How Do I Know When a Piece is Ready for Submission? by Eric Sheridan Wyatt

I’m delighted our third guest blogger to 5writers.com!

Eric Sheridan Wyatt is a writer and educator living in Bradenton, Florida. His work has appeared in print and online at Ozone Park Journal, Eunoia Review, and The First Line, among others. He received his BA in Education from Ball State University and is a graduate of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. He blogs regularly at Stories I Read, Stories I Tell (http://ericswyatt.wordpress.com) and helps other writers find their words at Words Matter Creative Writing Instruction. (http://www.WordsMatterESW.com)

How Do I Know When a Piece is Ready for Submission?

This summer I was teaching a Fiction Writing Basics class and for the final class I assigned one of my own stories for the students to read. The story, Solomon’s Ditch, was published online by Ozone Park Journal (http://ozoneparkjournal.org/Fall_2011.html#SolomonsDitch) in 2011. I don’t usually force students to read my stories, but we were talking about revision and editing, and I thought they might appreciate a look “behind the curtain” so I showed them some of the intermediate steps and talked about some of the changes I made in the various drafts of the story. Imagine my surprise when, at the end of class, several of the students handed me heavily marked up and edited manuscripts of my published story.

I laughed and took the critiques and filed them away. I didn’t want to tell them, but I wasn’t about to go back an re-edit a published story. Not because the original story was flawless, but because there just comes a time to let a story go out into the world, flaws and all.

Nothing we write is ever perfect, but we have to know when to move on, or else we will spend the rest of our lives tweaking and twisting one story, one chapter, one novel, one poem.

A story may never be perfect, but sometimes a story is done.

To describe how I decide when a story is “done,” it might help for me to describe my typical work flow:

  • The Idea – Ideas come from a number of places, without rhyme or reason. My initial image is basically a character (who I know little about) in a place or situation I’m vaguely familiar with and facing some problem. Usually, I have very little to go on when that initial image strikes. I take what little I know, and begin writing from there. (For more about this, you can read my blog post “The Way a Story Begins” which is, interestingly, about the story mentioned above, Solomon’s Ditch.) (http://ericswyatt.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/the-way-a-story-begins/)
  • The Initial Draft – I write long hand, on legal pads (mostly) and with a fountain pen or Pilot G2. I rarely have a clear, plot-driven path or destination. I write to find out why this initial image was important to me. Sometimes this initial draft is linear, other times it is very fragmented.
  • First Rough Draft – When I take my handwritten pages and transfer them to the word processor, I am, in effect, doing my first revision. Some parts are expanded, others shortened, things are moved around. I start paying attention to sentence structure and word choice and begin to refine the rhythm and cadence of the piece.
  • First Revision – Soon after the first draft is done, I will print the pages and do a multi-pass revision, hand editing the piece line-by-line, word by word, trying to make sure I am covering, at least in some way, all of the bases of what makes a short story a story.
  • Let It Rest – At some point, I will transfer the changes and corrections from the physical copy to the digital copy, and then put the story away for a while. When we read and re-read the same words over and over, we become numb to both the good parts of our writing and the bad parts. Ignoring a story for a week or two is a great way to “reset” our critical eye. After the rest, I’ll do another round of revision before getting…
  • Feedback – Getting feedback from trusted readers is critical to my understanding of how close I am to being “done” with a story. If the readers I trust don’t “get it” then I continue this revise-rest-revise-feedback pattern until they do.

At some point, though, when I’ve let a piece rest for a number of weeks and I look back over it without noticing a need for major changes–when I get down to debating with myself over every comma, for instance–that’s when I know the piece is ready to be sent out into the world.

Once I begin submitting a piece, I leave it alone. I ignore it. I forget it. (Which is a lie, of course, because every email I get during submission season reminds me that my work is being reviewed by critical eyes who have the ability to make my day or break my heart.) While I wait for responses from publishers, I move on to other work. But, if a piece doesn’t find a home during the submission season, I will go through another revise-rest-revise round before I send it out to the next tier of magazines and journals.

If the story is accepted and published, then it is, for me, REALLY DONE.

But, as I found out when I shared my story with a class of fiction writers, even a published story isn’t without flaws. As time passes and skill increases, there are always things I would do differently: inelegant phrases that could be whipped into shape, opportunities to deepen the characters, places where the work feels juvenile in hindsight.

There is a time to let go, though, because there are other stories to tell, and other characters knocking on the door, demanding my attention.

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  1. #1 by My Rite of Passage on October 8, 2012 - 11:22 am

    What a great story – and good for the youngsters to speak their minds. I cannot agree more that ‘there is a time to let go” and trust that you’ve done the best you could. For me, it comes down to rhythm; I’m open to critiques and will keep revising, until the piece gets a certain rhythm that sounds comfortable to my ear – I’ve learned that is the time to let go.

    • #2 by ericswyatt on October 8, 2012 - 11:34 am

      Belinda, do you ever find, though, that what sounded like the right “rhythm” at one point in time no longer has that desired cadence a few years later? I know that happened to me, a lot, during the MFA process as my own sense of what is good fiction changed, and as my awareness of my own abilities deepened…I think the idea of rhythm is an important one. And, that said, I guess I didn’t point out, here, that reading the piece aloud is one of the big steps in the read-revise-rest business… :-)

  2. #3 by My Rite of Passage on October 8, 2012 - 12:11 pm

    Yes; I find it with my published memoir; if I had to write that book now, I’d probably do it very differently. My advice to writers, though, is to see that kind of realization as part of the learning curve – focus on moving forward and applying the learning to the next project instead of regretting the past, so to speak.

  3. #4 by Betty Martins on October 16, 2012 - 3:20 am

    I don’t have much of words to say but I just get what you trying to say and I do love the whole idea about this article. Thanks for sharing… Two thumbs up!

  4. #5 by Zenaida on September 13, 2014 - 12:35 am

    Excellent write-up. I certainly love this website. Stick with it!

  1. How Do I Know When a Story is Done? « Stories I Read, Stories I Tell

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