with changes then save again as "c" for the copy you will work on next.  This allows you to go back a step at any time if you change your mind and reduces your lost work should the file become corrupt.

6.                Read the redlined file and accept or reject each line edit change.  Sometimes multiple line edit suggestions will be made for one section.  This is when you choose between them.  Save the file with accepted line changes and then save again labeled with a "d."

7.                In your general comments file, organize the comments by topic.

8.                Review the organized general comments and select which ones to follow based on how they resonate with your story vision.  Also, make notes on how you plan to address those you agree with and mark those you plan not to implement.

9.                Make your changes based on the general comments in your "d" story file.  Save that version then save again as "e."

10.           Accept all changes so that no edit marks remain on the story and then save.  This is a little more complicated when not using Word's redlining, but you may be able to search for the font color to ensure you've found them all.

11.           Read the clean, changed copy aloud, marking the text whenever you stumble or get confused.  Reading aloud helps distance you from what you thought you wrote and focus on what really appears on the page.

12.           Go through your marks and fix minor errors, typos, and the like, which involve minimal decision-making.

13.           Take a walk, watch a television program, read for a little or whatever you do to step away from the story.

14.           Read it over one more time and fix or reject all the changes you made.

Step Four: Submit for a Critique or to a Market

Your edit is done.  You have made the story as good as it can be based on your current skill level and the feedback you have received.  Now you can choose to submit to a market or, if your changes were significant, send it through for another round of critiques.  Either way, your story has advanced several drafts and should be closer to, or at, publishable status.