As you may or may not know, I’m putting together my second short story anthology, which will be collected stories from three established universes as well as several standalone shorts. I’ve been bringing a few of these into my writer’s group, and depending on the story, I’m getting lots of varying types of feedback. What I mean by that is, I’ve heard everything from “this is perfect, don’t change a word” to “it’s a solid concept, but it needs a lot more polishing before it’s ready” (which is a nice way of saying it’s terrible).
When you’re getting lots of feedback that wildly contradicts one another, it can be difficult to know what you should think. It’s easy to agree with the person who loves it and simply move on to the next story, but it can also be soul-wrenching to hear that somebody doesn’t like the thing you’ve worked so hard putting together. It might even be enough to make you want to throw it in the garbage and start over completely.
And maybe that’s what the story needs, but I’m of the opinion that you should never destroy your work. Instead of deleting the file where you keep your first draft, if you must start over from scratch, why not simply make a new file titled “second draft”?
That being said, how are you supposed to know when a story needs to be rewritten completely, or if it simply needs some edits?
As with virtually any writing advice you receive, what comes next is going to be hearsay, so take it with a grain of salt.
In my experience, when I go to my writer’s group I will already know if a story needs to be rewritten from scratch, but it all depends on what I’m trying to do with that piece versus what it actually does.
For example, I wrote a short story in my Spear Gate universe that was essentially written for the atmosphere and the scene. I fell in love with the crazy weird locale the story was set in, so I wanted to make it about the locale. This meant thorough descriptions and a narrative style that matches the mood of the setting. But what ended up being written was a story about a mom with a robot butler worried about her son, and the mom happened to live in a weird place with odd descriptions. The difference is the focus of the story. Instead of writing about Neda and how anxious she was that the sun was setting and her son was supposed to be home by now, I should have written about the cold steel of the walkway she sat on, and the warm cup of coffee doing little to stave off the chilly breeze.
This is a flaw that edits would not fix. Or rather they could, but the wording would have been altered so drastically that it would become a ship of Theseus. If you have to change every sentence, is it really the same old story? In this case, it’s clearly better to simply rewrite it. So I did, and as you might imagine, I think it works much better than it did.
If, however, the story is accomplishing your basic goals, whether it is an interesting character, or a cool plot twist, etc., then more than likely the only thing you’ll need to change is how well the story accomplishes those goals. Maybe the plot twist could be better if it was more subtly foreshadowed, or the interesting character needs a longer interaction to really shine. In this case, you don’t have to tear the whole scaffolding apart, you just need to go back and reinforce what’s already there.
Now this is a huge topic, so I might discuss it more thoroughly later, but the main point here is that you’re the author, so you’re the deciding factor on what the story needs. Don’t let somebody tell you your story sucks if your character simply needs clearer motivations. But if they have good points and you agree that your character simply isn’t interesting enough to be the protagonist, maybe a rewrite is in order. Just think about what you’re trying to accomplish with your story and look at how critical the flaws are, and woven into the story those flaws happen to be.