Shovelling Through The Shit: How To Edit A Short Story

A giraffe in South Africa

Have I got a doozy for you.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

0. Finish the goddamned thing. Seriously. Get a proper draft before you start editing. Otherwise you’re trying to decorate a cake that hasn’t been baked yet. Best you might get is an icing-batter slurry. Which might be delicious—no arguments on that front—but you’ll find hard to sell.

1. Read it over. Start to finish, one pass if you can. Just reading for now. Note how it flows or doesn’t. At this point, it’s far more likely to be ‘doesn’t’. Try not to wince.

2. Get a drink. Not strictly necessary, but it makes it hurt less.

3. Take it apart. Read it again, this time with your trusty red pen/comment function/trained marmoset editor at the ready. make lots of notes this time. Dig into that thing like it’s a pile of giraffe shit with a diamond buried at the bottom. Which, in a sense, it is: there’s a gem in there that you’re trying to release, but it’s buried in crap. How much crap depends on how clean a draft you produced out of the gate, but mind this: there will always be some crap. Always.

3b. Re-outline. Again, not strictly necessary, especially for short fiction, but if you have a tangled ball of plot yarn on your hands, sometimes re-outlining can help straighten it out. Get the real story in mind so you have an idea of what to cut and what to keep.

4. Put it aside. I like to let my notes age for a day or two before starting on the actual editing. Sometimes you don’t have time for this, and that’s all that can be done. But if I can, I set it aside and work on something else. Think of it as a palate cleanser.

5. Get your machete and hammer. Metaphorical ones. Or real ones, if the urge takes you. I’m not judging. The point is, now it’s time to wade in and start making the changes. Your brain machete is for cutting, your brain hammer is for rebuilding. I split the window into two panes, one with the original, marked up copy and one with a blank document. And then I start typing. Every word and line has to prove its worth before it’s allowed to stay. It can be a slow process, no denying that, but it usually produces a good product.

6. Put it aside again. Yup. Again.

7. Read it again. Evaluate how you did. Does it need more serious work? If so, head back to step two and repeat the process. Does it need only a few line edits to be ready? Move on to step eight.

8. Spit and polish. Go through it one more time and make sure all the commas, capitals, names, and the other assorted minutia of the written language are in their proper places. Use your eyes, not spell check. Tip for those of us who find it hard to spot mistakes when reading: go through it backwards. It makes you look at each letter. This is what I do.

9. Get another drink. This time for congratulations. You just edited the crap out of that motherfucker. Celebrate.

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