When it comes to editing: If in doubt, cut it

I’ve been sending out a lot of submissions to magazines lately. One of my targets last year was a submission a month. This year, I’m aiming for a submission a week. Usually, I’ll send the same story simultaneously to two or three magazines that I think would be good fits. (Almost all magazines are willing to consider simultaneous submissions; they’re realistic about their turnaround times and know that writers can’t sit on a story for three to six months waiting to hear back from one magazine.) When a story gets rejected, my usual practice is to send it out again within twenty-four hours. One of my friends a long time ago likened it to an aircraft carrier’s wing: you’ve got to get your planes in the air.

More often than not, though, the stories come back. Usually it’s a form rejection—not much help there, but understandable. (Magazines are understaffed, overworked, and overwhelmed by submissions.) Sometimes it’s accompanied by helpful feedback—the pacing felt off, it wasn’t a good fit for their magazine, or they would have preferred a more complex plot.

If you’re really lucky, they say they’d like to see more work from you and please submit something else in the future.

But, the story’s back, and meanwhile you have to figure out where you’re going to send it next, and if you’re going to edit it before it goes out again. For the most part, I say send it out and keep sending it out.

But.

If you sent it out and got nothing but form rejections, maybe it’s time to take a look at it again. Consider how many rounds of edits it went through before you sent it out. What sort of feedback did you get from your writing group? Are there things you can cut?

Chances are, the answer’s yes.

Cut three pages? Why not?

Cut three pages? Why not?

Maybe it’s a holdover from my training as a journalist and my indoctrination into the inverted pyramid, but it’s almost always possible to make the story tighter, more compact. I just resubmitted a story that’s been out a few times (mostly form rejections, with a couple personalized notes). For me, it’s a short piece, 2,350 words. The last time it came back, I looked at it again and wondered, is it as condensed as it could be?

It’s 2,100 words now.

Sometimes it’s not just a matter of making it shorter, either. You cut the unnecessary pieces to expose the basic structure, and in the process you reveal the gaps that need further build-out.

The trick is figuring out when to edit, and when to leave well enough alone. It’s not an exact science—not a science at all, really. But you can’t beat the exhilaration of taking a red pen to big swaths of your manuscript.

Pliny the Elder said fortune favors the bold. Don’t be timid when it comes to editing. You can always put it back, and you might be surprised what you reveal by deleting.


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