Building a Short Story #4 – Polishing and Revising

Building a Short Story #4 – Polishing and Revising

Once you have finally got your story down on paper you may be tired of it and ready to move on. But your story will not be your best effort if you stop there. Even prolific professional writers have to revise and polish their work. This extra effort can make your story really shine.

Many writers I meet write lots of stories, but never take the time to polish any of them. As a result they never end up with one story that is a really good effort. Also, if you know what you’re trying to change, polishing and revising can be the stage of your writing in which you learn the most.

After you’ve written your story use this checklist to check it for the things I’ve mentioned in my articles:

Checklist for Short Stories


Does the beginning hook the reader?  (See various kinds of hooks Building a Story #2 – Parts of a Story.)

Think, talk, act.

            Do you have a reasonable amount of each?


            Give one detail that implies the rest and tells something crucial about the story.

            Put a tool in the hand of a character that shows what she is like.

            5 senses—include as many as you can without being obvious


Are they strong, specific action verbs wherever possible?


            Eliminate unnecessary words.

Long sentences

            Divide if they are much longer than 20 words

Names/he-she ratio

            Make sure the reader knows who he or she refers to.

Dialog tags

            See my article on dialog tags.


            Does the ending of one scene or chapter build anticipation for the next? Does the ending of the story satisfy the reader as I talked about in article nine?

 Every Scene

Ask yourself these questions about each scene:

  • How does this scene advance the plot?
  • What does this scene tell about the characters? Are they realistic? Are they acting in character? Does this scene make the reader care about them?
  • Is this scene vital to the plot?
  • Does this scene show some struggle or solve a problem?

If you don’t have good answers to these questions, you probably need to cut the scene.

             I’m ending this article with an extended example of many of the points I have made. At the end you will find questions to analyze the example.

            This example comes from my book Riding the Tiger. (Unfortunately, this book never got published. Even very successful writers often have a book that, for one reason or another, never made it into publication.)


A swarming mass of elbows and umbrellas shoved past Rowene as they disembarked from the Seattle-Winslow ferry. Her feet, however, were rooted to the ground. A familiar silver Mercedes idled near the edge of the lot, ready for action. He was waiting for her–again. Dark, slanted eyes stared ahead at some indefinable object, but she could almost feel his sidelong glance. What did he want from her? 

She stood, one still figure jostled by a traffic jam of people. Then her hair caught on the button of a guy’s jean jacket, jerking her off balance. Its owner yanked the blonde strands off. “Hey, move it, would ya?”  He swore and muscled his way back into the throng.

Soon the crowd thinned to a trickle and her five-foot eight-inch frame could hide no longer. In plain sight of the silver Mercedes, she spun around and grabbed the railing. She willed the man to drive away ahead of her. “Lord, help!” she prayed desperately. “I don’t know why he’s following me or what to do. Please help me!”

Should she call Aunt Myrtle? No, Myrtle would be at the church for the ladies’ workday. Anyway, she wasn’t ready to tell her aunt that a strange Chinese man trailed her every step.

Rowene’s heart pounded in her chest.

“Hi.” The friendly voice broke into her frantic reasoning. She glanced down into the face of a dark-haired guy with a reassuring smile. His body vibrated with the power of the huge motorcycle that he had pulled into the walkway. Could he read the terror on her face?

“Is anything wrong?” he asked.

“Wrong?” she questioned stupidly.

“Yeah.  Is anything the matter? You look like, well, like something’s wrong. Can I help you?”

Was this tall, dark stranger her answer to prayer? Could she trust him? She glanced back at the Chinese man in the silver Mercedes. His eyes darted back to that forward position that pretended not to see. She turned back to the cyclist. Of the two strangers she preferred the guy with the smile.

“I know this sounds a little melodramatic,” Rowene heard herself saying, “but see that man in the silver Mercedes?”

“The Oriental?”

“Yes. He tried following me home yesterday when I got off the ferry. I crossed the street several times and went into different stores but when I came back out again he was . . .” Her voice tripped over her tongue that now felt twice its normal size. “. . . he was waiting for me. Finally I went out the back entrance of a store and lost him. I ran all the way home. I don’t know why he’s following me–really.”

“Hop on behind and we’ll lose him,” the cyclist offered. 

She hesitated.

“I know,” he answered her silent objection. “Your mommy told you not to accept rides from strangers. Look.” He pulled a banana from his saddlebag. “Here’s a gun. Take it and if I try anything funny you can shoot.”

This is crazy, Rowene thought. I’m terrified and he jokes about it.

“It’s up to you,” he reasoned. “You can choose the Oriental in the silver Mercedes–or me. Choose me and I’ll get you home safe and sound. I’m sure I know Bainbridge Island better than that stranger and I can lose him easily. Or you can choose him,” he shrugged. “No telling what he’s got in mind.” 

She took the banana from him and straddled the motorcycle, pulling her tote bag onto what little lap she had. “Oh, Lord,” she prayed, “I hope I’m doing the right thing.”



            Examine the above example. This will be easier if you print the scene out.

  • Note how description is woven throughout the dialog and action.
  • Note how everything that happens is told from Rowene’s point of view.
  • Note how the scene opens with mystery. Rowene is afraid. The reader can identify with being afraid in a situation like this.
  • Note how the scene is recreated as if the reader lives inside Rowene. Think, talk, act. Underline the parts that show action. Highlight the dialog. Circle Rowene’s thoughts.
  • What decision does Rowene make that moves the story forward?
  • Draw a box around the verbs. Note how many of them are specific, action verbs.