The Editing Process: Fiction

I haven’t been editing fiction for a long time, but even in the time I’ve been a fiction editor here at Superstition Review, some things have come to my attention about the role an author’s decisions play in an editor’s decision process. It’s so simple to say that good writing gets published and that bad writing gets rejected. However, with an acceptance rate of about 4% for fiction (probably higher than the standard acceptance rate) the fact is that a lot of good writing goes back to its author with a rejection notice. While there are a lot of factors that go into the editorial process and some of them are beyond the author’s control, there are some relatively simple things an author can do to increase the odds of getting published. As with everything, these are rules that can sometimes be broken, there only has to be a deliberate point in doing so.

This may have a different meaning than intended.

This may have a different meaning than intended.

Self-Editing

This is a quick one. If there are easy-to-catch editing mistakes (especially doubled-up
words and misspellings) it becomes incredibly easy to send that rejection notice. Make sure that it is clear to your readers just how important your own work is to you.

Nail that Opener

Throughout my time as a writer, I have often been told the importance of the opening line, and of that line’s innate ability to make or break a story. While the first line is not always the most important, there is a great degree of influence in those first couple of paragraphs. Let’s say the first page is not only pivotal in setting up the mood and direction of a short story but it is also the space where the author needs to prove that they are good at what they do. The opening is where the most polished writing needs to be. It may sound harsh, but if you have more than one or two problems in the opening then I am automatically going to assume that those problems prevail throughout the story.

Perspective

PerspectiveThe point of view from which a narrative is told is as important to a story as the writing itself. Most writers seem to understand that the role of first person is to provide the audience with a specific character’s insight and perspective on the world. During this particular submissions period, we received a lot of stories written in second person. We accepted one, but would have to think twice about accepting several. What really seems to be the problem is that writers are forgetting that the second person perspective requires two subjects. The first is the narrator and the second is the person they are addressing. It is when this second character is forgotten or poorly developed that this point of view falls apart.

Dialogue

Dialogue is much more like an iceberg than anything else; there is more going on beneath the surface than above. Also, much like an iceberg, not paying the appropriate amount of attention to it is going to sink you just as surely. I have two suggestions here on ways to improve dialogue. One sounds fairly straightforward, the other much less so. The first is sitting down and reading a couple of plays. Playwrights like McDonagh, Kushner, and Pinter are great examples of playwrights who know the importance of dialogue as well as the importance of what is left unsaid.

My other suggestion is to pick up and read some comics. Now bear with me a second, because I do have a reason for suggesting this. The Last ManThe thing about comics is that their dialogue makes up a majority of the written words on any given page. As such, the dialogue has nothing to hide behind. A bad line is separated from everything else and framed by a black line for all to see. There is no escaping it. Creative writers should do the same thing with their dialogue. Imagine it alone on a page and see if it stands up to that sort of individualized scrutiny.

One more note: dialogue tags (he said, she said) are the absolute worst, even more so when only two characters are present in a scene. Having characters constantly use pronouns in their dialogue is not any better.

Clichés

It’s one of the first lessons we learn as writers: avoid clichés. Luckily, most writers seem well aware of this fact. However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine. This is a difficult thing to avoid and not entirely the fault of the author, but it does have a lot to do with whether or not a piece will be published. As an example, during this submission period Superstition Review received a lot of fiction pieces featuring cancer. Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.

Again, this is not really something the author has complete control over but there are some things one can do to try and avoid it. My first suggestion would be to watch being overly topical in the sense of broad problems that affect everyone. If it’s a subject on every news program and part of the collective mind then it is probably safe to say that it is going to find its way into a lot of creative writing. One way to overcome this is to talk about these subjects in a different way or to come at them from a different angle. Cancer is not the interesting subject, the way in which people deal with it is. In this case, the story need not be about cancer but can be any disease that compromises its host in the same way. Another suggestion is to watch the literary magazines that you are submitting to, if they are already carrying pieces dealing with a specific topic then try shopping a piece with the same topic someplace else.

Balance

It is hard to sit down and read something that is all action with no thought given to imagery or voice. Imagery, and the way an author describes the world in which their story exists, is a large part of what makes creative writing so unique and a large part of why people read it. Without it the writing is going to feel stale and lifeless.balance

There is the opposite of this as well. Though it is less common, the overuse of imagery/voice will kill a story just as quickly as having none at all. These stories are often jumbled and confusing, leaving the reader little frame of reference in which to find their way through a story.

Word choice is another part of this balance equation. It is very easy to miss the repetitious use of a couple of words, but nothing makes me question a writer’s ability quite so quickly. While it is sometimes necessary to repeat a few words, I cannot really think of a justification for doing it more than twice in a paragraph. Really watch out for those pet words.

Again, there is the other side of this as well and that is the thesaurus approach. This is when a writer clearly uses a thesaurus to generate unique words in their story. The words often come off as awkward and create a disjointed sentence. There is nothing wrong in using it occasionally when the right word is escaping you but, ironically, overuse is just going to drain a piece of its feeling of originality.

Brian Foster

Brian relocated to Chicago after graduating from Arizona State University in 2013. He is a staff member with the Chicago Fringe Festival and a proud member of The Agency Theater Collective where he serves as the company’s literary manager. As literary manager he runs the Chicago Reconnaissance Imperative, a monthly new play reading series.

Any time he isn't working his day/night/in-between job he can usually be found sitting in front of his computer putting pen to paper (figuratively because he actually uses a keyboard). His fiction can be seen in The Masters Review and the winter 2015 issue of Great Lakes Review.

19 thoughts on “The Editing Process: Fiction

  • February 22, 2013 at 3:06 pm
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    Thanks for sharing your insights, Brian! It’s nice to have an inside look at what the editors are looking for in a submission.

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  • February 23, 2013 at 11:17 am
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    Very nice. Always nice to have a refresher course in what editors expect. And I enjoy the fact that you recommended comics for learning purposes. I’ve certainly used them before to gauge what constitutes good dialogue and bad dialogue.

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  • February 23, 2013 at 1:44 pm
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    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, it was extremely interesting, and I loved your idea of using comics to help with writing dialogue, I had never thought of that before! As a (hopefully) future editor and writer, I want to thank you for posting such wonderful advice.

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  • February 23, 2013 at 5:25 pm
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    This is some incredible insight from an editor, in particular. I think you’re absolutely correct when you say you have to nail that opener, though all of these are very important when it comes to a story. These are definitely things I will keep in mind when submitting future works!

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  • February 24, 2013 at 8:49 pm
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    Thanks for such a detailed article! I’m with you on the overused topics. With cancer specifically, I get disinterested when stories go into the procedures (chemo, hair falling out, etc), not because I don’t care but because I’ve heard it all before. It really is important to get creative with topics like these. As I was reading this part of the article, I thought of Amy Bender. She cooks up very unusual and fantastical situations that reflect other ordinary human experiences effectively. Granted that isn’t within everyone’s aesthetic, but the idea behind it of being adventurous with your plot can be integrated by most.

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  • February 25, 2013 at 10:17 am
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    This is a great checklist for any writer to go through when they are spending time in the editing process. Perhaps another section could be “cuts” i find cutting to be both the hardest and most beneficial part of the editing process.

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  • February 25, 2013 at 12:56 pm
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    I agree Kevin. The editing process is more about taking out things that don’t need to be there than trying to find a reason to add anything more. That was probably some of the best advice I ever received as a writer.

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  • February 25, 2013 at 2:43 pm
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    I definitely agree with you on this checklist. It’s a really helpful thing to have for writers who are self editing or even editors who need some refreshing. I really liked your point about the second person point of view, because I feel like that one is the one that people seem to forget the most. I also agree that the opener is really where the story catches. The truth is harsh, but most people do judge a book by the first few pages if not the cover.

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  • February 25, 2013 at 6:45 pm
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    When I read this article, I thought back to a class I took on Travel Writing. Even in that class we learned about the fact that writing always needs editing regardless of the genre- travel writing included. This article has some good tips to help keep that in check.

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  • February 25, 2013 at 8:22 pm
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    As many others have stated, I agree that this is a great checklist to have. One particular part that sticks out to me is about the first few paragraphs of your story. A friend recently gave me advice about beginning your story/novel. Often, writers have trouble starting the first page and therefore sort of beat around the bush for the first couple of chapters. Because of this, she said that the “chapter five” of our stories/novels usually end up being the first chapter in the final draft. In my opinion, this is a good thing to keep in mind when writing or reading a story.

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  • February 26, 2013 at 5:05 am
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    Really, really great stuff here. It is truly difficult to imagine how difficult it must be when trying to sift through oodles of great writing only to pick out a very small minority. Having the simplest mistake can make an editor’s job that much easier.

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  • February 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm
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    This was a great guest post, Brian. A lot of useful information for writers submitting work, and even though in the back of their minds, many writers know this, it’s a good reminder for all. You do know this article will only make your editing selections in the future even harder right? 😉 Thanks for the share!

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  • October 6, 2013 at 10:56 am
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    We can all name books and short stories with famous opening lines, and why are they famous? Well, first because they did not get rejected and second because that opening line is such a grabber that once it has you it will not let you go until the very last page. So yes opening lines are very important. I also think that pointing out that you have to do you own editing is super important. Having taken writing workshop classes and read other peoples work I know how frustrating it is to be reading along and there is the glaring issue that if the author had taken the time could have been a simple fix. Instead here comes the big nasty red pen to make a comment about their lack of grammatical talent.

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  • March 22, 2014 at 7:59 pm
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    This is some really great advice. I especially like the idea of reading plays and comics to help with dialogue, an area where I tend to be inconsistent. I have never really read either, and think it will be a good, mind-opening experience. I also absolutely agree with your advice on creating a great opening line. I usually try to do this after the story is complete.

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  • October 19, 2014 at 3:59 pm
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    What a great and simple overview. Bookmarking this to use in my future final revisions.

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  • October 19, 2014 at 5:05 pm
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    Informative read. I really enjoyed this section:

    “However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine… Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.”

    Totally insightful and not something I had really thought about before.

    Reply

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