Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 20 in series)

I Love Your Story. Now Change It: Working with an editor

Welcome back to my on-going series on how to market and sell short fiction. I’ve written these posts in a very specific sequence, with each entry building on earlier ones. You can read my earlier posts here.

In parts 17 – 19, I kicked off a new mini-series on what happens when you finally sell a story, by talking about contracts.

This week and next, I’ll talk about working with an editor on getting your story ready for publication.

Don’t Worry – Be Happy

If you’ve sold to a top market, you can expect that the editor will work with you (or an editor will be assigned to work with you) to edit your story before they publish it. This is a good thing for you as a writer. A professional editor can only improve your story. If you’ve (foolishly) sold your story to a non-pro market, you’ll be lucky to get any editing done on your work at all.

So if a market tells you that you’ll be receiving editing suggestions, be happy. Think of it as an added free service to make you look even better as a writer.

So What’s Not to Like About My Story?

But (you say), they bought my story already. Why would they want to change it?

Um, because every story can always be improved. If you’re one of the arrogant beginners that I talked about in Part 2 and believe that your prose is so perfect that no one should ever dare to suggest a change, then you need to modify that view quickly or be prepared for a short and unhappy career.

If you can’t work with an editor, you will never be a professional writer. This is just one specific example of the broader principle that every writer needs to learn to accept constructive feedback. That doesn’t mean that you have to take every editing suggestion made for your story (more on that next week), but you should enter into the editing discussion with a positive attitude and an understanding that the goal is to make your great story even greater.

And revision suggestions received from an editor at a professional market that has already accepted your story (they want to publish it–they like it!) will be about as constructive as constructive can be.

Now let’s review the types of edits that can occur on a short fiction manuscript.

Types of Editing: Content Editing

Content edits are at the story level, not the line or word level. A content edit is substantive. It will focus on the big stuff — plot confusion, pacing issues, story structure, information flow, weak characterization or character arcs, unclear motivation, lack of setting, etc.. That is, it will focus on problems in your story that will require (generally) a heavy revision of the story.

Now that I’ve told you that, I’ll also tell you that you’re very unlikely to encounter this type of edit with a short story sale. If your story has any of the issues listed above, it’s unlikely that a short fiction market will buy it. They can’t take the chance that you will be able to fix it to their satisfaction in time for publication.

Doing Content Edits on Spec

However, you might encounter substantive content editing suggestions from some markets before you make a sale, in the form of a rejection letter that tells you that they liked your story a lot but it had several problems that ultimately prompted a reject. Such markets might offer to reconsider the story if you’re willing to revise it to address the identified problems and resubmit it to them.

This is called revising on spec (as in speculation). You’re taking a chance that you will invest time and effort in trying to make the fixes but still end up with a rejection on the revised version of your tale.

So should you revise a story on spec? Well, it depends. I’ll tell you what I look for before I decide to take an editor up on their on spec offer.

First, in case this isn’t obvious, the editor explicitly has to offer to reconsider the story with revisions. Do NOT make this assumption. If an editor simply lists aspects of your story that prompted a rejection, but does not invite you to resubmit a new version, then they do NOT want to see the story again. If they want a resubmission, their letter will be completely clear on that point.

Second, I have to agree with the weaknesses pointed out in the story. I have to believe that my story will both be stronger and it will remain the story that I want to tell after I make the changes required. Related to this, I need to have a plan in mind that will fix the story without breaking it.

Third, it should be a professional market making the offer. I’ve sold several stories to a market in the US that pays twenty-five cents a word and takes longer stories. All of my sales to that magazine have been over $1,000. When they’ve offered me a second chance on a story, I’ve taken it. The potential payback is worth the risk.

Fourth, the editor needs to be very clear on exactly what they want fixed. One on spec offer I received from the market I mentioned above included a two-page, single space letter detailing their issues with the story. I knew exactly what they didn’t like and what I needed to fix.

Finally, if I’ve dealt with the editor before or know them personally, or if they’ve bought my stories in the past, my level of trust goes up.

Even following these guidelines will not guarantee that an on spec revision and resubmission will result in a sale, but it will improve your chances.

Types of Editing: Line Editing

Line edits will focus less on the story and more on the prose. This is the typical type of editing that you’ll receive for a short story before publication, if you’re lucky. Yes, I said lucky. Remember, the point of editing is to make your story stronger and to make you look like a better writer.

A line edit could include suggestions for any of the following:

  • Strengthening weak prose, including fixing awkward sentences, addressing weak verb forms, making better word choices, killing adverbs, etc.
  • Varying sentence structure and improving the rhythm of the prose
  • Changing paragraph breaks
  • Replacing repeated words in close proximity
  • Correcting grammatical and spelling errors
  • Reducing use of unnecessary speech attributions
  • Strengthening dialog
  • Eliminating clichés
  • Changing to conform to the house style
  • …and more


Now, hopefully, you’ve tried to catch all of the above yourself (well, except for house style) before you ever submitted the story, so why do you need another edit pass? Again, because any story can always be improved. A second set of eyes, especially from a professional editor reading a story from a relative newcomer, will always find something to help strengthen the story.

And if they don’t, no problem. It was their time spent, not yours.

Types of Editing: Copy editing

The final type of editing that occurs on a story in a professional market is copy editing. This is a review of final version of your story, the version that incorporates all the edits discussed above. Copy editing will be a final check for all the small stuff: typos, spelling, house styles, missing or repeated words, punctuation, etc..

For short fiction markets, typically the copy edit process will be incorporated in the line editing exercise, so that you, the author, will be dealing with a single editor and one editing discussion.

Types of Editing: Proofreading

This is an editing step that will fall on you as the author. If you’re dealing with a professional market, you should expect to receive a copy of the page proofs–a copy of how your story will look in the actual publication where your story will appear. This is typically sent to you as a PDF these days.

It’s your responsibility to review these page proofs to catch any remaining minor problems that need to be fixed. I emphasise minor. Now is not the time to decide that you want to rewrite the ending. It’s too late. The publisher’s production schedule (and budget) won’t be able to accommodate major changes at this stage.

Some Suggested Reading

If you’d like to read more on the types of editing that you’ll encounter or require as a writer, but focused on editing a novel versus a short story, then read Kris Rusch’s post on editorial revisions for novelists.

Next Week: The Mechanics of Working with an Editor

Next week, I’ll finish this topic with some tips on how to handle the editing and proofreading process. I’ll discuss how to decide on when to agree to suggested changes (hint: this should be your default option, especially for a beginner) and when to politely say no. I’ll also deal with the special situation of editing suggestions for a previously published story that’s about to be reprinted.

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.



I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!

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  1. BENJAMÍN ROMÁN ABRAM ( Lawyer, insurance Broker. Peruvian Italian. I live in Lima-Perú-South America. (The Writer of Wits). says:

    Douglas, I am very interested in all your articles, I will read them from the first. Thank you. Benjamin

      1. BENJAMÍN ROMÁN ABRAM ( Lawyer, insurance Broker. Peruvian Italian. I live in Lima-Perú-South America. (The Writer of Wits). says:

        Douglas, I am the happy, this type of articles is what searched.

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