Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 21 in series)

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

Welcome back to my series on marketing and selling 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 part 17, I kicked off a mini-series on what happens when you finally sell a story. Parts 17-19 dealt with short fiction contracts. Last week, in part 20, I started talking about working with an editor on getting your story ready for publication, specifically discussing the types of edits that will likely occur for your story.

This week, I’ll finish off the editing topic with some tips on handling the editing process, and on deciding when to agree to suggested changes 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.

The Mechanics of Working with an Editor

Last week, I explained that the first edit that you’ll receive on a sold story will likely be a combination line and copy edit. Most editors these days work directly on an electronic version of your story with “track changes” and “show markup” turned on. I’m using MS-Word terminology here. If you use a different word processor, I’m guessing that you can still figure out what I’m talking about. They may also insert comments for a suggested change to explain why their edit makes the story or prose stronger. They’ll then email you the red-lined version of the story file.

Seeing a sea of red-lining can make any writer see red emotionally as well. How dare they change your perfect prose? Well, sunshine, guess what? Your prose isn’t perfect, and it probably never will be. Any second set of eyes will always improve a story. I recently asked the editor working on my current novel to do a heavier edit as his initial edit pass didn’t suggest many changes, and I know that there has to be more things to fix.

So remember that the purpose of the editing process is to make your story better and to make you look better as a writer. Your default position, especially as a newbie, should always be to not only accept editing input, but to want it.

That being said, here’s a suggested approach to help you deal with that sea of red:

  • Read the suggested edits without making any decisions. Just read looking for patterns and issues that the editor has found.
  • Set the edited version aside for at least a day.
  • Go through the story again, doing a triage on the suggested edits: ones that are easy to say yes to, ones that you will not bend on, and ones that you’re not sure about.
  • Go though the story one more time, ensuring that you’re serious about your “No’s” — serious, meaning that you’d pull the story before you’d agree to those changes.
  • Next, deal with the edits that you weren’t sure about, moving them to the Yes or the No category.
  • Do a count of your Yes’s and No’s. If you’re declining more edits than you’re accepting, you’re making a mistake. Fix that.
  • Accept the edits you agree with, and reject the others, explaining why you’re saying no, either in the manuscript or in your cover email back to the editor.

There. You’re done. Easy, right? No, probably not. Especially for your first sale. But it will get easier.

When to say NO

So when should you say no to an editing suggestion? I wish I could give you an easy answer, but I can’t. However, I can give you some guidelines.

For any suggested edit that you disagree with, the likelihood that you are wrong and the editor is right varies directly with how professional the market is and inversely with your own experience. If you’re dealing with one of the top pro markets, then they’re right and you’re wrong. Also, if you’re a beginning writer, then they’re right and you’re wrong. Deal with it. As I said last week, if you can’t work with an editor, you will never be a professional writer.

However, if you’re dealing with a lower level market, then the likelihood of having a less experienced editor goes up. And if you’ve been writing (and selling what you write to top markets) for a few years, then the likelihood of you being able to separate bad editing from your personal ego also increases.

Some edits are easy to say no to. They change the meaning of a sentence or a passage. They aren’t in the right voice or vocabulary for that point-of-view character. Some edits are less easy to dismiss.

I’ll say no if a suggestion changes the rhythm of my prose. I couldn’t care less if a sentence is grammatically correct. If you’re writing strong prose, your work should set off bells and whistles in any grammar checker. For me, I love partial sentences. One word paragraphs. Beginning sentences with “And.” And (see?) a dozen other stylistic idiosyncracies that are grammatically incorrect but define my prose style. Whatever works to make my prose sound the way I want it to, as well as mean what it needs to mean. If an editor tries to change the sound of my prose, I’ll say no.

Does this help you? Probably not. Unfortunately, for a beginning writer, knowing when to agree to edits and when to say no is very much the same predicament as I described in post 2: recognizing in yourself the signs of the arrogant or the fearful beginner. The arrogant writer will tend to rail against any and all edits. The fearful beginner will accept all edits, even bad ones. You need to find the middle ground.

But my general guideline holds: if you’re saying no more than yes in the editing process, then you’re probably wrong.

Checking Page Proofs

Page proofs (the way your story will look in the final publication) are usually sent to you as a PDF file these days. Here’s the process that I use to check page proofs.

I copy my most recent version of the story (the version that incorporates any edits agreed to in the recent editing process) from my Word document into a free piece of software called ReadPlease. This program then reads my story back to me, in a wonderfully HAL-like, trying-hard-to-be-human, computerized voice, while I follow along reading the page proofed PDF version.

I find this process an easy way to catch any discrepancies in the two versions. When I find a change, I simply decide if I agree with it or not. If I agree, no problem–I don’t need to do anything. But if I disagree, I respond to the copy editor ASAP, identifying the page and line number and the change that I’m requesting.

Record Keeping

If this is a first rights sale, I change my Word file copy of the manuscript to incorporate whatever edits that I accepted for this publication. If I gave in on a suggested edit (for all the reasons stated above), I might not make that change if I still prefer my original version. But in general, I want the version of the story that I might subsequently resell as a reprint or foreign translation to reflect exactly the form in which it first appeared. That first published version becomes my “master” copy.


I haven’t talked yet about selling second rights (reprints) in this series, but I’ll mention that possibility here since it presents a special situation for dealing with edits. If an editor accepts your story as a reprint, in most cases, they will not suggest any major editing, except possibly to adhere to their house style. They know it’s been published and likely edited before.

But not always. I’ve had several reprint situations where an editor has come back to me with line edits, sometimes fairly extensive. This has usually happened where the line editor was not the acquiring editor and wasn’t aware that the story was a reprint. But I’ve also had eager and inexperienced line editors think that they can still improve the story.

Maybe they can, but I generally reject any suggested edits to a previously published story (again, except for house style differences). I just don’t like having different versions of the same story out there. The only exceptions I make are where an editor catches an error or suggests a strong improvement to the prose. Otherwise, I’ll just decline the edit suggestion.

And yes, that can cost you a reprint sale. I recently resold a story (which had originally appeared in Baen’s Universe, a top paying pro market at the time, and was also included in my collection, Chimerascope) to an anthology. Just last week, I declined a bunch of questionable edits to the story. The editor responded by dropping me from the anthology. Shrug. His loss, not mine. I’ll resell that story again somewhere else, but it’s going to be the version I want published.

Next Week

In part 22, I’ll talk about what to expect the next time you submit a story to a market that has just published you.

Next Week: But You Bought My Last Story: What your first sale really means

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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