Pause for a moment. Take a breath before you hit ‘send’.
While we’d all love our first drafts to be perfect they almost never are. Here are five small tips I’ve learned (often the hard way) about ensuring your story is the best it can be.
1. Leave time
After finishing your draft leave it alone, for a few days at least, preferably longer. Some stories develop over months. When you re-visit you need to switch from ‘pure writer’ mode to ‘writer/reader’ mode. Try – and it’s very hard – to read your story as a reader.
Read with care but with your critical faculties switched on. If any parts leap out as false, clunky or dull, mark them. Your instincts are probably right.
2. Get an outside eye
You know what you want to say with your story and think it is crystal clear. But remember the reader is not inside your head. The only way to know what’s actually coming across on the page is for someone who is not you to read the work.
Ask a writer or reader you respect and who isn’t scared to offer constructive criticism. Having someone overly worried about hurting your feelings won’t make you a better writer. Ask them to mark parts they love and parts that confuse them or they don’t ‘believe’ (i.e. don’t seem to be true to the world you have created).
Be prepared to make some changes after this stage. Even if you feel what you’ve written is fully finished, this feedback may help you discover you’ve got more revision to do.
3. Use feedback to engage more fully with your work
Learning what to do with feedback is a real skill that takes a long time to develop. Some of us overreact – changing every word. Others are stubborn, refusing to budge on anything. The answer is somewhere in between.
If an intelligent reader queries a part of your story, they are usually right that something is awry. They are not so often right about how to fix it. You must learn to use your own judgement. It’s a challenging but exciting process. It demands that we ask of ourselves: what is at the heart of my story? Does every word support that premise?
4. Send out with care
Only send out work you feel is as good as you can get it. Polish your words, take care with grammar, spelling and structure. Even then, sometimes a story just isn’t ready. The ideas are strong but the language isn’t singing. You know your character but haven’t yet found the heart of the story. Don’t send that one out. Not yet. There will be plenty more opportunities and the extra few weeks or months may reveal a deeper truth to the story.
5. Embrace failure
Not every story is a success. Some are ‘learning stories’ – we’re trying a new technique, a different genre, a shift in how we write. They are equally as valuable. Every piece of writing adds to our experience. Old drafts and failed stories are like compost. Even though they sometimes smell kind of whiffy they’re essential for growth.
The scale of a short story means we can write a lot of them and go through this process again and again. The more you do it the better you get. Like an athlete or a musician, becoming a good writer takes many years and much dedication. And while the flush of first draft creativity is intoxicating, the rewards of reflection and revision are rich and will help you gain maturity and confidence in your craft.