Recognising whether your story works well is something that comes with practice. It’s not always easy to analyse and critically dissect a story that you have painstakingly put together. However, if you can learn to become your own harshest critic, you will soon discover how to improve and develop your writing.
You should only listen to the voice of your ‘inner critic’ after you have created your first draft. Writing a story and developing a plot is a creative process and isn’t the time for letting doubts or self-criticism hold you back. The time to analyse your story and ‘think like an editor’ is after the first draft is completed.
Thinking critically will help you to be more objective about your work and improve it. I suggest that you take one of your stories – ideally one written a while ago – and sit down to read it through in one sitting. When you have finished reading, ask yourself what your overall impressions are. Can you – hand on heart – say that it works well, or are there parts of the story that still need work?
An editor will expect to be able to read through a story without a hitch and become absorbed by the tale being told. He or she will want a story that flows smoothly and that they can read with pleasure. If you stumble over sentences, or there are sections of your story that aren’t clear, you can be sure an editor will encounter the same problems. Story ‘bumps’ – the sections that jar or pull you out of the storyline and remind you that this is a work of fiction – will need to be fixed. If you have to read, reread and edit the story two, three or four times in order to fix any stumbling blocks or remove clumsy sentences, then so be it.
Ask yourself whether the opening is good enough to draw in the reader and get them hooked, or at least intrigued and willing to read on. Or is it long-winded and boring? Does the dialogue in the story sound natural and does it move the story forward or help to build characterisation? Does the plot continue to hold the reader’s interest as the story unfolds? Is there enough happening in the story, or does it flag in the middle? I have written plenty of stories in the past that, whilst technically OK, have been rejected with comments from the editor saying things like: ‘your story is too safe’ or ‘the story doesn’t challenge the reader enough’. Once, I had a rejection letter that said I’d: ‘made things too easy for the protagonist… there needs to be more conflict or issues within the story for the main character to overcome.’ It is one thing to be able to write well, but you need to combine technical competency with a creative imagination in order to be able to relate a story worth telling.
To put yourself in the shoes of an editor, find out as much as you can about the kind of short fiction they have published in the past – then compare your own story with the published stories to see how it measures up.
Eventually, as your writing skills improve, you will develop a sixth sense about whether something is good or not. When you finish a story, you will get a ‘gut feeling’ about it. If you have niggling doubts, or think that it could do with a little more work, then it’s not yet ready to send off to an editor. Only submit a piece of work when it is the best that you can make it.
I have one other piece of advice which, although it may sound a bit weird, has worked for me in the past. When you have written your story, reformat your Word document so that it looks exactly as the story would look if it were published in a book or magazine. That could mean putting the story into two or three columns or laying it out as though it were in the pages of a book (this can be achieved very easily by adjusting the document margins or inserting columns). It’s strange, but whenever I do this, it helps me to pick out any problem sections within the story. Some writers achieve a similar effect by uploading their stories as mobi files and reading them on their Kindle. Apparently this can also help to identify weak sections within your story. I’m not sure why this approach works. Maybe it’s a case of presenting the story ‘professionally’ in order to make the ‘unprofessional’ bits stand out.
One final tip is to join a writer’s group or online writing forum and let other writers critique your story and give you feedback. It can be a bit uncomfortable when you first listen to people commenting on your work, but it will highlight the positive and negative elements of your story and will help you to grow as a writer.