Wondering how long a short story or poem should be? How many poems should you submit at once? What length do editors prefer for poems? What is the word count that editors prefer? How can you make your story or poem shorter? When it comes to submitting stories and poems, length can make a difference.
Prose pieces should be shorter than 3,500 words, simply because most magazine and journal editors don’t have the room to publish long pieces. Poets should consider limiting their poems to one page—two pages at the most—when possible. At Writer’s Relief we recommend poets submit five poems MAX in one group and that their submission not go over ten pages total.
Editors want to publish as many writers as they can per issue, which often is either once or twice a year. Given the space they have to work with, editors forced to choose between two equally good submissions will often choose the one that’s shorter. And do not assume that the editor will take the time to trim your submission if it’s too long. This is a great way to get your work overlooked.
It’s important to write well, but it’s also important to write marketable work. Certainly, there are some journals and magazines that will accept longer works, but by submitting shorter pieces, you will be able to approach a greater number of publications. In other words, the more places you can submit your work, the more likely you’ll be able to earn a publication credit.
If publication is your goal, here are some suggestions that will help you trim your work to a more effective and efficient length.
Trim the excess description. Make sure any description you include is functional. If you’re describing the 7-Eleven clerk who has absolutely nothing to do with the story, don’t go on and on about him. Just have your character pay for the gas, and then briefly describe the good-looking fellow your heroine literally runs into on her way out—the one who pops up later in the story with a purpose.
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 the amount of homework Mr. Schnipple has assigned,” it makes more sense to write “Mr. Schnipple gave me too much homework.” Dialogue can be loose and rambling in order to mimic everyday conversation and shape character, but don’t overdo it. Trim excess verbiage when possible. Efficient writing is good writing.
Cut action repeat words unless absolutely necessary or emphatic. “No,” he said is more effective than He shook his head. “No,” he said.
Make each word count. Replace “in the neighborhood of” with “about” or “nearly”; replace “at the present time” with “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 briefcase was picked up by Susan as she swept by the empty booth.” The active voice is more concise: “Susan picked up the briefcase as she swept by the empty booth.”
Use descriptive verbs. “She walked across the room.” This sentence gives us very little information. But change the verb to be more descriptive, and you can learn oh 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.
Expand your vocabulary. If you don’t know the word “soporific,” you may be stuck with “The killer injected the terrified girl with a drug intended to make her sleepy.”
Watch for overlapping adjectives. Two very strong and unique adjectives will be more effective than five adequate ones. If a man is “massive” and has a “stormy” look 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’d actually say it.
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 come up with 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 really does matter! Click here to learn how long a book should be.
QUESTION: Which of these trimming techniques do you find most helpful when editing your own writing?
Thank you so much for these helpful pointers!!!
Thanks for these. It never hurts to have these little tips as reminders and aids.
Thanks for this refresher course. If I may add – a simile should make sense, not be pulled out of the air because it sounds clever. For instance: Changing "soft as a baby’s bottom", a much overused cliche, to "soft as a gull’s feather" if your story locale is at a seashore, etc.
I second Marie’s comment about making sure your simile actually makes sense. In one of my M.F.A. classes, one of the members filled her work with absolutely bizarre similes that seemed as if she simply opened a dictionary at random and pulled out words (e.g., "soft as a bowlegged boutonniere"). True, none of them were cliche, but they were so weird and meaningless that it was truly off-putting. Marie’s suggestion to look to the setting (or characteristics of your characters, such as their worldview or values) to find comparisons for similes is an excellent one.
Thanks for the tip. I write flash fiction and this is some great advice to all. Some novelists should use this advice as well. If it’s not needed to paint a picture… LEAVE IT OUT!
Thanks for the info.re: word count for short stories. I just completed one with 2,000 words and wondered if that fit the guidelines. I so much appreciate your e-mails and hope to submit my completed historical novel in the next submission round. Roy
Roy, Glad this article was helpful for you! Thanks for commenting!
I appreciate the tips. Especially as the word counts seem to get lower & lower for journal/mag submissions, I have to work extra hard to keep my writing tight!
I find that when work needs to be cut down, the culprit is often the dialogue. Overly wordy dialogue is often completely unnecessary, and when it is cut down it is usually much stronger anyway. So many people write dialogue in fiction as a transcription of the way we blab in real life, which is a mistake. With dialogue, less is more!
Get rid of those cliches! There’s really nothing worse. You just look like you didn’t do your homework and haven’t read/listened enough to other writers/people to know that those sayings are washed up. Fine for everyday conversation, but definitely not original writing.
I am thankful for all the good information given. I need this type of help.
Hi , It seems this is meant only for Americans and Britishers. Please correct me if I am wrong. With thanks/
Murugesan, We can’t speak to what lit mags outside of America are doing, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the trend toward shorter submissions is global.
I have just finished a book. It has lots of short stories in it and I am overwhelmed by the possibilities and finding out if it is any good.
Wow… valuable advice about length! Good to have insider information on what a publisher will pick if he/she has 2 equally possible options… Just call me “Strawberry SHORT Cake” from now on! (lol) Thanks! 😀
I definitely need to work on cutting excessive description in my stories, especially since I started writing flash fiction. As one very helpful college professor of mine once said, your writing should be a window readers can look through, and if you spend all your time describing the window, the reader will never be able to see past it and into the story itself. Thank you so much for this article, Writer’s Relief!
Wow! I am just starting to experiment with poetry. These tips really helped me to see what I’ve been doing wrong. I need to improve tremendously! Thank you for thsee helpful tips!
My appreciation and thanks for the helpful tips. Please tell me the expected and acceptable word count for a short story as well as the word count for a compilation of same.
Only you can know how much you want to spend on promoting your book , and how aggressive you want to be—every author is different. But it couldn’t hurt to shop around and see what other publicists recommend and what they’re charging.
Wow! This is really helpful. Thank you so much.
Writersrelief prefer writers to submit a group of 5 poems. So, my question is whether it’s ok to submit 5 poems related to different topic or genre here or to any other publisher?
Yes, when making submissions to a literary journal, you can send 5 unrelated poems or 5 poems that follow a theme.
This is great advice! I’m an amature writer (mostly just a hobby) and struggle with over-describing. This will really help me strengthen my work.