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Editing for a Theme

By Sophene Avedissian and Yong-Yu Huang


Sophene Avedissian:

Staring intensely at the bright computer screen in front of you, you finish removing the excessive commas, filler words, and vague language in your writing. Now, every sentence flows smoothly. You have also fixed all the awkward phrasings. Just as you are about to close your computer, a thought crosses your mind: Am I conveying my ideas thoroughly in an engaging manner?

Most writers will ask themselves this question at some point. It ignites lots of frustration and disappointment:

Is my writing meaningful? Is there a deeper meaning behind my writing?

Before proceeding with tips for how to edit a theme in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, it is important to acknowledge one thing: there is no wrong theme. Every writer has their own unique ideas, emotions, and thoughts, which are all illustrated through a theme. When they are editing, a writer's aim should not be to change or modify their theme. Instead, during this phase, they should focus on expressing and developing their theme in the most impactful and effective way possible. Demonstrating a theme well is essential to strong writing, and there are several ways to emphasize the main idea to your readers naturally.

Before you dive into writing, you should start by creating an outline. An outline might be something you absolutely dread doing. You are not alone. A countless number of writers are eager to begin typing paragraphs and paragraphs of their short story or many stanzas of their poem. However, outlining can make your job of expressing a theme much easier. This does not mean that you have to spend hours making a long, detailed outline. An outline can be simple, brief, and concise. In fact, outlining too much can take away from your piece’s creativity and uniqueness. A strong theme can be developed from just writing. No writer should try to force one into their writing.

Let’s outline a classic fable, “The Three Little Pigs.” We all know how this story goes. An outline for it can look something like this:

Three pigs

  • Each pig builds a house.

Big Bad Wolf

  • Blows down the first two houses, which are made from straws and sticks.

  • But he cannot blow down the third pig’s house that is made from bricks.

Your writing outline can be as short as the one above, or it can be much longer, depending on what you see as necessary. By plotting out the main incidents in your story, you will have a better idea as to how and where you will communicate your theme.

Once you have an idea about what your theme is, you might be asking yourself “How do I weave my theme into my writing?” The way you choose to present your theme is by far the most important step. A theme should emerge through many different areas in your writing. Some of these strategies include repeating and emphasizing specific ideas or concepts, using your character’s actions and thoughts to display the main idea, and using symbolism. The growth of a theme should not happen suddenly, and it should not be conveyed in only one area of your writing.

This circles back to a phrase we have heard our entire lives: “Show, don’t tell.” Despite the repetitiveness of this saying, it still holds true. Do not tell your theme to the reader; show it. For instance, let’s say you are writing about a girl named Suzy who misses her family. The story’s theme is love.

This is not how you should include a theme in your writing: Love is very important.

This is how you want to include a theme in your writing: Suzy will do anything to play tag with her little brother, Matt, under the sweltering summer heat once again. With sweat dripping down the sides of her face, she will continue running until her legs begin feeling like jelly.

This process is a frustrating one. Advancing a theme is one of the most difficult tasks a writer must complete, but it is definitely worth it. A theme makes your story matter, and most importantly, allows you, the author, to leave a big impression on the readers.


When it comes to editing, I’m always on the lookout for common threads. It’s incredibly easy to draw connections between genres, imagery, and pieces, and there are often key elements of a submission that seem to resonate with a certain theme. From the tell-tale signs of science fiction (Aliens! Spaceships! Flickering lights!) to the lilting descriptions of odes to nature, much of the work I read often centers around a key idea. It’s always incredible to see how each detail pieces together to craft a larger, overarching framework that conveys an incredible breadth of emotion.

For example, if a poetry submission seems to center heavily around heritage, my first instinct is to think: how can I preserve the integrity of this idea while still fine-tuning its craft? It’s most important to keep this in mind––in no scenario would an editor want to compromise the sentiments behind a piece of writing for technical reasons. After all, that’s the main point of writing––to say what can’t be conveyed through any other medium.

The solution might be to try to leave as much of the imagery intact as possible, or to address the theme mainly in the general commentary. It’s always important to make sure that the submitter knows that their work and the sentiments behind it are being considered, in the interest of preserving the driving force behind their writing.


Sophene Avedissian is a Senior Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

Yong-Yu Huang is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

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