Inky Wisdom: Sam Reese on Editing Short Stories

It feels slightly embarrassing to admit that I enjoy editing my short stories—like confessing to some long out-of-date taste. For many writers, especially early in their careers, editing can feel like a chore—or worse, a kind of punishment inflicted just when you want to be celebrating all the hard work it has taken to create a draft. But, like most of the important parts of being a writer, editing grows easier the more you practice—and the more you understand what kinds of editing techniques work for you. Someone once told me that there are two kinds of writers: those who make their writing better by adding to it, and those who improve by cutting away. While, like most writerly ‘rules,’ this misses a lot of the nuance that makes everybody’s own practice unique, it can be a useful place to start—particularly since I know that I tend to trim, rather than add.

I begin most stories by over-writing. My first draft is usually at least 25% longer than it will end up. In the most extreme examples, I have written stories four or five times the length that they really need to be. I like to think of this as a sculptor might—preparing a block of marble that I can refine down to the shape it needs to be. There are several things I look for in this paring back. Normally, I’ll edit out two thirds of my descriptions. These can make the story heavy, and distract the reader from those really crucial descriptions that carry the story’s weight. I also remove a lot of explanations that I needed for myself—characters’ motivations, details about their histories. In short fiction, you don’t want to give the reader more background than they absolutely need. And finally, I turn to shape.

By shape, I mean the trajectory the story follows—the way that it moves. This will differ from story to story, and sometimes it isn’t obvious exactly where the emphasis should be. But there are some rules of thumb that tend to hold true. Most stories rely on a short opening and conclusion—most of our attention should be on what happens in between. Normally, I find that I can edit down the three opening or closing paragraphs into a single one. To make the story’s movement clear, it helps to have something that connects these ends—a repeated image or motif, a phrase or scene or just a mood. But a story has to change, it has to take the reader somewhere new. So when I’m shaping, I am focused on the end. What shift do I want to show the reader, and what kind of feeling do I want this shift to have?

As I said though, there isn’t just a single rule for how to edit. There have been plenty of times when I have come to a draft and found that there is a missing piece, rather than too much. I tend to look for places where I can add another scene between two characters, so that I can build and complicate their relationship. You’ll often see discussions of ‘round’ and ‘flat’ characters, but I prefer Kazuo Ishiguro’s perspective: it is three dimensional relationships that make writing interesting. If I do want to add to a single character, I will look for ways to weave in memories. Fiction allows you the freedom to play with past and present in ways that usually seem awkward in visual media like film. In particular, it allows you to capture the way that our own memories disrupt or blend without experiences of the present in our everyday existence. Drifting between the present and a memory allows you to reveal something of that character’s outlook or experiences, or else to add resonance to something that occurs later in the tale.

Of course, that leaves the least glamorous part of editing for last: proofreading. You will find all sorts of tricks out there for catching minor errors (like reading your story from the last word to the first) but I prefer to use this as a chance to work on another component of my style at the same time—the rhythm of my sentences. My technique is pretty simple: I read my story aloud, really emphasising the cadence of each sentence. Not only does this help me catch any little problems, it also allows me to do something that I think is even more important: getting the rhythm of my story’s movement right. By controlling how your sentences speed up or slow down, you can exercise control over when your reader pays attention, and when they will rush on forwards, heading to a climax. Because rhythm matters just as much as content. It shapes feeling, and response. And it gives you something else. Style.

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an insatiable traveller and award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. A widely respected literary and music critic, his study of The Short Story in Midcentury America won the 2018 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize. Currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University, Sam formerly taught at the University of Sydney, where his inspirational teaching was recognised with an Excellence award. His forthcoming collection, on a distant ridgeline, is published by Platypus Press.

With special thanks to Isabelle Kenyon from Fly on the Wall Press.