Trimming Stories

(Started by Eric Smith)

I’d like to hear from contributors about how they trim their stories down to 100, 250, or 500 words.

Do you write the story first and then mercilessly edit it down. Or do you edit it as you write it. Or, are you one of those lucky people who thinks in small chunks so editing doesn’t really enter into the equation. Also, what types of mater do you trim out? What goes and what stays? Back story, character development, etc. Additionally, what makes you decide to rely on dialogue versus straight description.

26 thoughts on “Trimming Stories

  1. Gordon Lawrie

    I write too much because I probably talk too much – I don’t think I’d make a very good spy. So my stories start at well over the limit then get pared down relentlessly, and it’s usually a little embarrassing to discover how much I didn’t need to write in the first place.

    Perhaps that’s why I find 500 words so hard; I’d need to write 1000 words first and I’m a bit lazy to do that.

    What I find goes most often are things like conjunctions and prepositions. There are usually many more efficient ways of writing than the way I first considered.

  2. Emma Baird

    I write it out, knowing that 100-words is roughly four short paragraphs and then I trim from there. The most I exceed a 100-word word count is about 40 words. I reckon editing is really creative, don’t you?

  3. Russell Conover

    Personally, I go from the other direction in terms of keeping my stories short. I start with what I consider to be the most essential sentence, or two. Then I continue to add bits at a time, until I’ve hit the magic 100-word mark. Of course, I tend to write as the stories naturally progress, so my main question is often where to cut a story off in order to have it make sense and be (hopefully) pleasurable to read. So far, I think I’ve yet to have to trim down a longer story, although that’s probably coming in my future. In my general opinion, “short, sweet, and to the point” often works best with writing–in flash fiction, at least.

  4. Emma Baird

    Interesting that you choose the opposite direction, Russell. And as Shiva is also known as the destroyer and the transformer, Gordon, then yes a definite candidate for literary editing…

  5. Jane Reid

    When I trim, I often trim adjectives or descriptive phrases, trying to make the right nouns and verbs tell the tale. I don’t always hit 100 words, and if I have said enough, I leave it there. Sometimes. if I’m short, it’s a luxury to be able to add a bit.

    For me, the 100-word limit is a good discipline.With this new group, perhaps I’ll try something longer. But I have been so firmly in the 100-word mind frame that today posted two Halloween stories that might well have been combined into one.

    I am taking baby steps into fiction; for many years I was strictly a non-fiction writer.

  6. Jane Reid

    Eric, sometimes back story has to come out — and when it does, I miss it. I use dialogue when it seems the best way to tell the story — some characters have distinctive voices, which I hear in my head and hope readers can. I often hear the voices of your characters, Eric.

  7. Eric Smith

    Now that we have this new group I find things have changed. I can decide as I work up the piece whether it will work best in 100, 250, or 500 words. When we were limited to 100 words, I cut out back story, characters, adjectives, and adverbs. Also, I tended to write run on sentences so I could string partial predicates together and leave out subjects. I often found I could cram a lot more fictive material into dialog than into descriptive material. Things have changed now, though, since we have choices about what sized bucket to throw the story into. Five hundred words seems like a luxury–I haven’t broken 450 words yet.

    Jane, what a compliment. I wonder if the characters sound the same to you as they do to me?

  8. Janette Jorgensen

    I find that the first push usually brings me to about 120 – 130 words, so then I cut out anything that I can possibly cut and see if the end of the story will come to 100 words. It often takes a bit of tweaking …

    250 words ?? hmmm

  9. Amy Friedman

    I basically write whatever the story arc turns out to be. Sometimes I run out of inspiration at 60 words, and sometimes I get to 300 and realize “oh crap”. Since a lot of times my stories come out as dialogue, putting in quotes, actions and “he says”es fill out to 100. For the longer ones, I try to determine which actions can be implied and still move the story. Then I snip out EVERY extraneous word I can, checking that the action is still moving forward. What I almost never do is cut the story from the bottom … sometimes I will split a story into two 100-word parts, if the arc demands.

  10. Ruth Feiertag

    I find I tend to start writing, hit about eighty words, realize that I’m going to be way over, have a lovely dramatic fit in my head for maybe three seconds (it gives me that lovely “I’m a diva” sensation), then go back and start cutting. After that I’ll add some more, cut some more, add, cut, add, cut …

    If one doesn’t count titles, I think I’ve managed to hit just 100 words each time. I figure it’s good for me.

  11. Bobby Warner

    I’ve always liked writing shorter stories (1,500-2,500 words generally), because when an idea “hits” me I like to write it, revise it till I think I’ve something fairly worthwhile–then set it aside and “rush” on to the next idea/story. But even though I like short-short stories, when I first tried to write something with 100 words or less, I found it quite a challenge. I just wrote out a story, as usual, trying to keep it as short as possible; then when I got it pretty close to 100 words, I began chopping it down till I had the right limit. I use the “Write it long/chop it down” approach, and that seems to work for me. I’m glad the word limit was raised for longer stories, though; I don’t have to spend quite as much time revising! Writing a short story in 100 words or less really helps in cutting out any extraneous wordage. You definitely can’t be tempted to “pad” your story when you only have 100 or less words to work with!

  12. Ann-Louise Truschel

    A freelance writer, I almost always have a word assigned, so I check word count periodically as I write. As with most writers, I can ALWAYS cut out a modifier or two (or three) when I need to cut content.

  13. Bobby Warner

    GREAT point! Most computer word-processing programs have both spell-/grammar-check and WORD-COUNT features; so if one works primarily on a computer so equipped, it’s easy to spot-check the word-count situation and know instantly where he/she stands. Sometimes it’s “heart-breaking” to have to cut out a few brilliant words or phrases to achieve word-count limits–but that’s just the way it goes.

  14. Russell Conover

    Bobby: I can relate so much to cutting out “a few brilliant words or phrases” … and the angst doing so can cause. Of course, “brilliant” is relative, and most of my writing is probably far from it, but still. I guess we shouldn’t become too attached to anything we write, just in case the worst happens. However, reducing stories’ length can also benefit in the long run. Definitely a two-sided coin, I’d say.

  15. Joy Essien

    Eric, each time I write, I just let the story flow. When it Is done, I do a word count, and then start editing. Like Russell said, there is the angst of killing phrases, and sentences you have lovingly added, but for me, there is joy is seeing the story pared down.

  16. Bobby Warner

    Joy, this is exactly the way I do my writing. The most important thing is not to think of word length while writing, but think only about what you are writing. Get that all important first complete draft–then you can go back and begin the editing process. And when I am writing extremely short fiction–anywhere from 100 to 500 words–I invariably begin cutting. In a longer story, a writer might get away with a little “padding.” But when you have to tell a complete story in 100 words, you’ve got to make every word count and get rid of every word which isn’t absolutely essential to the story. Sometimes you even have to get rid of a few words–whether they are essential or not!–in order to stay within the 100-word limit.

  17. Roy Gomez

    Sounds like most of us create alike. Whether consciously or not, we have size in mind. Which means, for me, that I intentionally declare some kind of theme in advance and mercilessly use it to guide me throughout the writing. I suspect this accounts for our stories ending near our selected word length. Writers need clear thinking. Writing flash, particularly micro stories, is a great exercise for this.

  18. Bobby Warner

    Absolutely right, Roy. 100 words is truly an exercise in brevity. I didn’t realize just how much I could leave out of a story before I tried to write one with only 100 words in which to do it!

  19. Roy Gomez

    That’s right, Bobby. I was surprised to discover how lazy a thinker I can be when I began writing 100-word ‘hintories.’ The effort has helped me plenty in paring down a massive first draft novel. I believe, actually, that writing flash is probably more about plotting than it is about editing.

  20. Jane Reid

    I think you are right, Roy Gomez, that it is about plotting. Although, oddly enough, I often begin with only a lead sentence, with no real idea where the story will go. I am often as surprised as anyone at how it unfolds.

  21. Roy Gomez

    Hi, Jane. Until recently I wrote by the seat of my pants, but the writing of a third novel forced me to study plot, structure, outline — and I’m glad I did. Preparation saves time and energy. When you say, for example, that you’ll begin writing on just a sentence, I can’t help ask if, once that sentence is written, do you pause and consider where, in the plot of that flash piece, does that sentence belong? I do. More often than not, my answers reveal an aspect of structure that otherwise I wouldn’t learn until I invested much more effort. This is easier to do with shorter works, but it equally applies to long works, once we’re more familiar with story structure.

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