Fiction, Literature, Writing

Without hesitation, repetition or deviation

We’ve all been there. We see a competition for a short story and we’re suddenly inspired by the topic. Clearly, cognitive dissonance has already set in, because on some level we know we’re going to hate it by the time we’ve written it. But at the first rush of feeling, ideas like fireworks are lighting your mind. It’s a great day to be alive and at a keyboard. You’re going to create the greatest piece of art since mankind invented the pen.

Then you check the conditions of the competition and there it is. 1,500-word count. Ridiculous. Did someone tell Shakespeare to write a tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers, but keep it under 5,000-words, please? Did someone tell Hemmingway his famous 6-word story was a great start but needed another 1,494?

When I first started writing for competitions, it was the word count which was my stumbling block and too many were abandoned before the deadline. I’d write my first draft. 2,200 words. Okay. Go through remove the crutch words. Just, seems, like, etc. Check again. Somehow I managed to add a paragraph so now it’s 2,382. Bloody hell.

I’m an interminable waffler. There are writers out there who have mastered the craft of 500-word stories. I envy them. The author Kit de Waal wrote a 241-word story called I am the Painter’s Daughter which I’m in love with. But between Hemmingway’s famous 6-word story – For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn. – and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables at 655,478 words, my usual word count is more Tolkien-eques than a Mr Men’s book.

Eventually, I settled on a strategy which I stole off BBC Radio Four, but probably not in a way they’d expect. In the game, Just a Minute competitors have to speak continuously for 1-minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Try it sometime, it’s harder than it sounds.

But isn’t that ideal advice for a short story writer? Tell the story without hesitation, repetition or deviation.

  • No hesitation: Jump straight in without the usual rambling open paragraph that we all use as the equivalent of clearing our throats.
  • No repetition: Don’t repeat yourself, circling back to readdress theme or plot or character once established.
  • No deviation: Stick to the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t be tempted to follow a strand of thought down the rabbit hole but press on to your resolution.

Next time you’re proof-reading, give it a go. Am I hesitating, repeating myself or deviating from the plot or theme? Addressing those three things will at least help you slim down on your word count and hopefully in time for your deadline.

Does anyone have any other tips for reducing word counts? Or do you suffer from the reserve issue and can’t find the words to fill the quota? Share your thoughts!


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