Writing Short.


I’m used to writing short. A radio commentary runs five hundred words; an editorial column, about a thousand; a post to this blog somewhere in-between. One of my best-paying jobs requires turning a thirty-minute interview into four hundred and fifty words and reviewing a book in one hundred and fifty.

Writers are always told, “Write to your audience.” I assume my audience is multi-tasking – either driving, clocking miles on a treadmill, or on the pot. As writers, we can hope for constipated readers, but I don’t think we can count on it.

Nor is writing short confined to non-fiction. The historical trend in fiction has been toward shorter and shorter. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1748) is generally credited as the longest novel in the English language. Even abridged versions of Clarissa are long – on a par with the novels of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and other eminent Victorians, whose audience lived at the pace of foot- and horse- travel. In our cyber-age, novels have dropped to 80,000 words, and flash fiction has become all the rage.

Here are my five rules for writing short:

  1. Tell a story. While other species may have language, as far as we know, only humans have narrative. We take stories seriously, and we remember them. The narrative engine pulls everything you have to say.
  2.  Be Specific. Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The plot is entirely predictable: Boy meets girl. They hate each other. They fall in love. The delight is in the details: Darcy is tall, dark, handsome and rude. Elizabeth is smart, penniless and shrewd. While a reader is free to make generalizations, it’s a writer’s job to use minute particulars to lead a reader to them.
  3. Hone Your Diction. Use the word that is specific and exact. As Mark Twain explains, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Use the right word. Don’t say car when you mean rust-bucket. There’s a world of difference between Pops and Daddy. Do you mean sensuous or sinewy, scrawny or slim?
  4. Power with Verbs. No other part of speech insinuates itself into your reader’s mind as a verb. Verbs attract attention. Verbs flirt with your readers; verbs weasel into the creases of your reader’s brain. A Positron Emission Tomography (PET scan) of the brain shows that it’s the verbs that trigger the green and red fireworks of a reader’s neurotransmitters.
  5. Compress. You’ve invented your story, filled it with minute particulars, fortified your verbs, and chosen your velvet words; now it’s time to cross out the unnecessary ones. Sticking to a strict word-count demands that you write to the point, with focus.

The payoff for writing short is being read. Elmore Leonard says it best, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

This post is 487 words.

Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com

47 thoughts on “Writing Short.

  1. Hey Deborah,
    I love this post! Thanks for your writing, and for your conciseness. I’ve been keeping my blog posts to under 500 words for a while now, and I enjoy the challenge and the craft of it.


  2. This is exactly, the purpose behind my second blog…..to get better @ writing shorter. Posts on my main blog, avantguard77.wordpress.com are usually 800-1000 words. Shortwinded77.wordpress.com, are, obviously, my attempts at being just that!!! Thanks for your insight!!!!

  3. I am challenged when writing short and your short post really helped! Having five rules makes it easier for me to remember. Much appreciated!

  4. Duh! I recently posted a previously published chapter of 2,000+ words (Barbara) on my blog. Now I’m wondering what I should have left out. You’ve certainly given me food for thought. The chapter of my own on breast cancer is the hardest one for me to cut. I keep slashing away at it. Thanks for the tips!

    • Have you ever tried reading your work aloud? Cats and dogs are sometimes good listeners – especially since they allow you to hear what you’ve written. I find this often helps me identify the deadwood. I don’t read aloud to human listeners until I’ve cut it shorter yet.
      Good luck!

  5. Certainly short and very useful guideline to writing short. My favorite point is when you described the role of verbs in good writing; some creative use of verbs there! Loved it.

    • Kat –
      This is why I’m a novelist and not a short story writer: I love words and use lots of them – there’s a place for lace, and a place for plain stitching. There’s a proverb about that, goes something like, “Just right is halfway between too little and too much.”
      Good luck!

  6. I write articles – short ones. The longest I’ve ever written is a little over 900 words. The shortest about 474. For weekly deadlines I have no problem with this. Creatively, it’s extreme torture becaue I LOVE descriptive writing. Using words succinctly presents an added pressure when you decide to write micro fiction because timing becomes even more important in terms of bringing the reader home. Still learning how to handle timing and give my reader a wham-bam in short word count. Definitely not a master at this…yet.

    Notice how everyone responded in short statements? 🙂
    Love that subtle influence!

    • Laura,
      You’ve mentioned several other tools beyond diction that help inform a piece, like rhythm and description. We need it all! But I think it’s okay to focus on one aspect of writing at a time – especially in something as focused as an instructional blog.

  7. I loved this post and I love this blog. I am now going to unsubscribe to all the other ones I follow! You and your team of writers give useful advice that I can immediately use to improve my own writing. I really appreciate that. Thank you.

  8. Haha, this made me laugh out loud. I admire you. Excellent blog post, and sharing the knowledge? Fantastic.

  9. Reblogged this on Sean Woody and commented:
    I do like the simplicity of your rules for it being such a difficult thing to do, only my problem is expanding my shorts to be greater than just mediocre short stories. How can I know when to expand on something or know its indeed not a skip worthy part?

  10. Pingback: The Writers’ Barn & Shared Office Space | Live to Write - Write to Live

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s