Keeping It Short

You’ve got a short story that goes on too long? A chapter that reads at a dying snail’s pace? A challenge entry that trails beyond the maximum word count? You’re also relatively new to writing and haven’t yet dragged your way through all the millions of writing articles? If yes to the last and anything else to the rest, here’s your article.

1. Remove all redundancies. I repeat: Remove all redundancies. I repeat: ….

“Unknown strangers” or “asked a question” can be removed right away. While it may sound silly, there’s a good chance you have a few of those rummaging around in your work for you to weed out.

More significantly you will want to root out the various strings of wordy words writers conjure up. “At that point in time,” can be replaced with “back then,” or even “then,” if the placement in the sentence allows it. “Despite the fact” can be “although.” “Less than great,” is just a polite man’s “mediocre.”

As a lone appreciator of purple prose I won’t tell you to always cull all of these combos, for there’s a time and place for everything and it’s called colle… a long-form story, but if you’re trying to shorten things up these are the first words to go.

2. Efficient dialogue

In the same vein as point number 1, this is a case of too many words for too little need. Sometimes you will have characters who, for whatever reason, say things in convoluted, drawn-out ways. Most people aren’t like that though, and they don’t have to be like that in the world(s) of fiction. Keep dialogue short (and if you’re up for it snappy).

For example, a sentence like: “Dana asked: ‘Mary, could you come over to help me out with something?’” can be easily shortened to: “Dana said: ‘Need some help here…’”, or if you want to be real punchy: “Help?!”

One tip to keep in mind is that you don’t need to repeat names. People’s memories are better than you may assume and seeing as most conversations are between two people, your reader can almost always determine who’s talking from context.

3. Tighten the POV

Similar to the two above. A character doesn’t need to feel it’s chilly in a room, you can just make them shiver. Do this throughout the text and you’ll earn yourself a lot of words.

4. Ease up on showing

Chekhov’s Gun is not law, but when you want to shorten a story it might as well be. You don’t need to introduce the minute details of a world your readers will not see, nor do you need to establish plot threads that will not feature in the story, and make sure to stay far away from needless red herrings. Your reader does not need to know the full history of a side character, every item located in whatever location your characters find themselves, and they definitely don’t need to be set astray when this is not pivotal to the tale.

Note that I’m not giving you free reign to not build up your story or showcase the world surrounding it. While your reader will be fine with getting to know your characters and worlds in passing only, you yourself should have the things you deem important worked out. As the architect you need to build the foundation of the house, but you don’t need to give your reader the blueprint.

5. Keeping it… long?

The last point will seem paradoxical to the goal of the article, but don’t be too greedy in shortening things. It is easy to fall into the trap of scrapping half a sentence to save a couple of words, but if applied without proper consideration this will only lead to weaker prose.

You’ll instead want to work on writing sentences so full that they don’t need a second sentence to reinforce them. In doing so you are still working on keeping things short, even as you’re adding to the length of your work. My advice here is to read your piece and scan it for the essential sentences. What sentences give away the heart and soul of the setting? Which establish key character traits? Where do plot threads and turns begin? See if you can fortify these sentences.

So, how many words will you be able to scrap?

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Charles Moore
6 months ago

Writing essays has never been my favorite pastime. Although I was given a lot of them. And now, studying in medical school, I have to write them. Only thanks to the best nursing essay writers do I manage to write them perfectly. After reading these tips, I will try to start writing essays on my own. I hope that I will be able to do something. 

Prince of Spires
2 years ago

A combination like "unknown strangers" I would always scrap, because the entire definition of the word "unknown" is contained in "stranger."

I now have a story itch to write about a known stranger. Not sure yet how he is known or what he does. But he does raise a lot of "what if" questions for me… 😉

Kasper Hviid
2 years ago

Once scrutinized, "unknown stranger" looks pretty absurd. Yet, when I read through it naturally in a sentence, I feel it somehow works. A lot of other phrases follows the same pattern, where an extra word is added as a reinforcement:

"open air"
"open spaces"
"great disaster"
"nasty sticky slime"
"brutal, bestial savagery" (Jack London)
"biting cold"
"no restrictions whatsoever"
"terrible tragedy"

But of course, it's way flowery. I'm not saying that it's the right way to write, only that it seems to serve some kind of purpose.

Thanks for the warning against name repetitions. I just noticed I'm pretty bad at this.

One more: The word "that" can often be skipped.

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