So, you submitted to a couple lit mags and didn’t get in. Your friends are telling you it’s almost there, but it needs a couple revisions; or you just aren’t sure your piece is quite up to snuff. It happens. The piece doesn’t necessarily have anything fundamentally wrong with it. Here’s a final touch up checklist for the piece that’s almost there.
Grammar and Spelling We know it seems obvious. But anyone who’s looked through a slush pile has seen a truly confounding number of works where the author didn’t do the legwork to make sure the piece was sound at the most basic of levels. While the occasional typo isn’t a death knell, there isn’t a quicker path to the reject bin than a cover letter or initial page riddled with errors. Words are the tools of the trade. If you aren’t using them correctly, it’s hard to have much faith in your work. Make good use of spell check, dictionaries, and people willing to read over your work. It will go a long way toward making you look like a professional.
Sharpening All things being equal, if you can convey the same information with fewer words, it’s the better choice. While editors hate to reject a piece for something as superficial as length, they only have so much space to print in. If your piece is good, but a similar shorter piece will let them include something extra, the longer work isn’t going to make the cut. And any words that aren’t pulling their weight are just separating readers from the good stuff. Readers are not known to be patient.
But, you know every word in your baby, and love each and every one of them. So how will you know which of your darlings to kill? Adverbs and adjectives are common culprits. If the acid test for word value is what it accomplishes, these start off with a handicap. They can’t ever do anything but modify other, more important words. Take them out and read the sentence without them. Be brutally honest with yourself and ask if the shorter version lacks much that isn’t conveyed through context. This goes double for any place where two words serve in place of three, or you find entire sentences and passages that do nothing to advance your purpose, which brings us to the last bit.
Cohesiveness Every story is a patchwork quilt of things the author has learned and experienced. Your job is to keep it from looking that way. By the time you reach your final drafts you should have a fairly good idea of just what you are trying to accomplish with your work. Every word of your piece should be another step in this direction, especially in a short.
Think of story cohesion as a watercolor wash or an Instagram filter. It brings together formerly disparate, or awkward elements under a unified theme. Conflicting elements dilute the power of a work. The more brilliantly they shine, the more distracting they will be, and often the only solution is to cut them. Keep an eye out for good test readers. They will be crucial in pointing to bits that slipped your notice.
We at wish you all the best of luck with your revisions.
Consider sending some of those polished works our way when we open submissions again in August for the fall issue.