Writing a short story is difficult, but there's a special learning curve that comes with how to edit a short story. Even though there is a small word count, where do you start?
The editing process might not be your favorite part of the writing process (or maybe it is!), but it's a necessary one.
Editing your short story can push the story idea into a whole new arena, which will make it more likely to grab a reader, whether or not that's a fellow writer, editor, or writing contest judge.
In this article, I’ll take you through the step-by-step process of editing a short story. I'll share the step-by-step process you should use to break down your editing phase into manageable chunks and what to focus on with each editing pass.
Editing Isn't Fun, but It's Necessary
Editing is my least favorite part of writing. It’s overwhelming and often tedious. I’ve known a lot of “new” writers who just flat out refuse to edit any parts of a story after they finish writing—let alone an entire story.
They might look for spelling mistakes or typos, but change nothing about the story structure or prose. I’ve watched those same writers try to get published and get rejection after rejection. Until they learn the necessity of editing.
Only after editing do they get published.
Writing is fun. Well, writing the first draft is fun. It’s an exercise in creative freedom. You’re excited about the story. It takes overtakes you and flies you away. It’s an exhilarating feeling. Play with that. Experiment. Let your characters and your world run wild.
But the point of writing, at least for most writers, is for someone to read the story. And preferably, like the story.
You’re writing for readers.
I know that takes the artsy-ness of writing away, but it’s the truth. The sooner you come to terms with that, the sooner you’ll be able to edit your work for those readers’ enjoyment and get published.
Finish the First Draft, Then Take a Break
We’ve talked about writing the first draft in one sitting. That’s a must, in my book, especially if the story is under five thousand words.
After the story is written, take a break. This is also a must in my book. You have to shift your brain’s focus from writer mode to editor mode. The only way to do that is to get away from your story for a while.
Put the story away and out of your mind for at least a couple of days. I recommend a three-day hiatus at this stage. That’s just enough for you to forget what you wrote and why you wrote it that way, but not enough time to lose interest in the story. Putting it away for a couple of weeks will cause the excitement to wan, so avoid that if possible.
Don’t look at it. Don’t edit it. Don’t even think about it.
Read a book, get some sleep, or work on another story. Fight the urge to edit right away!
The goal here is to come back to the story not caring (as much) about your characters or that pretty line of description you wrote. You’re coming back with a hacksaw, ready to do some damage. Hearts need not attend.
Tackle the Big Picture
You’ve had a break and hopefully you’ve forgotten why you loved this specific turn of phrase or that overlong description. Now you’re going to get brutal. You’re going to cut, add, and rearrange with all the mercy of a general on a battlefield.
First thing: make sure your story is a story!
When I first started writing shorts, it was all nonsense. Halfway decent prose, but utter nonsense. There was no point. There was no character development. There was no climax. In short, I hadn’t written a story at all.
A short story is different from a novel. You don’t have time to ramble. But a short story is still a story and needs to read like one. It must contain all the elements I mentioned mine lacked. It must have structure. (Remember the six elements?) And it must have a beginning, middle, and end.
Sounds like a lot, right? Try these steps to tackle this stage of editing:
Read through your story like a reader. That means from beginning to end, straight through. Don’t take notes. Don’t worry about commas. At this stage, you’re looking to see if you think the story is good.
Okay, there is a high possibility that you hate your story after step one. That’s completely normal. You do not suck as a writer. First drafts (and second drafts, and sometimes third drafts) are nowhere near perfect. They’re not supposed to be. Don’t give up now. You can fix what you don’t like. Move on to step two.
Read through as an editor.
Get out that red pen. It’s time to make those pages bleed. If you didn’t like something in your story when you put on your reader hat, figure out what you didn’t like.
Was a bit of dialogue weird? Did it lag and bore you in a certain spot? Was the ending too abrupt? Was this character’s action unbelievable? Is there a character arc? (Is something different for your character at the end than how they started in the beginning?) Is the story an actual story (does it have all the elements of plot)?
Make those notes, but remember, you’re still not worrying about commas and spelling. You’re looking at higher-level concepts.
Make sure your story has all six elements of plot. Make notes of each element in the margins of your story. Are they all there?
If not, you’ve got to get them all in there. If they are there, are they approximately where they need to be? (The inciting incident isn’t coming in at the fifty percent mark, for example.) If they’re not, things need to be shifted, and that could mean cutting scenes or adding scenes.
This is a structural edit. Don’t get bogged down in pretty prose or amazing descriptions. You’re making the bones of this story work right now.
Fleshing out comes later.
Once you’ve got the big chunks taken care of and things are starting to shape up into something that resembles a solid story, you can move on to smaller edits.
Look at the Small Picture
I still consider this stage to be part of the second draft, but some would call it a third.
You’ve rewritten, cut, added, and restructured your first draft at this point. Now you’re going to look at some prose and rework that.
Some things to think about at this stage:
- Is the dialogue believable? I highly recommend reading the dialogue aloud. This is by far the fastest way to catch something that sounds lame or unbelievable.
- Are the descriptions well-written? Are there any spots descriptions need added or cut? Remember, since this is a short story, the descriptions aren’t going to go on for paragraphs, but the reader should still be centered in the setting and be able to picture what’s happening.
- Are details consistent? Check your timeline, any locations, descriptions of characters, any backstory hints, etc. I once wrote a short story where my main character punched a wall and broke his hand and then it was never mentioned again. Apparently, he miraculously healed two sentences later and went about his life like nothing had ever happened. Don’t make that mistake.
- Are you writing in active voice? Not only does writing in active voice make for better writing, it also helps you keep to tight word counts. Writing in passive voice adds a ton of extra words. Take these sentences, for example:
- Active voice: Haley shut the door.
- Passive voice: The door was shut by Haley.
See how the passive voice example adds a couple of words (those couple of words will add up if you consistently use passive voice) and sounds kind of wonky? There are times when passive voice is perfectly fine to use, but try to stick with active voice as much as possible.
After you’ve looked at the details, you’ve got a pretty solid second draft. But you’re still not done!
Get Feedback on Your Short Story
Yes, you need to show your work to someone.
Specific and honest feedback is the most important thing in writing. There is no substitute for getting someone else’s eyes on your work. You can read something a thousand times and you’ll still miss things.
Whether it’s something simple like a missing word or misplaced comma, or something glaring like a character snafu or a world-building misunderstanding, your beta readers will catch it.
But they can’t catch it if you don’t show it to them!
Note: I recommend finding people other than family and friends to read your work. People who know you are less likely to give you honest feedback. Mostly you’ll just hear, “Oh, I like it!” and that’s it.
This isn’t only because they’re afraid of upsetting you, but they’re also probably not trained as an active reader (even if they are an avid reader). This means that they might like or dislike your story, but can’t find the words to tell you why they feel that way.
If you can’t find a writing group, that’s fine, but make sure you try to push your beta readers to give you useful feedback.
If you’re not sure how to ask for useful feedback, try taking a look back at the short story musts and mistakes I listed in the first post to get ideas on what questions to ask your betas.
Specificity helps here, so don’t go with something simple like, “Did you like it?”
Pro tip: Don’t watch them while they read. I know it’s tempting (Are they going to laugh at that funny line? Are they going to tear up when that character dies?), but don’t. That’s too much pressure on them, and WAY too nerve-racking for you.
During this stage, just like I suggested between drafts one and two, you need to put your story away.
You’ll be tempted to rewrite as your feedback comes in. A quick word change there, a sentence deleted here, and then you feel like you’ve got a whole new draft. Which makes you want to send all your friends your “new” draft.
There is nothing more annoying than having to start reading something from the beginning when you’re in the middle of critiquing. Sharing every little edit is a great way to lose beta readers. Let it lie.
Whether you have a writing community like The Write Practice Pro or you just have friends and family read your work, you MUST open that door and let others in.
One Last Draft
You’ve lived through the torment of waiting on your beta readers. Congratulations! Now it’s time to take a look at all that feedback.
Your first instinct is going to be to get defensive and do a lot of groaning about how stupid your friends are and how they just “don’t get it.” Get that out of your system. Throw a toddler fit and jump up and down in frustration if you must.
Then reread their feedback.
I’m going to tell you something you probably don’t want to hear: Your beta readers are most likely right.
Remember you’re writing for people to read it. That means your readers have to like it. If they don’t, you’ve got a problem.
Reread their feedback with an open mind and apply it as needed. This is often a frustrating and disappointing time for writers, but try not to let it get you down. (Again, your writing does not suck!) You’re learning, and feedback will only make you better in the future.
Proofread Your Short Story
After you’ve implemented all the beta reader feedback, it really is down to the final stages. Your final draft needs to be as clean as possible. An editor considering your story for an anthology or magazine will let minor mistakes slide, but the story as a whole needs to be readable.
We’re not all grammar know-it-alls, and in truth, we don’t need to be. But you do need to work on the basics.
Now it’s time to get down to the nitpicky edits.
I like to print my stories out at this stage so I can make editing notes and highlight until it looks like a sick and bleeding rainbow. I think it makes this tedious process more fun.
Run the story through Grammarly, Hemingway, and/or ProWritingAid. Don’t just change everything these programs tell you to, though. Think about what they want you to change and then decide if the suggestion is right for your story.
For example, Hemingway loves to point out sentences that are hard to read. Those sentences aren’t necessarily wrong, though. You have to decide if you want to simplify the wording or leave it as-is.
Read your story aloud. Read it backward. (My editor sister swears by this one.)
Reading aloud can help you pick out missed words, weird wording, and where commas (a.k.a. pauses) should go.
Reading it word-by-word backward is something I admit I don’t do, but my sister says it helps her take the words out of context. This stops her brain from playing tricks, so her brain won't fill in things that aren’t there while she’s reading.
Try it backward if you want to, but definitely read it aloud forward.
Note: If you are self-publishing and are really nervous about your grammar skills, you can hire a professional editor to proofread. But if you don't have the money to hire someone, Hemingway and Grammarly and maybe a style book are really all you need. (Or get a friend who's better at grammar to look at it.)
Finished! Now What?
And there you have it. You’ve written and edited a short story.
In future posts, I’ll continue to dive further into the craft of writing short stories, like tightening sentences and weaving in backstory, but for now, you’ve got the basics.
And really, that's all you need to move forward.
How do you edit your short story? Let us know in the comments.
Take a short story or scene from a story that you’ve already written (and preferably have had sitting around for at least a couple of days) and edit it.
Start by reading through without taking notes. Then follow the other steps.
If you don’t have time to edit the entire thing today, take fifteen minutes to focus on big picture edits (the large concept and structural edits). I recommend that you look at the story structure, or how the six elements of plot apply to the content.
When you're done, share your writing practice in the box below. Don't forget to give feedback to a fellow writer!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.