How to Revise Flash Fiction

I’m not going to lie—editing is the bane of my existence. I’ve got three novels on the go, and the editing and revision feel like a bottomless pit of quicksand. Flash fiction, on the other hand, should be relatively easy to edit, right? It’s short, it’s quick, so it shouldn’t be so hard to get it just right. Somehow, though, editing short-form fiction can be just as hard, and in some ways harder, than editing an entire novel.

With so much packed into so few words, every word has to earn its place. Somehow the piece has to move, needs to have conflict and shape and feeling. I often encounter two particular issues when trying to edit my flash fiction. First, I get attached to a particular line or phrase and struggle to cut it even if I realize it’s not working for the piece. Second, I over-explain. Not trusting the reader enough, I often go too far and lose the magic of the piece.

In February, I was absolutely delighted to [virtually] attend the Literary Cleveland Flash Fiction Festival. The week was chock full of workshops from big names in the flash fiction world. My favourite of the week was a revision workshop with Desiree Cooper. In this month’s How To blog, I’m going to share with you some of my takeaways from her workshop.

Questions to ask as you edit flash fiction:
  1. What is my story really about? Spend some time thinking about the meaning behind the story. What question are you answering? What is at stake? What is the central conflict?
  2. Does this piece have a turn? All flash fiction should have a turn, a climax, a punchline of sorts. Desiree compared it to the volta in poetry. It can be a change in any direction, but there needs to be a change.
  3. Did I go too far? This is my personal downfall. Check where your turning point is and see if you’ve gone a beat too far past that moment.
  4. Have I put the best words in the best order? Think about connotation—the emotional or personal associations a word carries beyond its literal definition. Consider the sound and rhythm of the piece, best accomplished by reading it aloud multiple times.
  5. Do I have any darlings I need to kill? Some phrases or lines may stand out, but not for a good reason. Think about whether a favourite line is too flashy for the piece and whether it is consistent with the intended tone.

The feeling is the truth. Mine that experience and impose it on a completely different situation. Don’t be wedded to what happened, the who, what, where, when, why. Be wedded to the truth, what it is really about, the meaning. You’re writing a story about the meaning.

Desiree Cooper

In applying these questions to your own writing, Desiree suggested using a “wash on, wash off” technique. In several passes, go over your piece looking at it in the light of each point in turn. You’ll likely “wash on” too much and have to “wash off” a little of it. Sometimes in the course of many revisions, it can feel like your story no longer resembles what it first was. This might not be a bad thing, though.

Editing might take the piece further from you but closer to the reader.

Desiree Cooper

What you want is for the story to resonate with the reader, to take them to an emotional space and leave them feeling something. Keep a boneyard of all the bits you’ve cut, knowing that you can reuse and recycle them into something another day.

Happy editing!

Published by Aly Writes

I bake. I write. What goes better together than a good story and a delicious fresh-baked pastry? Nothing. And I can give you both. Grab a hot cuppa and join me.

2 thoughts on “How to Revise Flash Fiction

    1. That’s a great question! As I mentioned, flash fiction generally has a turn or a shift of some kind, something emotionally impactful that hits the reader in the feels and ensures that they will continue thinking about the story long after they’re done reading. When I refer to going a beat too far, it could be one of two things: 1) Explaining the point too explicitly without leaving the reader room to fill in the blanks on their own. Just as a joke loses its humour if the punchline has to be explained, flash fiction loses its ‘oomph’ if it’s spelled out too obviously. Or 2) Literally taking the story a sentence or a paragraph beyond the most impactful line. Last lines are incredibly important in flash fiction, and in my own editing experience, sometimes the best line to end on is actually buried in the second-last paragraph.


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