Brutal Editing

Hello everyone!

So, you’ve written something and are ready to get it published. You have read and re-read your piece and are sure it’s worthy of being seen by readers, but is it?

Back in January, I entered WritersWeekly’s Winter 2017 24-Hour Short Story Contest. There were a lot of submission guidelines and a list of common themes to avoid; themes the judges had seen in so many submissions that they had become groan worthy. I read the submission guidelines and the list of common themes three times: before the prompt was posted, the day the prompt was released, and right before I submitted my short story. I was 100% certain that I had followed all of their instructions. I had worked hard and done research to make sure that my take on the prompt would be too original for anyone else to duplicate. It sounds vain, but I expected to win or at least get an honorable mention because the idea was so unlikely to be replicated. When the winners and honorable mentions were announced, my story was not listed. I was disappointed, but I have been to too many acting auditions to let it crush me. Competitions, like auditions, are subjective. You can do everything right and still not be chosen.

I read the list of common themes seen in the stories submitted for the Winter 2017 contest and was satisfied to see that my story did not contain any of those repeated themes. In that respect, my research paid off.

My thought was to post my short story on my blog so that others could see what I had done and get a feel for my writing style. I e-mailed my brother a copy of my short story and asked for his feedback. I know many people say you should never ask your family or friends to critique your writing; because, they will tell you it is wonderful to save your feelings, but my family is not like that. My family tells me what I did well, but they also tell me what confused them, where I have plot holes, or where they got bored. Then, they offer suggestions on how to make the weak parts stronger.

After he read my short story, my brother called me. When I asked if he thought it was ready for publication, he countered with, “What do you think of your story?” That made me stop and evaluate my story differently than I previously had. Up until my brother asked me that question, I had only focused on the originality of the idea, the accuracy of my research, and making sure that the ending wrapped things up nicely. When I started listing to my brother the things I was proud of, it suddenly struck me that the plot itself was not very compelling. The protagonist made a decision at the end of the story, but up until that point, she had passively let life happen to her. It is very boring to read about a passive rather than a proactive protagonist.

I was so focused on being different that I ignored perhaps the most crucial part of any story: the plot. My brother made some suggestions for how to rewrite the story so that the protagonist was taking a more active role in outside events or so that the conflict was all internal.

After our talk, I understood why my story had not been chosen. I also became more conscious of a tendency which I need to watch out for as a writer: I become so focused on details that I forget about the big picture.

When it comes to editing your own work, I have four pieces of advice:

  1. Unless you are participating in a 24-hour short story competition, put your writing away for a few days before you edit it. This break from your work will give you a fresh perspective on what you’ve written.
  2. Find someone to read over your work who you know will be honest with you. This person should be good at pointing out what you did well and at explaining why something needs to be improved.
  3.  Do not be defensive about your work. If you want to write something that is worthy of publication, you need to be willing to demolish and rebuild your story multiple times. Kick your ego to the curb and put your story’s interests before your own.
  4.  You can’t please everyone, so at least make sure you like what you wrote. Remember that writing is an art and, therefore, subjective. Have the wisdom to know when the feedback you receive reveals an issue with the plot, characters, or writing style and when the feedback is just the reader’s personal preference. I am part of a writing group and my rule is if half the group has the same question or issue, I need to make a change. If only one person has an issue, it is probably personal preference; I can use my own discretion and either reject the advice or make a change.

Good luck editing and happy writing!