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Short Story Writing: Don't Waste Your Words on Wasted Words!

Aug 17, 2007
The short story market often demands tight word counts from the writer. Here are some tips on how to keep that word count under control!

Short stories written specifically for inclusion in weekly or monthly magazines are a lucrative source of income for any writer. The pay rate per word is often high and the returns are good for the length of time devoted to any one story.

Yet this market has its own disciplines and one cardinal rule that aspiring writers must obey is the word count. This is the required number of words demanded by magazine editors for any story submitted and, whilst there may be some leeway, it generally isn't great. For 'five minute fiction' type stories it may be as little as fifty words.

This discipline is often found by new writers to be one of the hardest to master. They write a story - and it may be a very good story - then find it is two or three hundred words 'heavy'. I've done this myself many times when I started writing fiction and articles. It can be very disheartening to complete a story, sit back in satisfaction and hit the word count button only to see it ring up several hundred words 'over the limit.'

How, I asked myself at the time, can I possibly reduce my story by that sort of length? Let's face it, a 'five minute fiction' type story may only have a word length requirement of 1,000 words - to try and cut 1,300 down to 1,000 seemed to me, at that time in my writing career, a stark impossibility. How to do it?

That's when I began to learn about things like wasted words. Although in this article I certainly don't have space to discuss every aspect of this subject, at least I can list some of the worst culprits that new writers seem to use time and time again - like I did!

Many words and phrases rarely add anything to a sentence. Avoid these whenever you can. A very short list of some of these offenders:

Quite, very, extremely, as it were, moreover, it can be seen that, it has been indicated that, basically, essentially, totally, completely, therefore, it should be remembered that, it should be noted that, thus, it is imperative that, at the present moment in time.

These are fine in their place, but they often find their way into your writing with the sinister purpose of tempting you into the sin of padding your sentences.

I am convinced that the habit of padding sentences has at its root academic and, in particular, bureaucratic writing. Never have I seen one of these types of prose without the most outlandish and rambling sentences included - you probably know the sort of thing I mean. Such horrors as 'It should continuously be remembered that' and 'Morover and not withstanding anything to the contrary, it has been previously indicated' abound.

Since such letters are read by people in our ever-freer reading society, the tendency is to think that they are not only correct but also desirable within any sort of writing. Rubbish. Unless for effect, they should be excluded. Short stories are lean and fit, not bloated and slow.

S0 - how to 'lean-off' your story? Firstly check for any of the phrases above in the 'list of offenders'. Strike them out. Next read through your story and ruthlessly delete any and every word that you can whilst still preserving grammatical sense. I guarantee that you'll be amazed at the number that go.

Check in particular for adverbs and adjectives. I'm talking about sentences like 'How would I know?' he asked angrily. Much better is 'How the hell should I know?' The second sentence (without the adverb) implies anger in its use or words and is much stronger anyway - and shorter. In the same vein, 'a very light wind' should be 'a breeze'. Not only are you saving wordage by adopting this correcting tactic, you are strengthening your writing.

When you have finished these tasks read your story again. If my own experience is anything to go by, not only will you have dumped those excess words to bring your story into its wordage 'window' but also you will almost find that it reads a lot better. Congratulations - you have just mastered a basic facet of self-editing!

In conclusion, just remember these few points:

The adjective is the enemy of the noun. (choose a stronger noun instead of using an adjective.)
The adverb is enemy of the verb. (Try to convey meaning via word usage instead of using an adverb.)
Do not use any of the list of 'wasted words' above.
Never use a long word, or two words, when a single short word fits the bill.

Keep these four points in mind and watch your short story writing improve!
About the Author
Steve Dempster writes fiction and informative articles for the web. Learn more about how to kickstart your writing career here!
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