How-to Guides

So, it's done, is it? Your story is ready to send out, right? Wrong!  If I know you, you haven't polished it yet.  There are still one or two little problems lurking.  So what to do about it?  This:

Make sure your story is solid.
  What that means is, be able to answer this question: “What is this about?”  If you can’t answer it in a sentence or two, your story needs to be reworked.  (Not to mention, you’ll have a tough time writing your cover letter.)

Underline all your weak verbs.  (Don’t try to do any of this on your computer.  Only paper can save you.  Sorry, trees.)  Weak verbs are “to be” verbs like “is,” “was,” “been,” etc, and “to see” verbs like “saw,” “looked,” etc.  Underline all of them, even auxiliary verbs like “had” and “has.”  Now, replace those bad boys with stronger, more active verbs.  I promise your story will gain a whole lot of chutzpa.

Cut.  Cut adverbs.  Cut useless sentences.  Cut all you can.  You know all those darlings you’ve got?  Kill them.  Be merciless.  Good writing is tight writing.  It does not waste its reader’s time.   If there’s a whole paragraph about how much your character likes to eat eggs for breakfast, it can probably go.  Quirk for quirk’s sake is cute, but pointless.  Make sure every line is somehow driving the overall story.  If it isn’t, it’s just dead weight.
Tackle grammar and punctuation.
All those little dots and dots-with-tails and dots above dots-with-tails can be intimidating.  Not to worry.  Semicolons come equipped with neither claws nor teeth.  Take a deep breath.  Punctuation exists for clarity, and you probably know more than you think you do just by instinct.  But there are rules.  You’re going to have to use your gut a little here.  If you read over your work and say, “I wonder if I used that semicolon correctly,” look it up, for the love of Pete!  Find a style manual—the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style are great starts—and research it a little.  Better for you to waste five minutes checking it than have an editor toss out your amazing story because you’ve irritated his or her grammar pet peeves. 

Get another set of eyes.  You’re submitting this story of yours so that human beings can read it, right?  So find a human being and have them read it!  Grab that friend of yours, you know the one.  The gal that keeps a red pen in her front pocket so she can fix the grammatical errors in the newspaper, the guy who diagrams sentences for fun.  Grab that friend.  Read your piece out loud to him.  Then, give him the piece to tear apart with red ink.  Now you’re getting somewhere.

Read through it again.  Read through it backwards.  Seriously.  You’ll find errors and misspellings you and your red-pen-friend scanned right over.  Fix them.  Again, if you’re not sure about the spelling of a word, look it up!  Get a dictionary!  Don’t mix up your to/too/two, there/their/they’re, its/it’s, and any other homophones under the sun. 
Lather, rinse, repeat.  Do this all one more time.  Polishing a story takes time, but it’s worth it.  You don’t want to have your magnum opus land in the trash just because of one little error.  On the flipside, don’t stress too much.  After all, a story is never done, it’s abandoned.