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The editor, the excavator

Sometimes it takes another set of eyes to see what your story is REALLY about. 

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The essay begins nicely. It’s fabulously written, ostensibly about the way a young man feels having his life chronicled each week in his mother’s newspaper column.

About three-quarters of the way through, the writer recounts an event that makes my ears prick up, something so significant that it gives the words and events in the pages before a new angle. And then he kind of just drops it. I can feel him physically dragging the essay back to what it was about before, trying to give due diligence to the narrative plan he’s laid out for himself.

The editor, the excavator

The essay holds my attention all the way through, but by the end of it, I’m feeling hungover, literally, because hangovers are accompanied by the sense that you know you did something last night; you just can’t place exactly what it is. I read the writer’s cover letter, thinking there might be some hint as to whether or not I’ve misread the essay, but it doesn’t elucidate the issue for me, so I ping the writer an email asking for a phone conference.

Long story short, we published the writer, but what went into our literary magazine was a reasonably far cry from the submission I received. The lead-in had changed. The event that had gripped my attention was given more clout, and was recounted all the way through. The final touch was a new title for the piece, since the essay was no longer about what it used to be about.


This happens a lot more than you think it might. For the Tahoma Literary Review, the magazine I edit for, I’ve talked to writers about revisions on everything from 300-word flash pieces to way longer essays and short stories. Sometimes, those revisions might be changes in phrasing or paragraph breaks, but those are more line edits, tinkering with the way the writer is telling the story.

What really makes my editing heart go pitter-patter are changes in the aboutness of a piece, to borrow a phrase from writer Ana Maria Spagna. That is, the writers think they are writing an essay or a short story about one thing, but the editor (and, thus, potentially, your lay reader) sees something entirely different. This experience, for an editor, is like discovering a third Twix bar in the wrapper. It’s tickets to Hamilton wrapped in an ugly Christmas sweater; 25-year-old Scotch in a mason jar.

Helping a writer to tell – or see – an underlying story is the absolute best part of being an editor.


So what’s a good candidate for revision look like?

First, here are some things that make a piece stand out in the open queue: Clarity and uniqueness of voice; a clear hook; a strong narrative thread; good grammar. (About that last: I love experimental pieces, but there’s a vast difference between work that knowingly breaks rules and work that makes it look like the writer believes he or she is above learning the rules.)

After those things, editors see when a writer dances around and around something without quite ever getting to naming it, or when the writer touches on something really quickly and then backs away from it, like she’s discovered something hot and painful.

Then the editor knows to follow up with a process: With the writer’s help, we pick at the work, asking pointed questions, until we can get to the heart of what the writer really wants to talk about.


My process looks like this: I have a phone call with the writer, somewhere between 15 minutes to an hour. We talk about what the writer intended; where he or she wants to go with the piece; maybe address some style points that might help the writer to illuminate the point of their story. We touch upon the tinkering, sure, but mostly we noodle over what the piece is about; where its heart is. We bat around cutting great swaths, sometimes, and move things around. When we’ve had this conversation, I send over a copy of the original essay with suggested changes tracked and ask the writer to tackle these changes.

And then I give them a week or two to get back to me. It doesn’t feel like very long, but the work that wants to be written, the aboutness that wants to be exposed, is often lying just beneath a thin veneer of craft, and it doesn’t take very much scratching to reveal what it is.

Years ago, I cribbed an exercise from essayist Brenda Miller that I still use with my writers today, with some variations: Make a list of 10 words. Pick one and write about it. Set it aside for a few minutes while you get up and have a cuppa. Then come back to your list and the word you’ve chosen. This time, write about why you might have chosen to write about that word.


Many revisions are like that. Put yourself in the mindset of why you might have chosen to write this particular essay or story, rather than focusing on the narrative itself. And give yourself space to write. One of the most common pieces of advice I give a writer is to ask them to spool a story or an essay way out, exploring all the implications, before the writer settles into an ending or a conclusion. Often you find the work taking a left turn you never thought you’d take, or, better yet, making a deeper dive into meaning.

That meaning is unique to you, and it will make your work genuinely shine.

Sometimes, the meaning is hidden beneath proximity – that is, the writer is too close to the work or the event that inspired it. Giving yourself time to process the event takes utterly no effort at all, barring the self-restraint it takes to keep from hitting “submit” on that first draft. (Reason being, of course, that you’re so happy you finally put all those loose thoughts you had down someplace.)


The stories and essays we accept right off the bat; the ones that don’t need revisions: These are rare beasts. We’re happy to receive them. But we’re just as grateful for the chance to work with a writer to unearth a story that obviously needs to be told.

—Yi Shun Lai is a novelist and editor. Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is available at booksellers everywhere. Find Yi Shun at,, and on Twitter @gooddirt.



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Originally Published