Editing short fiction (or any writing for that matter) requires an objective eye and some brave decision making. It can be a very different experience to that inspirational rush of a first draft, but editing is often where the magic really starts to happen — when you find out what your story is actually about, hone it down to its most necessary parts, and make it stronger, tighter, and more meaningful.
Editing is also where we grow the most as writers. Allowing ourselves to learn from previous drafts and recognise what works — and what needs more work — is such an important part of developing our craft. Possibly even more so when it comes to flash or short fiction, when we only have a brief few hundred or thousand words to get in, get out, and get that story told.
So, here are five ways to strengthen your short fiction as you edit:
#1. Check your structure
Assuming you have some sort of first draft under your belt, your story should already have some sort of structure. Short stories and flash fiction come in many forms and can be extremely flexible and experimental when it comes to structure. Your story might have a circular shape, returning to where it began — or perhaps it’s a kind of list, or a fragmented collection of puzzle pieces, or made of several interwoven threads. Maybe it focuses on a brief, singular moment or spans an entire lifetime.
Whatever you choose, your structure needs to complement and enrich the subject and themes of your story. You may have already found the right kind of structure in writing your first draft, in which case, great! Use it as a template to strengthen and hone the foundations of your story as you edit. Or you may not have decided on the right strucure yet, in which case, great! Now’s the time to experiment and play with different ways of presenting your story, now you have the bare bones down. Editing can be just as creative as a first draft when you realise you’re not tied to anything yet, and you can plenty of room to have fun with it!
Read Surreal Portraits of the Future Us by Matt Kendrick — an effective use of future tense and a clever reverse countdown that progresses (backwards) five whole years.
#2. Check your pace
A great short story pulls us forward with a sense of urgency and tension. Of course, that doesn’t always mean things have to be fast-paced or action-packed — it could simply be the hint of a secret to be revealed, or a growing sense of unrest. The promise of a discovery or payoff at the end.
While editing your story, look for the peaks and troughs of pace; see where you can hone things down and cut any meandering fluff or filler; think about rhythm and recurring motifs and how they might help drive your narrative onward. Use cause and effect to ensure that every section, paragraph — and even every line — draws the reader inexorably forward. (Top tip: reading aloud can really help to get a sense of your pace!)
In Self-Portrait as Everything You’re Not by Jasmine Sawers the overwhelming pile-up of micro-aggressions and pressure eventually reaches breaking point — and a beautiful sense of breaking-free. [Content warning: racism, self harm]
#3. Check your tone
Narrative voice is one of the most powerful tools in short fiction, especially since you have such a short amount of time to immerse your reader in the world and atmopshere of your story. Tone can also help to deepen your characterisation, quicken up that pace (see #2) and give your piece its own unique style.
Think about what kind of feelings you’re trying to convey in your story — frustration, hope, yearning, fear, awe, resentment — and how your word choices and phrasing might reflect them. Who is telling the story? A character in first person? An omniscient narrator in third person? A direct-to-reader second person perspective? How might a switch in POV or tense change the tone of the piece? Once again: it’s time to play, experiment, and explore your options during the editing process.
For example: Going for a Beer by Robert Coover has a strong narrative voice and a stream-of-consciousness style with an unreliable narrator to boot, leaving us never quite sure what’s true or happening now or in the past.
#4. Check your efficiency
In short fiction, efficiency is your best friend. You have a very limited time to tell a story so you need to ‘arrive late and leave early’ AKA get in, get out, without lengthy exposition or neat tying up of threads. White space (eg: the transitions between scenes, or jumps between moments or ideas) is just as important as the words you put down. See how much you can leave out, and let the reader connect the dots, leap the gaps, and find meaning in the act of unravelling the story. Set yourself a word limit (or pick a submission opportunity that imposes one for you!) and try to cut out anything that isn’t working in service of the story, line by line, word by word.
Tock by Chauna Craig is a wonderful example of how character reactions speak louder than words or description. There’s so much that’s not being said here…
#5. Check your subtext
Here at Writers’ HQ we talk a lot about the Fundamental Nugget of Human Truth as a vital ingredient in any story — i.e. what your story is really about, underneath. In short fiction this may manifest as subtext or as some sort of shift or turn in the narrative: a discovery or revalation, a change in tone or direction, a deeper understanding of a character or situation. Eg: in Tock there’s a (literal) simmering undertone of resentment beneath the surface and a tangible ‘shift’ when the husband notices her missing ring.
Or read this frankly stunning story by Gwen E. Kirby: Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway for truths that span thousands of years. [Content warning: sexual assault]
And then see if you can identify the fundamental human truth and/or subtext in each of the story examples above.
Editing short fiction is all about getting to the core of your story and finding the right balance of clarity and subtlety. A solid structure helps you frame and build your story in the most effective way. The right pace keeps your reader engaged and on their toes. A well-crafted narrative voice imbues your story with personality and atmosphere. Telling your story as efficiently as possible keeps it tight and concise. And ensuring your piece has some sort of truth, subtext, or ‘shift’ provides deeper meaning for your reader to uncover.
But most importantly: don’t be afraid to experiment! Use the tips above and find your own tricks along the way. Editing is a process, and sometimes it’s more about what feels right for your story.
- Structure Flash Fiction: Beginnings, Endings, and the Soggy Bit in the Middle
- Writing Strong Flash Fiction