Editing Tips for Short Stories

The editing hand at work

The looming hand of editing at work

I’ve been trying to write this Last Line Story for a while now and as I want to enter it into a competition it has to be of a certain word count; 1,500-1,700 to be exact. My previous draft, which I was mostly happy with – having identified my key scenes – was just over 2,200 words. So – how to trim it down to get my story across within the word limit?

Here’s a few things I changed in order to dispose of over 500 words:

1 – Dialogue Tags
I never have more than two people talking at any one time during the story. So, I trimmed down some of the lines where I explained who was talking – I think my readers are intelligent enough to work this out in a short conversation.

2 – Explanations
On the same vein of having intelligent readers, rather than tell them my character was reticent and insular, I let her actions do the talking: ‘I stared down at the stitching on my handbag’; ‘I pulled my handbag further into my lap’; ‘I nodded, lips pressed together’.
I feel this gives a much stronger impression of how my protagonist is feeling, creating atmosphere and imagery that a simple ‘telling’ sentence could not do.

3 – Unnecessary Themes
In my original attempts I had this vision of my protagonist waiting. She was waiting for something to happen, when really she was the one who needed to act. As I drafted further this theme became watered down and, now, doesn’t really seem to hold the place it once did. So, I scrapped it.
If I were writing a longer piece, it may have been further developed, but as I’m limited in my word count I couldn’t create the necessary longevity that this idea of ‘waiting’ really needed. I discarded at least three sentences where this was the only reason for their inclusion.

4 – Delete a Character
Originally I had three people in story – the mother, the daughter and the daughter’s girlfriend. It was the conversation between Mum and the girlfriend that I was finding really difficult to keep short and yet meaningful. My problem, I came to realise, was that the character of the girlfriend was taking up too much room.
In such a short piece I couldn’t justify the reasoning for the girlfriend’s position. She was a tool to help the mother come to an understanding about her daughter – but there would be a much easier way to do this by cutting the significance of a girlfriend and bringing in a walk-in character that needed no name: another mother, who provides my protagonist with a leaflet entitled ‘Acceptance’ (the main driver for the story).
In a story less than 2,000 words long, three characters was too much for the topic to handle: so I had to be creative and replace one of my secondary characters with something that could do the same, but didn’t need as much explanation.

5 – Cut Repetition
I am guilty of repeating the same thing over and over again. It’s because I’ve been trained in teaching – you prepare them for what you want them to know, tell them what they need to know and then remind them what you’ve told them. This strategy does not work so well in short stories.

Here’s a section of the story where I cut dialogue tags, unnecessary theme (Father) and repetition:

TEXT BEFORE EDIT – 146 words

I just want you to be a responsible adult, someone your father could be proud of.”

That was my mistake; bringing her father into it. We had both adored David and losing him had been hard on us both. Instead of grieving together we had been pulled apart.

Dad would be proud of me. I bet he’d understand. He’d love me no matter what. Not like you.” She screamed at me.

It was a common point of contention; Emma putting one set of words into David’s mouth, me another.

How dare you,” I spat, “your father would be ashamed, just like I am.”

Emma reeled back as though I had struck her. In many ways, I had. David was an ideal, someone to aspire to. We both used him to further our own cause, I didn’t realise until later that I had taken it too far.

Now, note the differences:

TEXT AFTER EDIT – 95 words

I just want you to be a responsible adult, someone your father could be proud of.”

Dad would be proud of me. I bet he’d understand. He’d love me no matter what. Not like you.”

How dare you,” I spat, “your father would be ashamed, just like I am.”

Emma reeled back as though I had struck her. In many ways, I had. We had both adored David, and losing him had pulled us apart. It was my mistake to bring him into this argument, to hurt her with words that were not his own.


It’s not easy to go through my own work and critique it – although I have at least reached the point in my writing where I can now easily admit that the first draft is utter rubbish, but that there is some kernel of good in there also. There is a fine balance between consistently believing that what I write isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and understanding that each sentence has some worth, some meaning that can be eked out and shortened for better reading.

In the example above, without that first section I wouldn’t have come to realise the importance David, the father, played and how the two characters feel about him and use the memory of him to further their own arguments. But, at the same time, the reader doesn’t need to know all the ins and outs of this: the last  paragraph of my final piece summarises it enough for my reader to understand this fragile relationship.

Finally, I think I am getting the hang of editing – nothing will ever be perfect, and I could criticise myself a thousand times over but at some point I have to send my words out into the world and see how they fare. I feel short story writing is a good way of practising this and also gives me something to focus on that is relatively quick to be finished.


7 responses to “Editing Tips for Short Stories

  1. Pingback: Have you reviewed your writing goals? | Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer

  2. Pingback: Small Victories | The struggle to be a writer that writes

  3. Pingback: Brief Soujourn | The struggle to be a writer that writes

    • Thanks doll! It took a few drafts, but finally I feel like I understand what to edit in order to improve the writing. Your own posts and advice have played their part!
      Take Care, Cat x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s