First to Final:
Steps for Honing Your Short Story
By Margaret McGaffey
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
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
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
Reread the story yourself as if you found it in a magazine.
Think about the story. Can you identify the plot? Was the background
You may not be able to answer these questions
completely but should still ask them in case some problems are obvious.
Fix the plot or character problems you found yourself.
Check for typos, misused words or awkward phrasing. Here is where you
should check for overuse of "that," "was," ellipses and other traditional "do
Note I said overuse. None of the traditional
things to avoid are hideous when used correctly and sparingly.
Step Two: Get Some
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
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
* 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.
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.
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.
Copy the general comments into a separate file.
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.
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.
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."
In your general comments file, organize the comments by topic.
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.
Make your changes based on the general comments in your "d" story file.
Save that version then save again as "e."
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.
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.
Go through your marks and fix minor errors, typos, and the like, which
involve minimal decision-making.
Take a walk, watch a television program, read for a little or whatever
you do to step away from the story.
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