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Make Every Word Count (Short Stories 101)

Our first anthology, Realm of Magic, will be published soon and that means our second anthology (genre romance) isn’t far behind. Submissions close in just a couple of weeks, and I know some of you are sweating over your word count right now, trying to get it down below that 5,000 mark. If you’ve submitted one major story already, you may even be trying to get it down below that 3,000 mark to qualify. It’s not easy to cut things out of your story, and most people don’t want to delete entire scenes that may be crucial to the plot. You may not be able to remove chunks to make it follow our guidelines, but there’s another thing you can try instead.

Make Every Word Count

One thing I’ve noticed through selecting and editing the submissions: some writers manage to jam-pack a whole lot into a small word count, while others spend a lengthy amount of time on only a couple scenes. If those scenes are where your story takes place, so be it. But if you find yourself having to cut your story down to just a couple scenes for it to qualify, you may want to look at removing filler words and condensing sentences before you throw an entire setting away.

Simple is best. You need to make every word count in a short story. If one sentence kind of explains what’s happening but the second sentence clarifies it, delete the first sentence. Edit the second to make sure its meaning is clear and can stand alone. Here’s an example from the novel I’m working on right now (Reigning Fire—The Aldurian Chronicles Book 3). I’m always going through and removing redundant sentences like this:

“Shut up!” I released the leukos I’d been absorbing. It exploded from my core, hitting him in full force.

It’s a fantasy novel, so ignore the weird words.

These two sentences are repetitive. I can merge them together to keep the intended meaning.

“Shut up!” Leukos exploded from my core, hitting him in full force. 

I could rework that to make it even tighter—and I will later—but I wanted to give you a simple example of how to clear out redundant sentences and shorten your word count.

Another way to shorten word count is to cut out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. When you’re setting a scene or describing a character, get to the point and then move on to the action. Less is more. Use one or two informative helper words versus three or four that don’t really offer anything to the story. Don’t neglect description altogether, but make sure you use words to your advantage here. Many times a bigger word can replace a few small words. That saves your word count for harder to describe situations or scenes that are a bit more complex.

I’m not saying grab your thesaurus and replace every small phrase you can find with a word your reader would have to look up to understand, but be mindful as you’re writing to consider concise ways of expressing yourself.

Prepositions also tend to fill the pages in a story. Training yourself to look for and remove the ones that aren’t needed can give you more room to develop your characters or plot down the road.

Always skip the dull parts. A short story should be well-paced. There is little room for messing around, so if you can develop your characters without having to slow the plot, you’re going to have a much more powerful story in the end.

As you’re editing your story and trying to cut down that word count, go into it with the mindset of making every word count and it will be much easier to let go of parts that might offer poetic prose but offer nothing in way of character or plot progression.

However, something more important to keep in mind: clarity trumps brevity. Your sentences need to be clear before they are concise. You can’t cut out vital information for the sake of staying under that word limit. Get creative. Find a way to clarify your story without spending a long time explaining it.

And remember, for the Writers Unite! Anthologies Series, you have a 5,000 word allowance for your first story with no minimum requirement! We have received stories that range from 200-5,000 words so far, with some poems being a bit under that range. We’ve had some great stories come in through the submissions portal, and eagerly await YOUR submission.

But you have to be a Writers Unite! member to contribute.

Join the Facebook group Writers Unite! here to get the details on submitting to our current anthology: Writers Unite! Facebook Group


Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strong-willed—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.

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Why Word Count Doesn’t Make a Story (The Self-Editing Guide Part 1)

As a new writer, the first mistake most of us compulsively—and even subconsciously—make, is manipulate our sentences to increase word count. We go out of our way to phrase things in complex ways to fill the pages and meet that imaginary minimum word count requirement—the one we only discovered by Googling the phrase “how long should a novel be?” So we throw in a few prepositions, explain every single task our character completes, and describe every minor scene down to the last button on the grey, tufted, linen couch.

Sure, this little trick worked wonders back in the day when we pulled all-nighters to finish those seven-page essays or research papers due the next morning, but only when the assignment was an immediate “F” if the word requirement was not met. Otherwise, your teacher or professor might have noted that your paper was wordy or superfluous—a comment I received during a critique of my first edition of The Vanquished.

 

This eye-opening critique pushed me to recognize my mistakes and release a polished version that lacked distracting, scene-pausing descriptions, interactions or inner thoughts with the main character that hardly amounted to anything, and sentences that read a little clunky (binge-watching the entire series of Downton Abbey while writing the rough draft isn’t such a great idea when your inner voice isn’t yet developed). Since then, however, I’ve noticed many authors repeating the same mistakes as they try to get their novel as thick as possible.

1

As you’re writing your story—be it a short story or full-length novel—ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Fluff—Is what I’m writing important to the development, or does it exist simply to fluff up my story and make it appear longer and more complex? Does this scene propel the story forward, or does it slow the pace, distract from the plot, and leave the reader confused in the end?

For example: If you have repeated, similar scenes of meaningless, every day conversation between two characters and the scenes start and end with nothing else happening, it’s probably fluff. Try removing it and see if you miss it.

  1. Over Prepping—Are the sentences too wordy? Over prepping is when you use an unnecessary amount of transition words in your narrative—like of, that, after, on, to—leaving your sentences complex and the story slow moving. Prepositions are a necessary part of the story. Too few prepositions can be just as bad and look as amateurish as too many. So do not use the find and replace feature in word to remove more despised ones like of or that—any seasoned reader will know exactly what you did and probably roll their eyes. However, be modest when using them. Reread the sentences while removing one preposition at a time and see if it reads smoother. If so, you can probably go without it.
  2. Over Specifying—Another mistake we make as new writers is try and cover all our bases to keep the reader from being confused during the story. We worry that we aren’t being clear enough, and in turn we specify that the character opened the door of the house, then walked through the door, then closed the door of the house. See how specific that is? There is no way the reader won’t know to imagine the character doing everything that was just stated. But is it necessary? This is where we learn to do something new: trust our readers. We all have varying degrees of imagination, and we all know what it looks like to enter a house. You could easily state that he/she opened the door and went inside, and the reader would never claim you left a hole or that they didn’t know whether the door was open or closed. If it wouldn’t confuse you, it probably won’t confuse ninety-percent of your readers.
  3. Overt Descriptions—How many times have you skimmed over paragraphs of description just to get to the action? I know I have countless times. When I decided I wanted to start writing full time, I actually spent a few years just reading novels word for word, forcing myself to read through the boring parts that I had never taken the time for when I was younger. I was ecstatic when I finally connected with other writers and learned I wasn’t the only one to dislike scene-pausing descriptions. Chunks of description slow down the pace and distract from the immediate action or conversation taking place. Be careful where and how you use it to keep your readers engaged in your story. If whatever you’re describing doesn’t really contribute, you can probably get away with only a sentence or two. If it’s a main character or special object, take enough time explaining it so your reader knows it’s important, but don’t forget to keep it interesting. You want your reader invested in your story, not muddling through it just to get to the end.

To put it simply: word count does not make a story—and that’s great news for us. Once we stop trying to come up with ways to increase our word count—planning sentences out in our heads that sound more intelligent complicated than how we would normally speak, adding scenes that contribute nothing to the story in way of character or plot development, and looking up pictures and technical names of grey, tufted, linen couches that only exist for the character to shove a zombie into, we get the ultimate freedom of focusing on the best part—the story. And if you’re having fun writing it, I can guarantee your reader will have fun reading it.


Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.