EDITING: GIVING YOUR TALE THAT FINAL POLISHDec 19, 2021
You’ve finished the first draft of your story for the Mogford Prize. You developed your characters, placed them in a realistic setting and allowed conflict to drive your plot forward.
The story is ready to go, right? Well, not quite.
Now you’ve finished your food and drink-themed tale, it’s time to shift gears and switch from being a writer to being an editor. Not sure how to do it? Below, award-winning writer Mariah Whelan shares her strategies for getting your final draft to truly shine.
1. PUT ON YOUR EDITOR HAT
One of the hardest things about finishing a short story is transitioning from being a writer to being an editor. When we write a piece of fiction we become intimately involved with it. We know these characters like they are long-term friends. We’ve laboured over each paragraph, every sentence and word. We understand everything about our writing and can’t imagine that any of it isn’t absolutely essential.
When we begin to edit our stories, our goal is to create distance between us and the text so we can start to look at it from a different perspective. That’s why, for me, the most important thing when it comes to editing is to leave the piece alone for a while. I print it out and put it away in a drawer for a few days with the aim that, eventually, I’ll be able to read it as though I was reading it for the very first time. Doing so allows me to see flaws I couldn’t see before.
In a short story, every word counts. No matter how beautiful a line or how charming a paragraph, if it isn’t essential it might need to go. When editing a piece of short fiction, I read my story paragraph by paragraph, summarising each one. Then, when I have finished, I look back at my notes. Is each paragraph integral to the story? Is it somehow furthering the plot, developing characterisation or making the setting seem more real? If not, why is it there? In the Mogford Prize, we limit our short stories to 2500 words. That is not a lot of space! Every element of your tale needs to be working hard to engage your reader in the story’s central conflict, show us who your characters are, or convince us the world of your story is real.
3. WHAT ABOUT PLOT?
It sounds really basic, but every story needs a beginning, middle and an end. Personally, I like to map my stories out using a model called ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’. In the beginning of this well-used model, characters and settings are introduced before an ‘inciting incident’ sets the drama in motion. This drama then builds in the middle of the story until it comes to a climax. In past years of the Mogford Prize, the climaxes of our winning stories have been murderous (as in Nicky Winder’s ‘Bait’), gastronomic (see 2020 winner Finlay Taylor), and sometimes a wonderful combination of both! After the climax, the end of the story brings the drama to a conclusion. Does your story have all these elements? It’s a bit reductive to think in this way, of course, but coming back to basics can really help clarify what’s going on with your plot. Try reading the stories linked above to see if you can identify all three stages.
4. MAKING SENSE
While we writers spend our time agonising over the minutiae of our stories, you’d be surprised how often we miss the parts of our tale that don’t make basic sense. It is a really easy thing to do, and one technique to overcome this problem is to ask a trusted reader to take a look at our work. Notice I say ‘reader’ rather than ‘friend’. It is important to find someone who understands your creative vision for the story. Moreover, it’s also essential to find a reader who will be willing to stick to what you’re asking them to do: to only point out the parts that don’t make sense or are unclear. The last thing you want when giving a story that final polish are unsolicited opinions about broad topics such as your piece’s themes, style or ideas. Once a reader has done a basic sense check and given you feedback, then you can set about the difficult task of clarifying what you intended to say.
Poorly-written dialogue is one of the fastest ways to kill a story. I remember the very first story I wrote in writing school. My character ran down a corridor and burst into their school dining hall. They looked around the room, their eyes darting across faces as they searched for their best friend. They found them and raced towards them, shouting: ‘There you are! I’ve been searching for you everywhere! There’s something I need to tell you!’. If somebody has something they need to tell someone, do they ever tell them that fact? No! They just say what they need to say! That’s the trick to dialogue: it has to be real.
I find a great way to develop an ear for realistic dialogue is to listen to people. When I’m on the bus, at the doctor’s, in the supermarket etc. I listen to what people are saying and how they are saying it. What accents are people using? Do they tend to use perfect grammar or slip into slang? Then I go home and try to recreate it word for word. It has really helped to invigorate my dialogue with real-world speech patterns and idioms, so why not give it a try when editing your story for the Mogford Prize?
So, you’ve put on your editing hat, checked every paragraph is pulling its weight and tweaked your dialogue. What do you do next? Well, when everything else is looking good, I like to read through my story, sifting through the text for any hint of cliché. What do I mean by cliché? A mentor once said to me that cliché is a way of seeing the world through other people’s thinking. Instead of bringing your unique perspective, you observe the world through the received thoughts and ideas of others. When we think in clichéd ways, things like love, for example, materialise through hearts, moon-lit walks and passionate kisses. We’ve seen all that before. What is love to the specific characters in your story? How is it unique to them, their circumstances and their relationships? It’s all about pushing beyond our everyday ideas to get at real emotional truths.
7. READ IT ALOUD
The very final thing I do before submitting a story is print a fresh copy, or create a digital file for my tablet or e-reader, and read the tale aloud. In this final read-through I’m looking at how the story sounds. Is every word perfect? Are my sentences of varying length? Are the rhythms of each paragraph supporting what’s going on in the story? Are there any parts where my mouth can’t manage the words? Written stories usually aren’t read aloud but are instead enjoyed on the page. However, reading them in this way can help you to check that the text will ‘sound’ right as your reader enjoys it silently.
Now that you’ve edited your story it’s time for one of the hardest things to do as a writer: let it go! Get that story submitted and then do your best to forget about it entirely. In fact, once you’ve had a bit of a break, get started on the next one! Not every story will win a prize. It might not even get published, but the act of writing – of sitting down and crafting a story into being – is what makes you a writer. So keep going and, of course, best of luck with your story!
Dr Mariah Whelan, Writer, Editor and Teacher