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Thursday, November 04, 2021

Tips for Revising a Short Story (Again)

I read recently that after several rounds of submitting and being rejected that if you can't bring yourself to re-read a short story of yours after all that then it's likely time to put it out to pasture. (I'm sure the same thing applies to novels). The idea is that if you can't even look at your story again, it might be a sign to let it go.

After many many rounds of submissions, I decided to go back and re-read a couple of short stories of mine for a fresh look. I had gotten to the point where I couldn't convince myself that I just wasn't finding the right literary magazines. And I did, and I took a few approaches in my revision process that I wanted to share, in case you are in the same boat as me:

1) Cut, cut, cut.

In one short story, I went from 2,800 to 2,000 words. I was inspired to do because of a literary magazine that was running a particular theme that fit my story, but it was only accepting stories under 2,000 words. At first, I didn't think I'd see anything to cut, but after going through it, I found a few scenes that I could eliminate completely.

The cool thing about doing a significant word cut like this is that it gets you to be creative about how to keep the scenes you do want, and it prioritizes what exactly you are trying to say in your story.

2) Eliminate characters.

In a couple of different stories, I decided to eliminate side characters that had been in the first few drafts. It's not like I didn't want the characters in there, but I realized that the dialogue would be tighter and less confusing if I kept the character count down. So, I cut them out and put the little dialogue they had with other characters I had kept.

I find that the best short stories I've read (and written) don't feature a huge cast of characters. You really don't have a lot of room for a bunch of characters if you write short stories anyway, so if your story is struggling to get to a publishable state, consider eliminating characters that don't add anything of value.

3) Give it time.

I'm a huge fan of giving myself a break from my own stories. I recently went back to a short story I thought of completely getting rid of, but it turned out to be far better than I remembered. I tweaked the structure a bit, tightened up the grammar, and it's now back in the submission cycle. I have much more hope for it now than I did before. As for some others, I did a round of revisions and will likely give it a month or so before revising it again.

If you have stories you haven't looked at in a while, dig them up again and read them with fresh eyes. You may be surprised at how salvageable they are. However, if you are knee-deep in the revision process, take time away.

4) Save each new version you create.

There is a beauty to our first drafts, even when they are terrible. I think the first drafts represent a rawness that gets polished through the revision process. While that polishing process improves our stories, when too much revision happens, I think we do more damage than good. So if you have gotten to the point where you are certain that nothing could be done further to a story you wrote, go back to the first draft (if you have it). Read what you wrote then, and you may be struck by how different your story feels. Yes, the plot may be weak, characters shallow, and spelling and grammar poor, but you may uncover what story you were really trying to say in that first attempt. A story that may have been lost throughout the revision process.

We all have stories that we have to retire from the submission process, even if that retirement means they sit in our digital file for many years. As time goes on, though, I'm convinced even these retired stories are salvageable. Sometimes we see something in them we didn't before. At the bare minimum, they may spark a brand new idea. With any luck, as you bravely look at the story you are about to give up on, you will see it in a new light, and polish it up again, ready for literary battle.


  1. Great post, Nicole! An exercise I like to try when a piece isn't working is to cut it in half. It definitely helps you see what's important and if you can use the empty spaces to fill in the entire story. That is so hard for me, but the key to great flash.

    I was thinking about a creative nonfiction I just wrote and there are two "characters" who get lost in it. I'd love to cut them out, but they were there. But I've also heard writers will often create composite characters. Gone Girl comes to mind, where the book had several characters combined into one because the run time in films is so short compared to books.

    I save my drafts! I'm going to have to purchase icloud storage if I keep saving them all. Lol.

    Nice ending to your post! I hope your story revision process is going well. :)

  2. Nicole--"Ready for literary battle." I love that phrase. All your tips are good. Good for writers who have never seen them, as well as good reminders for the rest of us.

  3. I think these are great tips for revision, Nicole. I'm the exact opposite and have a bad habit of writing short pieces, submitting them, and then letting them fall by the wayside instead of ever going back to them! Come to think of it, I'm that way with novel drafts, too. I'm glad you don't neglect your work like I do mine!


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