Content Editing 101

Content Editing 101 Don't Sweat the Small Stuff with Anna Yeatts

Let’s talk content editing.

Remember the writing prompts we’ve been doing? It’s time to put them to use. You’re going to start content editing and polishing them into what will eventually be a finished story.

Here’s your assignment:

Pick your favorite homework assignment to date.

It should be a finished first draft at this point. If it’s not, I recommend taking a day or two to plow through to the end of the story. It’s going to be ROUGH, and that’s okay. JUST FINISH IT then come back to this section of the class.

When you’re done, post your results in the forum here (optional, of course).

It’s time to apply a content edit to your first draft.

Go back to the beginning of the manuscript. Turn on “Track Changes” in your editing software. I prefer Word or Pages, but you can also type in comments and bold them or (add them in parenthesis) within the manuscript if you don’t have either of these word processors.

Make sure you’ve saved your original draft. Don’t lose it.

We’re creating a second draft, but you might want your first draft – maybe a particular phrase or scene – later. Or, horrors, you somehow lose your document and need the first as a backup.


Time for the actual content editing. This is where the magic begins.

As you read from the beginning, look for the type of edits I described. When you find a problem, don’t stop and fix it now. Jot down a note in the margin and keep going. If you have an idea, by all means, jot that down too.

But keep going all the way to the end.

When you get to the end, you should have a much clearer idea of what your story looks like now. Now is when you go back and re-write the rough draft, beginning to shape the story into your second draft – a cleaner, more streamlined version of what will be your finished product.

Don’t sweat the commas and misspellings.

You don’t have to make it perfect on this draft. Content editing happens in waves over multiple drafts. Yes, you’ll have to do this again if your manuscript still needs work. Some stories take 7, 8, 15, 20 drafts.

That comes later. For now, focus on the bigger issues like continuity, making the plot work, developing characters, and filling setting details.

For the second part of this lecture, I’m throwing myself on the sword for you. You’re content editing an old manuscript of mine.

Never say I don’t put myself out there for my students’ sake.

I dug out an old story I wrote, tucked away to simmer, and never got back to revising.

This is a rough draft. Can you tell I’m hedging before you get to it? Preparing you for the utter ROUGHDRAFTINESS of it?


But I’m giving it to you to chop up, dissect, and content edit to your blissful little hearts’ desires.

And I want you to know that even professionals write less than stellar stories. I’ve had some Big Names come through my slush pile over the years, and I’ve wrinkled my nose and thought, “You wrote THAT? Dude. That’s terrible.”

I’ve also passed on stories then seen revised versions show up in other magazines in forms that made me wish I had bought them.

The moral is this:

Never compare a polished, finished story you see in a professional magazine to your rough drafts.

They might be stages in a continuum but they are far from the same thing. That’s like putting your baby next to a very old man and wondering why the old guy can reach the first shelf and your baby can only lay on the ground and cry.

So here’s my screechy little baby story.

Go ahead. Stomp on it. Give it a good content editing.


That’s your homework. Content editing and stomping. Yes. This.

I’m not even kidding.

For a reminder on how to give a manuscript critique, take a look back over this lesson.

Want some pointers on receiving a critique? Here you go.

Or while we’re talking manuscript critiques, if you have a story you’d like me to critique, head this-a-way.

And if you want a bit more of a challenge, I’m currently taking one more personal student. If you it to be you, go now.


A Delivery of Fish into the Unknown

The first time I delivered fish, it was four live goldfish, not salmon fillets or tuna steaks like you’d expect. But the pet store didn’t carry tuna or salmon, and it’s not like my manager would say, “Hey, Bernie, cut up the big boys for me. Aisle seven.”

So when the lady called asking for a fish delivery, my manager decided I should do the run. I took the call and I was the biggest guy working there. Two strikes, whammo. Besides, it wasn’t like I was going to get mugged with a two inch goldfish.

I didn’t know why she couldn’t come into the store like everybody else. Maybe a cat dander allergy? But she sounded so sad on the phone I couldn’t say no. Besides, she agreed to the fifty dollar delivery charge I made up.


The fish lady had a giant house like Miss Havisham in the movie with Uma Thurman. She lived on the outskirts of town, the house itself sitting far back from the road and surrounded by an ocean of wind-packed red sand. I parked at the bottom of the driveway and hiked it up. At the door, a massive thing made of some dried out looking wood I didn’t recognize, I tucked in my shirt. I felt like a yokel holding a plastic baggie full of fancy goldfish. I expected a butler but when the door creaked open, it was a teeny woman filling the doorway. She had so many wrinkles I didn’t know where to look, her age making me uncomfortable in my tight-fitting young skin. I looked everywhere else — my sneakers, the octopus door-knocker, her long-toed feet with thick, old lady nails.

“Miss West?” I asked.

“I am,” she said. Her voice didn’t suit her. It was even older than she was. I don’t know how that could be really, it just was. Like somebody’d replaced her voicebox with a retrofitted model so it creaked more than it should’ve.

She held out her hand and I had the urge to kiss it though I’d probably have poked an eye out on one of her gobstopper-sized rings. I shifted the goldfish bag to my other hand. The fish swam round and round in tight circles, nose to tail, tail to nose. I gave her hand a shake. Her fingers were clammy, soft around the birdlike bones of her fingers. I let go and held up the goldfish. They swam goggle-eyed in their bag like they didn’t know they were on the strangest delivery call ever.

“These what you wanted?” I asked.

The house must’ve been drafty. Her pinned up hair, albino white, rustled around her face, bringing with it the salty tang of ocean air — which isn’t from here because New Mexico’s landlocked and a long way from the shore.

“Exactly,” she said. She rummaged in the waistband of her carnation red skirt, a long peasant things the tourists buy down in Juarez, and pulled out a wad of bills. I took the bills. She took the baggy of goldfish and shut the door.

I stared at the octopus door-knocker. It had ten tentacles. I counted twice. I took off my baseball cap, scratched my head, and decided fifty bucks’d been a good delivery price.


Six clownfish.

We didn’t carry that many saltwater fish to begin with but Miss West was willing to pay extra. My manager said to make some phone calls.

“Customers first, Bernie,” he said. “Fish need homes too.”

I wanted to ask if he’d enjoyed the all-you-can-eat flounder bar at Nelly’s last night but I held my tongue. Obviously not all homes were equal.

Four hours and a tank of gas later, I had a small tank of clownfish and felt like Pixar was going to come knocking any second asking for their stunt doubles back.

I parked at the end of the drive and hoofed it again. Gray and white streaked wood of the door was hot from the bleaching sun. I held the tank under my left arm and knocked on the ten-tentacled octopus with my right. Miss West opened right away. I didn’t like looking at her pruned-up face but her eyes were shining like a kid’s at Christmas when she saw the tank. I half expected her to clap.

She reached for the tank and damned if those fish didn’t lose their little minds. The clownfish zipped, bumping into the front of the tank like they were just as happy to see her too. Might as well have called it a kiddie pool the way those things were acting, splashing water all over my work smock.

She took the tank. It looked too heavy for her.

“Want me to help?” I asked.

The clownfish stopped moving. Just like that, they froze in water like little kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Miss West looked down into the bowl and frowned. She looked back up and me and pursed her lips, considering. The veins in her arms bulged from the weight of the tank and I reached to take it. The clownfish flattened against the back of the tank. Miss West murmured something under her breath, turned away from me, calling over her shoulder, “Wait here.”

She carried the tank into the house. I’d never seen fish do anything like those clownfish. I’d have to ask my manager. Maybe it was some type of school behavior. It was eerie, whatever it was.

Through the open door, hallway was full of tubes and connected bowls, giant suckers like nothing I’d ever seen, full of parrotfish and angels and perhaps a puffer. Water bubbled in the background. I wondered how many motors it took to keep all this humming.

But she was back with the wad of cash.

“See you soon,” she said.

The octopus waved me off.


A lionfish.

I laid my head on the counter and zapped myself with the scanner for a while. Thank goodness for the internet.

It was a big wad of cash that day.


Ten moray eels.

I drove to Santa Fe, White Sands, and Las Cruces, then back to Albuquerque. All with several large tanks in the backseat sloshing every time I hit a stop light. Nothing says don’t fall asleep while driving like having a moray eel skid underneath your seat.

I parked next to the house. No way I was going to navigate that sprawl of sand balancing a tank of eels on either hip. Miss West was waiting. The door popped right open and she skipped down the stairs spry as a teenager. “Let me see.”

Didn’t even give me time to fully open the car’s rear door before she craned over me, peeking at the eels. And they peeked back. The things practically stood up on their tails, snapping their heads back and forth like cobras. A slick body brushed my arm and about gave me a heart attack. But the sad thing is, I was used to aquatic things getting so whipped around Miss West that I grabbed the tank anyway. An eel slapped sideways into the tank. I got a face full of water as a thank you.

“Let me,” she said, wiggling her fingers for the tank.

The tanks were too heavy for her to carry. Heck, I was becoming a regular at this and I was straining to carry the things. “Nope,” I said. “Full service today, Miss West.”

I headed for the front door. Driftwood. That’s what it was. Must’ve cost a fortune. Kind of like ten moray eels. I knew Miss West was right behind me. I could smell the ocean on her, hear the scuff of her bare feet in the sand.

“Where do you want them?” The eels were starting to look hungry. And I was starting to sweat.

Miss West caught up, her face wary as she looked from me to the opened door and back. Secretly, I thrilled. I was dying to get a peek at those tanks. She said something I didn’t understand, almost like a kid’s made up language but more deep and guttural so I shivered. It was creepy. Meaty eel bodies slithered past one another, thumping against the glass.

“They like you,” she said. If she meant the eels, I didn’t want to know what it would mean for them to dislike me. She nodded and her wrinkles deepened. “Inside. I’ll show you.”

My arms like jello, I followed her inside.

Tanks — spheres, globes, twists and turns, diadems of water filled glass — covered the interior of the house from top to bottom. Every available space was filled with aquariums. But I couldn’t rightly call them aquariums. Water habitats, perhaps, but not that either. Unknown species spiraled through the complex tubes, following her as she led me into the belly of the house. A wide pool, larger than my apartment and probably as deep, seethed with aquatic life — sea turtles, octopi, a school of silvery trout, even a squid. But it was thrum, the steady pulse of the water rushing through all those gills that drew me in, echoing the rush in my own veins.

And in the quiet thrum, I heard it. There were no motors. Nothing electronic powered all this.

My knees shook as I set the eel tank down in front of the pool. The eels reared up, writhing against each other. One snaked over the lip of the tank, body sideways as it sought the pool. I held my breath as it slid farther, thrashed, and flopped out of the tank. There was something wrong about watching the eel sidewind that few inches before disappearing into the pool. Its companion followed and Miss West covered her mouth with her hands.

But her eyes were bright. Not happy day, I saw a rainbow bright. But bright, as in glowing bright. It’s like those eels leaving the tank had lit a candle inside her ancient eyes and it shone out through the veil of her irises, shadowed just enough that I could see it.

I took a step back for good measure and bumped into a tank. A silver fish I’d never seen before with a bulging forehead and ruffled red fringe bumped back from the inside.

“He’s lovely, isn’t he?” she asked.

And he was. The fringe swayed along his dorsal line, delicate as any lace I’d ever seen and bright as any cardinal’s feathers. I put my forefinger against the glass as if I could capture the colors by something so simple as a touch.

I looked at Miss West. She watched me with a knowing that I couldn’t hold anymore than I could squeeze the ocean into a bottle. I didn’t know what she was — sea witch, siren, mermaid, or just a crazy fish collector.

So I asked. “How do you do all this?”

She narrowed her eyes and I saw it. The dark shape in the water that makes sailors afraid. The blackness that drowns the sky after a lightning strike at sea. The rocks beneath the calm.

She held out a wad of cash.

“A tiger shark,” she said.

I took the cash. “Sure.”



Use what you learned about content editing and tell me where my story is broken.

And don’t worry. You won’t hurt my feelings. See this skin? It’s so thick from the HUNDREDS of rejections I’ve gotten over the years that a rhinoceros in spiked tap shoes could dance on my dermis and I’d wonder who was tickling me.

Post your answer in the Forum here.

NEW SERIES: How to Survive the Slushpile – Slushpile Do’s. Slushpile Don’ts. And the Infamous Slushpile HORRORS. 

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