Tips for Revising an Old Story

There’s a story graveyard on my laptop, and I’m sure it’s haunted.  I heard it howl last night when I opened a new Word document.  It beckoned me to click a dusty yellow folder named “Old Drafts,” and when I did, the ghosts of a hundred tales appeared before me, most without an ending, several without more than a couple paragraphs.  I double-clicked one of the stories, and for the first time in a couple years, the story opened onto my desktop, begging for a revision.

We all have stories like that.  They’re the ones we put aside with every intention to finish, but we never do, and before we know it, they’re buried deep on the hard drive, never to see another edit.  There are reasons these works might live in the story graveyard:

  1. The story was rejected for publication too many times
  2. Inspiration dwindled in the midst of the story’s rising action
  3. Another story appeared out of nowhere and stole the show
  4. Life, work, and family needed more attention
  5. The laptop exploded, leaving the story in smoke

These are all (mostly) legitimate reasons for putting a story aside, but from time to time, an old draft finds its way back to the screen.  Fortunately, even if time passes, the writer can take steps to get the story back on the slate.  Here’s what I do when revising an old story:

Read the Entire Manuscript.

Most story ideas never go away, so when I revisit an old draft, I feel like I know exactly what it’s about.  The problem is that I remember how the story should have been written instead of how it was actually written.  For this reason, you should always read an old manuscript from beginning to end before making any revisions (Don’t even fix a comma until you’ve internalized the fullness of the narrative).  Sometimes the story will feel foreign, so you may need to read the manuscript several times before you again feel like it’s something you’ve penned with your own hand.  If the story’s been in the drawer awhile, it’s possible you don’t even remember your protagonist’s name, let alone his/her motivations.

Take Notes on Theme and Voice.

When you feel the story is your own, open a notepad and jot down the story’s themes and a sample of the main character’s voice.  When revisiting an old story, it’s important that all edits are organic, that when the manuscript is read, it’s impossible to discern the revisions from the style of the original piece.  Theme and voice are two elements that immediately stand out when not matched to the content and style of the unedited manuscript.  Always reference your list of thematic elements and voice to ensure the narrative remains consistent during editing.  There’s nothing worse than inadvertently derailing a major theme or giving your southern cowboy a New York accent midway through the story’s climax.

Revise in Chunks and Read Aloud.

Don’t get carried away with edits, not at first.  Instead of dumping whole paragraphs in the middle of the piece, find a place to add a single sentence, and write it in a style and form that enhances the original work.  Once you’ve added the sentence, back up and read the entire paragraph aloud, paying particular attention to how the new sentence connects on both ends to existing sentences.  When you’re sure the sentence is properly integrated, you can move on to other paragraphs and do the same, working your way toward the end of the piece.  When you’re comfortable enough to add whole paragraphs, be sure to go back and read them aloud in the context of the larger work.

Revise the Whole Piece in One Sitting.

If the story hasn’t been open in awhile (weeks, months, or years), there’s an urgency in the editing process to complete revisions.  Each time the story is revised, the writer must return to the main character’s mindset, spending a lot of time re-reading the story to do so.  This constant revisiting takes time and reduces momentum toward actually completing the story.  For this reason, when revising an old story, the writer should commit to completing the work in one sitting.  The story is already collecting cobwebs, but a firm broom might scare the spiders away for good.

Send the Story to New Publication Venues.

When the story is complete, it’s time to send it out for publication.  If the story was previously submitted for publication, be sure to revisit your tracking sheet so that you don’t send it to the same publication venues twice.  Writing credibility is hard to come by, so don’t squander it on a silly mistake.  Even if you’ve done a substantial amount of work on your story, never send it back to a magazine where it’s already been rejected.  If this is your first publication attempt, check out my article on how to submit a short story for publication.

Conclusion.

My story graveyard is full of ghosts, but they’re not all worth salvaging.  Before you spend valuable time re-reading and revising, make sure there’s potential in the old draft; otherwise, your creative energy is best spent on new and shinier works.  Stories are best when they’re inspired, so before you go raising an old one from the dead, be sure it’s a thriller, and be sure it’s fit to live again.

Have you ever raised a story from the dead?  If so, how did it go?  Let me know in the “Comments” below.

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