Monday, September 21, 2015

4 Tips on Cutting Word Count for Short Stories

As most of you who read me regularly know, I'm a novel writer. I'm EXTREMELY long-winded and have a difficult time being concise. Because of that, I have a very difficult time writing short stories. I'm trying to remedy that, though. Trying to teach myself to be a better writer in that area.
A few months ago, one of my publishers, Jolly Fish Press, decided to do a Halloween, short story writing contest called Creative Frighting. I had to write a Halloween-themed story of 2500 words or less.

I came up with an idea and started writing it. I had a sneaking hunch my first draft would probably be too long and I'd have to make some painful cuts. Still, the final product was nearly 5000 words! Ahh!

Even after going through and cutting things that it horrified me (no pun intended) to cut, I was still well over 1000 words too long.

I turned the story over to my awesome writer's group. One gal in particular, Jernae Kowallis, made a lot of cuts. It was such a valuable lesson for me. Most of the stuff she cut was back story, internal dialogue, and other thought processes.

She said to me, (paraphrasing) "Don't do so much thought and internal dialogue. That's what novelists do. Show the actions of the characters, because that's all the words you'll have to use up. If you must explain the actions, try to do it through dialogue."
Even with her cuts I was something like 200 words over, but one of my other writer's group gurus, the fabulous Brianna Kent, suggested I cut out my entire beginning and start in the middle of the action instead of doing a scene before it. Awesome advice!

So, in short, my 2500-word horror story, which I entitled Wormwood Manor, turned out quite well. I was very proud of it, not necessarily because it was fabulous in and of itself, but because I'm so terrible at short stories, but managed to produce something that was actual a decent read. I didn't win the competition or anything, but I didn't mind that in the least. I got a lot of praise for my story and that kinda put me on top of the world. If you're interested in reading Wormwood Manor, click here.

So, here are some tips I've learned about short-story writing:

1) Stay away from internal dialogue and thought processes. Short stories just don't give you the word count to explore this. Stick to what actually happens in the story. (Of course there could be exceptions depending on what sort of short story you're writing, but again this is specifically to help get your word-count down.)
2) Always kill two or three or more birds with one stone. Use dialogue to show characterization, explain action and move the story along. If your piece is too long, try to make every three paragraphs you have into one. Feasibly, short story writing may be a longer process than novel writing, simply because you have to go back and deal with nuances in order to fit the parameters you're trying to meet. It's not like NaNoWriMo where you just type type along, all carefree and whimsical.

3) Change your mindset. If you're going to do ANY SORT of effective editing, you have to forget the crafty, stylistic part of your writing and change your mindset to cutting. I would suggest copy-and-pasting to a second draft, cutting with abandon, and then comparing the two and re-inserting any stylistic things you want to keep. You'll be amazed how much easier editing is if you just change your mindset.
4) Ask questions. Always ask, 'how does this help my story?' This is true of all editing, but especially short stories. Is it absolutely necessary to have in the story? If the answer is yes, then keep it. Straight up. Don't cut so much that you do your story or your characters a disservice. But, if the answer is no, then the next question to ask is, how can I show this in a more concise way or combine it with another element to cut down on word count.

It may sound complicated, but we're writers, aren't we? We're professionals. We do these things and do them well because other people in other professions can't. Trust me, if you just put your mind to it, you can cut the words and still end up with a pulitzer-worthy story. No one said it would be a cake-walk, but practice makes perfect and it is MORE than doable.

How about you? Do you have any short-story-writing tips?
Also, if you liked this post, check out Allan Douglas's Four Flash Fiction Fixes. I got a lot out of that post.


  1. Those are good! Glad you were able to get yours down to size. I've not attempted a short story in years. My novels are really short, so maybe I should try.

  2. In a novel, I need to cut, chop, slice, hack, and sometimes even bludgeon words out of my manuscript. But for some reasons, my short stories usually end up too short. Go figure. Nice examples!