Wednesday, 16 November 2011

How short is too short?

No, before anyone gets excited, I'm not talking skirt lengths or making sizeist comments. I'm talking word counts.

I was talking to a friend a few days ago about writing short stories. We're both aspiring authors working to a 50K limit (which some might say is a short story!). Her take was that novellas were fine, but she wouldn't waste time trying to write anything less than 20K.

Is any writing a waste of time? Every picture tells a story, so they say, but how many words do you need? Have you ever heard of an editor asking for more padding, a bit more backstory? Or are they more likely to have been striking words, sentences, even paragraphs out?

Every word should earn its place on the page. If it's not adding something, it shouldn't be there. As a reader I don't want to wade through a 120,000 word story to surmise that 20,000 could have said the same. It's a waste - of my time, the writers time, of paper, of ink... and of course of money.

Writing is a craft, an art, a personal journey... many things to many people. But if you're writing for an audience, if you're telling a story, then the reader wants rewards. Superfluous words don't paint a picture, don't enrich lives, don't give a warm and cosy feeling, or a shock, or move someone to tears. Superfluous words end up on the fire, or in the trash, or gathering dust in a bookcase. Great words get passed on, communicated, read again.

So, my point? Apart from using a lot of words?!  In my humble opinion some people write naturally, know instinctively how to craft a story, but they are in a minority. Most of us have to work at it. Have to learn how to use every single word. Have to be prepared to cull the purple prose we love so much.

Writing shorts can help that discipline. I recently took an online writing course with Shirley Jump, most of the assignments involved submitting just 2 or 3 paragraphs for critique. They had to show, for example, goal, motivation and conflict. In 200 words.

Crafting a short story, of say 1000 words might come easily to some; but can you write a satisfying complete story of that length? One that a reader can take something away from?

Then there is the real short story challenge, like the 5x5 short story - 5 sentences of 5 words each. Have a glance at mine (see the tab above) or have a wander over to see the ones John Avery and others have crafted.
I also couldn't resist the Campaigner Challenges set by Rachael Harrie, these were flash fiction (or poetry) with a 200 word limit, and had to satsify certain other criteria like a set theme or use of certain words. They made me think, made me examine every word - and it was amazing the variety of responses to each challenge. Check them out if you're interested!

So how short is too short? Anything less than a complete sentence? I'm a relative novice. I love words. Limiting the number of words I can use helps me to appreciate each one more, to value each syllable, to question its worth. It makes life easier for me then when I'm editing a 50,000 word draft - helps me recognise the paragraph that adds little, the extra character that has strayed into the scene, the backstory that no-one else needs to know.


  1. Hi Susie!

    Great post! I'll read anything if it has a story to tell, never mind the length.

  2. Hi Susie,

    Hope you had a nice weekend!