Self-editing your short story

Now that the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards have closed and judging is underway, all eyes are on the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award!

Queensland writers aged 18 to 25 can submit their story (up to 2,500 words) for a chance to win $2000 and publication in Griffith Review.

Entries close this Friday 15 May!

Quick editing tips

If you’re a serial procrastinator like me, editing can often be set aside in favour of… actually writing your work before the deadline. But, after many, many years of leaving things until the last minute, I’ve finally found the value in giving myself a bit of time to reread and refine my work.

These are my quick, day (or night) before, bare minimum editing tips. Following these steps usually leaves me with a polished story that’s ready for submission.

  • Don’t edit while writing your first draft. Make sure you finish your story before you start a deep and dedicated edit.
  • Before editing, give the story—and yourself—a rest. Try to set it aside for as long as you can—an hour, a day, a week. (Or longer! But remember, Young Writers Award entries close this Friday!)
  • Read your story out loud. You can also have text-to-speech software read your story out to you (but I find the robo-voice lacks the cadence of human speech). Note down or directly edit the words, sentences, or sections that don’t sound quite right.
  • Print out your story and proofread the hardcopy. Full disclosure: I hardly ever do this. Everyone says you should! But I didn’t have access to a reliable printer until two years ago, so I’m very used to editing on my computer.
  • If you’re editing or proofreading on your computer, change the font and the page colour of the document—this can trick your brain into seeing it as a “new” story. When I’m editing, I like to use Comic Sans on a green page.

It may not look pretty, but changing the page colour and font can help trick your brain into seeing it anew.

Character, structure, and language

If you’ve left yourself more time for editing, try reading your story with these questions in mind. These questions won’t be applicable to all short stories—your style of narration or use of structure could sit outside what’s outlined here.

Trust your own instinct and skills as a writer! I’m simply sharing what’s worked for me in the past.

When I’m feeling extra-productive, I like to do at least three rereads: one focusing on character, the next on structure, and the last on general proofreading.

Editing characters

  • Is the right character narrating the story? This matters even if you’re using third person, or a more distanced narrational style.
  • Are there too many periphery characters? Do all of the characters add value to the story?
  • Do your characters act and react in ways that are consistent with their personalities?
  • Does each character have their own distinct “voice” when speaking/in dialogue? Or do they all sound the same?

Editing the structure

  • Does every part of your story develop a character or move the story forward? This is pretty essential for short stories, as you’re working with such a limited word count.
  • Does the story start as close to the action as possible?
  • Is the “weight” of the story correctly distributed? Is the beginning too long? Is the ending too short?
  • Have any important plot developments been skimmed over?
  • Does the ending achieve closure? Is it satisfying?

Proofreading and editing language

  • Is the tense (past, present) of your story consistent?
  • Is your spelling and punctuation correct?
  • Are you “showing” rather than “telling”? Chuck Palahniuk has written a great article about “thought verbs”, which I’ve found super helpful in editing my own writing.
  • Have you wiped out any clichés?
  • Does your formatting look the way that it should?

Submit your story!

Entries for the 2020 Young Writers Award close this Friday 15 May. Check out the guidelines before submitting your work, and good luck.

I hope you’ve found these editing tips helpful! Feel free to share yours in the comments below.

Shastra Deo is a writer, reader, and PhD candidate at The University of Queensland. She was State Library of Queensland’s inaugural Reader in Residence. Her short story, The Minutes Turn to Ours, was runner up in the 2012 State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award.


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