Editing and Abandoning

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Poet Paul Valery said, “An artist never really finishes his work. He merely abandons it.” Once the creating is over, the editing begins. It doesn’t end until you bring yourself to “abandon” your work. And sometimes not even then.

Background Image: Vasile Hurghis/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

First Offense

There are some basic editing “tricks” you can use to strengthen your work and reduce the chances of rejection. There are exceptions to each of these. At this point, it’s the writer’s choice as to how to edit the story.

  • Correct typos

Running your document through Word’s spell check is a good step, but it isn’t enough. Print yourself a hard copy and give it a once-over with a red pen, if necessary. Make sure names are spelled consistently. Check your punctuation.

  • Read aloud

It might seem silly, but it helps. If you’re too embarrassed to read it aloud, mouth it. Doing so forces you to slow down. It also lets you listen to the cadences of your work and the music of your words. If you must stop to take a breath, your sentence is too long. Anything that makes you cringe should be changed.

  • “Pay yourself by the period”

In Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale relates a story about newspaper editors telling green reporters they are “paid by the period.” What does this mean for prose and poetry writers? Get rid of your conjunctions. Simple, straightforward sentences are more powerful than several ideas strung together.

  • Passives

Search and destroy “was” “were” “am” “are” “is” “be” “been” wherever possible. Use your “find” feature to do this.

Maintain your sentence structure variation while making your writing as active as possible. I had a newspaper editor once tell me, “A headline is a subject and a verb. Anything else is extra. But you have to have those elements and in that order.” For example, “Noise ordinance passed by council” is not as active a headline as “Council passes noise ordinance.”

Word can also check for passive sentences. Make sure the “check grammar” box is ticked on your spell check. One of the stats you get at the end of your spell check is “percent of passive sentences.” If you just want to check a single sentence, highlight it, then do a spell/grammar check. It’ll ask you if you want to check the rest of the document. Choose “no” and you’ll get the stats just for that one sentence.

  • Trim fat

If it has no bearing on the plot, remove it. Dump asides to the reader and superfluous information. If you have a grandiose word, consider replacing it with something simpler. You don’t want to send readers looking for their dictionaries mid-story.

We all put things in our first drafts that are just for us. It could be background that never goes anywhere or a character we meant to make more interesting. Remember: it’s easier to cut than write more. When faced with the dilemma, chop it.

  • Hook

Does the first line make you want to read the second? Does the opening paragraph put out promises that the story delivers? Are characters from the hook relevant or will the reader wonder throughout the piece “what happened to Skip from the bait shop?” Grab your reader from the start and refuse to let her go until the ending.

  • Ending

Have you tied up some loose ends but not all? Have you raised new, unanswered questions in the closing paragraph? Endings should be satisfying but they need not be neat.

Hand It Over

Have your eyes gone blurry from editing? Are you sick of your characters? Good. This means you’ve been working hard and your deserve a break. Whether you’re staring down a twelve-line poem or a 120,000-word novel, how do you know when you’re ready to abandon it?

You don’t. You hand it over to a willing party for shredding, even while you hope they’ll say, “It’s gold!”

This person doesn’t need to write; she only needs to read. Once published, your work will be seen by people who don’t write as well as those who do. So any second opinion will do at this point. Her job is to “proofread,” not to edit; editing is for you and for the editors. That’s how they get the title after all. A friend who simply enjoys reading can point out flaws in timeline or motive. Friends are wary of hurting a writer’s feelings and will give you the praise you’re looking for.

Another writer will probably alternate commiseration and brutality. “I like the main character,” he might say, “but her dialogue stinks.” He understands that you need a little criticism along with a dose of praise. If you want to get the piece published, he understands and has an understanding of what it will take to get your work to that point.

How do you find other writers to give you feedback? Check the bulletin board or schedule of activities at local bookstores, colleges or libraries. Sometimes the same critique group meets at Borders one weekend and at Barnes and Noble the next. Meeting in public places and posting notices indicate they are willing to accept new members. Hide in the “personal growth” section and pretend to read while listening to the group. Listen to their feedback and interaction; decide if you might want attend.

Maybe face-to-face critique isn’t for you. Or maybe it’s inconvenient to get to the meetings. Toasted Cheese offers critique boards and a writing buddy exchange. You can give and receive feedback when it’s convenient for you. Weigh your available choices for critique and get as many opinions as you can.

Repeat Offenders

Now that you’ve had a break from the piece, go through the steps again. Look at it with fresh eyes. There’s more editing afoot.

  • Get rid of adverbs

Good reasons for an adverb are few and far between. Sometimes one must stay, for clarity. Use the “find” feature in Word and do a “search and destroy” on “-ly.” Pick the best possible verbs and let the adverbs fall away.

  • Trim adjectives

Like adverbs, some adjectives have their place, but imagine how much more compelling your work would be with better-chosen nouns. Watch out for participles, where an -ing makes the word look like a verb. “Galloping horse” is an example. “Galloping” is an adjective, not a verb, and it’s a predictable word choice anyway. A gerund is an -ing word functioning as a noun, like “incessant nagging” or “constant editing.”

  • Metaphor, simile and metonyms, oh my!

Similes are comparisons using “like” or “as” (“She’s pretty as a picture” “I’m as corny as Kansas in August”).

Metaphors have the same function but do so in a more direct way, usually using a form of “is” to link the two ideas (“He’s hitting his head against a brick wall” “The landscape was a blanket of snow” “They’re a pimple on the face of humanity”). Be careful not to mix metaphors, like “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it” or “If you let that sort of thing go on, your bread and butter will be cut right out from under your feet.”

Metonyms are comparisons that substitute one idea for another to which it is closely related. (“The pen is mightier than the sword”). One kind of metonym is the synecdoche, which substitutes a part for a whole or vice versa (“our daily bread”)

When using a simile, metaphor or metonym, be as original with them as possible. If you’ve heard it before, it’s not original. Use them sparingly, increasing the power of the ones you keep.

  • Detail

With all this cutting, you have wiggle room to add some detail. Take a moment to show us what else is going on, physically and emotionally, with your characters. Have you forgotten to add anything that could be important to the story or to the reader’s mental picture?

  • Symbol

If you use symbolism, keep your symbol constant. If you use circles as a symbol for entrapment, take note of every circle in your story. If the symbol isn’t appropriate, remove or change it. Assume your reader will pick up the symbolism on his own and don’t be too obvious or beat him over the head with it.

Have someone proof it again. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the original reader or someone new. At last the story is cleaning up and turning into something you can abandon.

Round Up the Usual Suspects

Ah. It’s finally edited, polished and ready to go. Now what?

If you write for publication, editing is a fact of life. The fun of creating is only a tiny step toward your finished, printed piece. If you’re lucky enough to have an editor accept your work, you might get a note back with some editing suggestions. Some go ahead and edit the piece themselves. You might even read it over and wish you’d changed a bit of dialogue or come up with a more original metaphor.

The worst thing you can do for yourself is to submit a great story in an unprofessional manner.

  • Know the publication

Research the journals you’re interested in. Read their current and archived issues. If your story is “genre,” make sure that it fits with the publication (example: don’t send erotica to Reader’s Digest).

If the stories seem heavy and long, consider sending that snappy flash fiction somewhere else. There are many journals that “subspecialize” in genre, length and so forth. A good place to begin scouting for possibilities is at Mustard and Cress.

  • Include a professional cover letter, even when electronically submitting.

An electronic submission should get the same respect as a hard copy submission. Address the editor(s) by name when available. In lieu of a street address, include the submission e-mail.

Open your letter with the name of the story and your intention for it (publication, a contest entry, etc.). Give the story name, word count and a brief bio, including any writing credits. If you don’t have any writing credits, don’t bring up the fact. Tailor your bio to fit with the story and the publication. Don’t write a funny bio to go with your death poem or a 200-word biography to accompany your flash fiction.

Some writers also like to add how they heard about the publication or contest (newsletter, search engine, workshop, someone’s website, etc.). Depending on your style, you might also want to include a two or three sentence story synopsis.

Include your email address in your signature or in the body of the letter. If you use a pen name, sign your real name and add a parenthetical (writing as “___”) or include the information on a new line below your name.

Do not suck up; editors have a great b.s. detector. They don’t care if you’re a lifelong reader or a fan of their own work. They care about what you’re sending them for their publication.

Example of an e-submission cover letter:

George Langadoon, fiction editor
Electric Mayhem

Dear Mr. Langadoon,

I am submitting my short story “Yes Dear” (1000 words) for publication consideration in “Electric Mayhem.”

My most recent fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese and Frank’s Little E-Zine of Joy. I live in Brisbane, Australia with my two maladjusted cats.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Erma McThirsty
Writing as “Max McHungry”

An example of what not to do:

Hi! My name is Erma McThirsty and I’ve been writing all my life. I’m not published yet but I’ve dreamed of seeing my work in print. My story is called “Yes Dear” (attached).

I think it would be perfect in “Electric Mayhem.” I’m a real fan of your magazine and would love to be a part of it. I’ve read it for years and I love the stories you choose.

Let me know what you think!
“Max McHungry” (wink)

  • Follow submission guidelines

If a journal does not take simultaneous submissions, do not assume your story is so wonderful that they will make an exception.

Do not send your story in an attachment unless the guidelines deem it acceptable. Because of virus concerns, attachments almost always go unopened.

Many journals allow more than one poem per submission but only one prose or non-fiction piece. If the magazine wants only one piece per submission, comply with that request.

Put your story in a standard font face and size. For safety’s sake, stick with 12 point Courier, Arial or Times New Roman. If the guidelines are specific, respect that. A cute font will not get you noticed; it will get you sent to the slush pile.

  • Respect the reply time

Some editors reply to a submission on the same day. Some take up to three months. The site or auto-reply should tell you when to expect to hear about the story. Do not write to the editors and pester them about it. If you are in the “maybe” pile, doing so could put you in the “no” pile.

However, if an unreasonable amount of time goes by and you still haven’t heard, you have every right to ask, “What’s up?” Submissions do get misplaced, so inquire in a professional, courteous manner.

The same holds true when a story has been accepted but not yet published. You have the right to update your writing credits in a timely fashion. Go ahead and list the credit; you might consider adding a note that the publication is “pending.”

Case closed

If you write for publication, editing is a fact of life. The fun of creating is only a tiny step toward your finished, printed piece. If you’re lucky enough to have an editor accept your work, you might get a note back with some editing suggestions. Some go ahead and edit the piece themselves.

After it’s sent or published, you might even read it over and wish you’d changed a bit of dialogue or come up with a more original metaphor. This is natural. The important thing was that you sent out the best work possible at the moment. You were brave enough to abandon the project and send it into the world. Many who write don’t get that far. Be proud of your work and yourself.

Final Poll Results