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Like it or not, if you want to get your short story or poem published in a literary journal, the length is going to matter. More readers are using mobile devices to scroll through short stories and poetry, and longer works are harder to enjoy on a cell phone or tablet. At Writer’s Relief, our research has shown that editors are tailoring their magazines to this readership by favoring shorter pieces. If you want to know the best length for a short story or poem, we have the answers for you here.
The Best Length For Your Short Story Or Poem
It is important to write well, but it is also important to write marketable work. A good estimate for a short story or personal essay is 3,500 words or fewer, since journal editors do not have the room to publish long pieces. And poets should consider limiting a poem to one page.
Literary journal editors want to publish as many writers as possible in each issue. Therefore, when forced to choose between two equally good submissions, they will often select the one that is shorter. Don’t assume editors will trim your work for you—these busy people have enough work on their plates. If you want to boost your odds of getting published, adhere to submission guidelines and avoid overwriting.
By submitting shorter pieces, you will be able to approach a greater number of publications. And the more places you can submit your work, the more likely you will be published!
Here are some suggestions that will help you trim your work to a more effective and efficient length:
Remove any excess description. Make sure any description you include is functional. If you are describing the convenience store clerk who has absolutely nothing to do with the story, this unnecessary character and the accompanying details can be removed. Focus on the pertinent characters who play a role in the overall plot or themes.
Cut flabby dialogue. Dialogue should be concise and efficient whenever possible. Rather than “The point I’m trying to make here is that I am unhappy with how many hamsters Joe has on his desk,” it is far more efficient to write “Joe has too many hamsters on his desk.” Dialogue can be loose and rambling to mimic everyday conversation and shape character, but try not to overdo it. Trim over-the-top verbiage when possible—efficient writing is skillful writing.
Eliminate action repeat words unless absolutely necessary or emphatic. “No,” he said is more effective than He shook his head. “No,” he said.
Make every word count. Instead of “in the neighborhood of,” write “about” or “nearly”; rather than “at the present time,” use “now.” Replace “owing to the fact that” with “because” and “in order to” with “to.”
Watch for redundancies. Attaching modifiers to certain words creates redundant phrases, such as “personal opinion,” “join together,” “new discovery,” “biography of his life,” and “advance planning.”
Use the active voice, not the passive. Passive: “The hamster was picked up by Nathan.” The active voice is better: “Nathan picked up the hamster.”
Use descriptive verbs. “She walked across the room.” This sentence gives us little information. But change the verb to be more descriptive, and you can learn so much more. “She staggered across the room.” This implies that the woman is sick, drunk, tired, or injured. Or “She shuffled across the room.” This sentence paints a different picture: perhaps the woman is elderly or in a drugged state.
Watch for excessive adjectives. Two strong and unique adjectives will be more effective than five adequate ones. If a man is “massive” and has a “scowl” on his face, it evokes more fear than a man who is “very tall, very big, and has an angry look on his face.”
Trim from the middle when possible. This is most often where the plotline of a story or essay sags and sprawls.
Consider a conversational style. If you’re stuck on a wordy, cluttered phrase, try rewording it the way you would actually say it, or try these exercises!
Eliminate the clichés. “I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Originally, this was a classic line. Now it is a cliché, and it is better to either produce your own simile or simply declare, “I was extremely nervous.”
Writers need every advantage when trying to publish a short story or poem. Make sure your writing is concise and powerful, and pay attention to word count—when it comes to successful submissions, length is an important factor!
Question: Which of these techniques do you use when editing your own writing?