Ever wonder why all short stories are called short, when in fact some of them are medium-length and some are long? These days, many editors of literary journals, especially online literary journals, are putting increasing emphasis on short short stories—that is, short stories that don’t exceed about 3,500 words.
Word count matters to editors. If you want to slim down your short stories, we’ve got some word-fat busting exercises for you! Soon you’ll be showing off your trim short shorts all summer (and winter) long!
How To Shorten Your Short Stories
1. First, change your mind. There’s a conception among some writers that a lot of meaning needs a LOT of words. But that’s just not true. BIG short stories can come in little packages!
Sometimes, a short story that’s actually short can pack just as much meaning and experience into the text as a long story that sprawls. Concise and focused writing often leads to a bigger emotional impact. Stories that start on page one tend to get more attention than those that fight for momentum.
Is it easy to write “short”? Nope. But that’s why editors (in general) favor shorter shorts. Writers who go the extra mile to trim, tighten, and edit tend to earn editors’ favor.
So don’t be afraid of tightening things up! Sometimes, less is more.
2. Start on the right foot. In a best-case scenario, your short short story’s life begins before you start writing it. When you’ve got your ear to the ground and are listening for a spark of inspiration, consider that how you envision your short stories to begin can impact how they’ll turn out.
For example: If you imagine a short story that’s going to follow the life of a salesman from his third grade play to his three marriages to his death, you’re going to have a really, really long short story. In fact, you might have a novella.
But if you envision a short story that’s a snippet of that man’s life—maybe a meaningful dinner party or the birth of a child— frankly, your story will likely do a better job of delving into the meaning for the moment than if you bite off more than your short story can chew.
3. Use your tight focus lens. Imagine your short story is a camera. To make the most of a short short story, focus in on a character or a moment very tightly. Explore the moment from every angle. Sometimes, very small moments can have huge, unthinkably consequential meanings. The moment can be mundane (a man picks up his daughter whom he sees every other weekend) to the exceptional (a woman sits in the waiting room of the ER). Either way, there’s a lot of gravity to discover in the “small” moments.
4. Consider a character sketch. A short story doesn’t have to “do” much; it can just “be.” A short story is not necessarily like a novel or a memoir, which often has a particular kind of momentum that builds from one scene to the next. For that reason, a short story is a great place to work up a character sketch. Explore a character’s strengths and flaws. Perhaps there’s a quiet moment at the end of the story in which the character has the opportunity to change something about him or herself (this would be a climactic moment). Whether or not the character decides to change will give your character sketch some shape.
Read more: Five Tips To Make Your Story Stand Out.
5. Revisit your existing short stories. Sometimes it’s possible to find a shorter story within a long one. For example, you might revisit an old short story, identify a key moment, and then write a new short story that focuses specifically on that moment (rather than offering a series of scenes leading to that moment). Or you might consider doing a character sketch based on a character you already know from a previous short story—and you might even learn something new!
When you revise, be sure your prose is tight and concise. Here’s how to purge extra words from your sentences.
Shortening your short stories, trimming the word count, editing…it can sometimes feel frustrating. But the results (tighter writing as well as an increased number of literary journals that will be open to reading your work) can be worth it.
#thatawkwardmoment when you realize your short story aren’t all that short… looks like i have some editing to do!
Fortunately, I have a friend who also writes short stories. She and I swap our efforts and criticize each other’s work. Very helpful to have another set of eyes – especially a set which is experienced in such matters.
I find it hard to tighten a short story when it need more facts.
It’s truly amazing what you can do when you have to.
I like to kill off my characters, usually in a very dramatic manner. It’s a lot of fun to build up this great story line and then have all of your characters die.
Tolstoy wrote short stories that were 150 pages or longer. My 40 – 80 page short stories are just fine. Maybe we can work on lengthening attention spans rather than shortening stories.
Mainly, I ask myself if each line is imperative to furthering this particular story. I find I get started on info that would suit a novel just fine, but it will not fit into a short story. I guess that goes along with tightening your lens. I like that.
I had to write a short story for english with 550 – 750 words, and I had got 1882 words! I didn’t know how to shorten it, but this site really helped me! The character also had schizophrenia, so it was more difficult to cut out vital info.. but it worked out. Thanks!
Joseph Crow Riley – A story of 40-80 pages would probably be considered a novella rather than a short story.
I appreciate these responses to the very practical suggestions, while also loving Joseph Crow Riley’s point. Will have to review my 5,000-word stories with both in mind, so thanks to you all.
Avoid wordy description, and look for ways to cut from three or for word phrases to a shorter one or two word way to express the same thing. I look for this kind of deadwood, after writing my inital piece.
I won third prize in a contest for my 1600 word story. Cut it down to 750 words for another contest and got an honorable mention. It can be done, though it took a lot of hard work.
Had to write a Short Story for a competition at school…went twice the word maximum! Whoops!
A short story doesn’t to “do” much, it just can “be”, I agree with that tip
A short story is normally based on an incident. It should carry a message to the reader. Too much of description of the situation should be avoided. Each story should be viewed at a different angle , culture and Traditions. It should be progressive.
Had to write 250-350 word story for English but got 900 and this helped a bit. I started okay but developed too much so shortening phrases was the best thing to do. THANK YOU
My short story was supposed to be at least 2 to 2 1/2 pages long. I went over that and it turned out to total 6 pages. I may need help with this.
Nice editing and thankyou for helping.
An elongated and complex piece of work is worth a lot less than an austere yet intense one
Imagine having a 750 word cap on a contest but accidentally writing 2000+… and you’re not even done yet. Sounds about right over here!
This helped a little bit, but I still can’t get it short enough.