Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tighten Your Writing By Going Short

As a teacher, I always get groans from students when the time comes to write research papers or essays. The groans get even louder if the writing assignment is longer than five pages. Not that they buy it, but I usually tell them that in many ways it is harder to write short than it is to write long.

I don't care what they believe. It's true.

Writers can hone their craft by writing short. You learn about the economy of words. It's easier to detect fluff. Shortness - if done right - will intensify your writing.  It's a lesson I learned as a news journalist.

I would get an assignment, and usually, a preferred length. My editor might bark something like, "Give me 20 inches on tonight's city council meeting." And so, I would gather material, interview whoever was at the meeting, then write 20 inches of copy.

Then... FLASH!!! Something would happen. Major news would break. Suddenly that 20 inches of space in the newspaper which had been reserved for my story was now going towards the major breaking news. That's when my editor would say something like, "Boil it down to 5 inches. I need it in 10 minutes!"

It happened. So, there I was on deadline ripping to shreds my story - three fourths of my story! I'm grateful now because I can boil things down (if I must, LOL).

If your writing tends to meander, drag or otherwise go w-a-a-a-a-a-y t-o-o-o-o-o long, try an exercise in shortening. Have a 5,000-word short story that needs focus, tightening? Boil it down. Turn it into a flash fiction story.

Flash fiction, if you're wondering, is basically short short fiction. Lengths really vary quite a bit. I've written flash fiction stories anywhere from 1,000 words to 100 words in length. Yes, that's right. Try boiling down that 5k story to 100 words without losing essential elements of the plot, dialogue, characterization, etc. Now there's a challenge.

Sound impossible? Nothing's impossible. Try it. You might realize that some of your paragraphs, sentences, words are not necessary. You may see areas to edit that make your writing not only shorter, but clearer. You see, it takes clarity of thought to write short. Muddled thinking leads to lengthy writing.

I use writing short as a starting point for longer pieces, too. For example, I'll write a 100-word story - beginning, middle and end. The whole she-bang. Once I have everything how I want it, I use it as the skeleton for a longer piece. I can add scenes, dialogue, etc., etc., knowing the whole time where I'm ending.

Give it a shot. Let me know how it goes. Want examples? The first part of my Mall Demons Urban Fantasy Series is about 1,000 words. Read "Death Speaks Loudest To Those Who Flee" on I also have examples in the 300-word range, too. Check out "The Fire is Out," and "Into the Fire."

Confident in your ability to write short? Why not put your skills to the test. Enter the Esquire and Aspen Writers' Foundation Short Short Story contest. The challenge: write a complete story in 78 words. The deadline is Oct. 7. You can find all the rules by following this Esquire link.

Now, write! But keep it short. 


  1. Yes, good point,

    It looks somewhat similar as preparing for a speech, it's easier to make a long speech and keep on talking for hours, than a short one.

  2. Yes. That is a good comparison. I also limit my students' speeches to between 3-5 minutes to help them focus on brevity. Thanks for the comment.


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