Short Writers Have Reasons to Live

Photo by Can Berkol


Well, I’m not really referring to writers of diminutive stature. I don’t really have an opinion on them (though people with very tiny hands scare me). What I’m talking about is the art of brevity, specifically regarding paring down your work so that the point is not merely sharp, but that the point can be seen beneath the urge to put frilly hats on it. This is a black art for me, since I often take the Dickensian approach to getting to my point, larding my work with parentheticals and asides, long trilling notes and meanderings.

Of course, writing that has flowery little hillocks in it rather than a flat-line speedway can have its charms, but in this matter I’m speaking of taking the cold scalpel to your writing, when leanness offers an advantage. There’s a famous quote by Blaise Pascal that captures the spirit of my slant:

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” (This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain; Twain merely penned 19,324 other oft-cited quotes, and was too busy playing with his cats to get to this one.)

What ol’ Blaise was getting at is that it’s often much more difficult to restrain your writing, hitting just the high notes, rather than putting in both the trumpet solo, the tinny triangle and the banging cowbell (with apologies to the “more cowbell” advocates).

Stories Under the Knife
Not long ago, I had to trim almost 500 words from a short story in order to submit it to a contest requesting stories 2,500 words or shorter. I groaned about it, as much because cutting that sharply from something is not only hard work, but because I was convinced that the gouging would gut the story, leaving only its fluttering pulse. Wrong.

Well, right about the hard part: it is work to delete from, shift sentences around in and reshape a written piece, particularly when you are prejudiced regarding its already inviolate integrity. But as for gutting the story, not at all—the work was distinctly improved, the dialogue more snappy, transitions sharper, fewer flat spots. I was surprised.

I didn’t remove the 500 words all at once. I initially looked for bigger chunks for deletion, maybe even an entire paragraph or two, but the editing didn’t turn out that easy. However, I did find full sentences that my editor’s eye winked away, descriptive material that was added (but unnecessary) color. And I moved from there to cutting out phrases, removing things that seemed parenthetical (because parentheticals are often puffery, don’t you agree?) or just word-candy to feed my sweet tooth.

Sifting with a Finer Sieve
It’s when you get to the “I still need 75 words removed” point that it’s sweaty: but that impels you to see that a sentence reading, “At sunset I wept, with feeling, wept with ferocity,” might be better served as “At sunset, I wept.” Not Hemingway, but still better than condensed milk. (Parenthetically—but not pathetically—aside: that isn’t an actual example of an edited story sentence. You’ll have to pay me for those.)

Writing succintly is a fun and focused exercise. Here are some examples of six-word stories I wrote for a Narrative magazine contest:

Finally published. No readers. Quietly perished.


Her crash survivor: James Dean doll.


Balding. No prospects. Wear brighter socks!


Cruise ship canapé: tight tennis whites


That smell. Where? Maddening! Soul rot…

And here’s another attempt at cracking Narrative’s 160-word iStories:

Cold Stone, Warm Tears

He patted the dirt around the stone. The hand-tools were fine, but he liked to touch the earth last—it sealed the deal. He pulled out his notebook and scribbled:

“Precious gift”

OK, he thought. Not as sharp as “We are lost” from the Russian kid’s stone last week. He’d collected the tombstone statements from children’s graves for a while, soon after beginning his gravedigger’s job. The first one—“God’s garden has need of little flowers”—made him laugh, so he wrote it down. He probably had 70 or so now. Maybe he could publish a little book, maybe sell it in the parlor. He could use the cash.

The next day, the call: set the stone for a nine-month-old. “So small, so sweet, so soon.” Good one. He read it twice, a third time.

He buried the notebook under the stone, and patted it in. Little guys need their rest, he thought.

Who cares if Narrative didn’t think that much of them (the pigs). Short-form writing is good practice at focus and intent, nonetheless.

Examples For, Examples Against
I subscribe to Bruce Holland Rogers’s “Three Stories a Month” emailings, and I marvel at how often he can summon up sharp feeling in a short piece, and across so many genres. But sometimes, editing away some of a story’s skin can remove a bit of bone too. I took 400 words off of this story, The Vial, in order to reach the desired flash-fiction 1,000. It did place among the Smashwords contest winners, but it felt like some of its windows had been covered in comparison to the original. (Note: the Smashwords link goes to the free, 40 flash-fiction stories ebook download.)

But editing well, whether fiction or non, can often boost a tale’s flavor. And if you can’t stand to cut your own typewritten toenails, just ask one of your literate friends to do it. They’ll cleave away entire characters and just laugh at your bleatings of pain…

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