Writing Tip: Short Stories – Word Count

Last week, I shared about how to use short stories to help improve your writing and I shared 5 tips about using word count effectively.

I want to dive more into one of those specifically and expand even more on it and that’s word count.

When I was a younger writer, I had a teacher who constantly wrote a critique on my essays: wordy. It was EVERYWHERE. I started to hate that word. I didn’t really get it. I didn’t completely understand what she was trying to tell me.

But now, I’m older and wiser and I get it.

It’s all that fluff that creeps into writing when either you’re trying to beef word or page count. It’s the stuff that’s interesting, but unnecessary. It’s using quite a few extra words when just a few will do (do you see how I’m trying to be wordy here?).

The question is, how do we deal with this? How do we train ourselves to tighten up our writing and use only what’s necessary?

By setting a word count limit. In a short story, every word has to matter, every sentence has to function by pushing the plot forward AND character or setting development. Each word and sentence has a LOT to do.

Now let’s walk through this a little more. Say you’re going to write some kind of short story and you’re looking to practice tightening up your words.

Step 1

Write the first draft. Either pick a writing prompt or the story you want to write. Get that first draft out. I’d suggest trying to crack 2,000 – 3,000 words so that you have time to properly develop an entire story or idea.

Step 2

Edit and flesh out even more (because this will intentionally beef up the word count.

Step 3

Set the word count limit to 500 words LESS than you have. If you’re up to 5,000 words in this, I’d suggest setting the limit to 1,000 words less.

Step 4

Edit the story to achieve the new word count limit. Find descriptions that aren’t necessary, unnecessary words like ‘that’ or ‘just’. Cut out -ly words by replacing the phrase with one word that fits better (He walked quickly out of the room vs. He strode out of the room). Reword sentences to cut out words (extra words like ‘that’ or ‘just’ which may be unnecessary vs. unnecessary words like ‘that’ or ‘just’).

 

By taking shorts you’re writing and cutting down the maximum word limit, you’ll learn to recognize phrases and words that slog down the pacing and readability of your writing.

This type of short story practice is a good one to look for critiquers to help you out.

When I was writing a story for a possible submission into a short story contest, I had a word count limit of 4,000 words. Each editing iteration soared the word count above that 4,000 and I had to keep finding things to take out.

My major weakness was that I became too attached to certain elements from the first draft and I kept trying and trying to keep them in, even though they didn’t do ANYTHING for the story, they were just good little sections and I really liked them. Practicing this will help you to be able to cut out those kinds of sections because you will have to do it when you have to eliminate words to reach your new word counts.

This isn’t easy to do, but it is probably one of the best practices I’ve recently learned to help with my writing and word choices. As you expand into novels, while you have room to develop your scene and setting more, I believe this will still be helpful in word choice and generating flow within your novel. Short stories and novels are two different beasts, but there are so many good skills you can practice and hone with short stories.

What are some of your favorite writing development techniques?

2 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Short Stories – Word Count

  1. That would be a pretty big challenge, I might give it a go. I think that my favourite writing development trick would be to interview your character so that you know what is important and what is not. It is mostly for fun.

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