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  • Magenta wise

Can You Over Edit a Short Story?

When do we know a piece of writing is finished? I think the answer to that is - never. In retrospect, there’s always a way it could have been better, but there has to be a cut off point where we accept it’s as good as we can get it. Striving for perfection can hold us back, invoking fear and loss of confidence. We have to take risks and put ourselves out there, ready or not.

Obviously we need to look at the basics; spelling, typos, misused words that sound alike and proper names should be checked. Then the formatting - don’t have the paragraphs all the same length, set it out so that it’s easy and attractive on the eye, make sure the dialogue is easy to read and it’s clear who’s speaking.

Then we need to find what I call ‘the clunky bits’. These are the bits that don’t run smoothly, that could be said better or more simply. I find that the best way to hunt them down is to read it aloud. These bits have an awkwardness about them. We ask ourselves, “Is this necessary? Should this be cut?” Also, reading aloud to a roomful of imagined listeners can reveal how smoothly the story is running. Stephen King aims to lose 10% from his first draught, and keeping this in mind, we are often amazed at how many unnecessary adverbs, adjectives and repeat words we’ll find. We ditch words and sentences, even whole paragraphs that don’t help to push the story forward, and so hold up the readers and interfere with the pictures in their minds. After this, it’s a good idea to leave it for a couple of days at least, which is what I’m doing at the moment. When we read it again, our brains will see what’s actually there, and not what we think should be there. By this time, we’ll have a good idea if it’s hanging together and making sense. We might need to rearrange it, maybe we’re giving away too much too soon or haven’t given enough information at some point. Also, is there too much description and back story that distract and slow things down?

We have to be brave. We ask other people to read it, and not only those who say it’s great because they don’t want to upset us. If we have friends who’ll rip it to shreds and point out the plot holes, we should trust them, they’re invaluable. We may not agree with everything they say, but they’ll give us plenty to think about. We might also consider hiring a professional editor. We make the corrections and are happy that the piece is now better than it was.

Now, a final read through and we need to stop. More editing is a waste of time and risks taking the life and soul out of the writing. The more we wrestle with it, the more we could end up hating it and convincing ourselves that everyone that else will too. We congratulate ourselves on finishing, it’s a great achievement, and we remember that the more we write, the better we get. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

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