Sometimes you get a sense of how long a piece should be. I’ve had short stories turn into novellas, or in the case of The Guardian, I delayed writing a short story so long that it turned into a novel. 

Over the holiday, I finally wrote a story I planned two years ago. I’d read about a contest, played with an idea in my head, but then I never wanted to write it. I couldn’t figure out how to end the thing, and I felt quite a bit of resistance from the story. Usually that means I’m not ready to write it.

I filed it away in the back of my head, along with five hundred unwritten other stories.

(In case you’re wondering, a lot of times when I do that, it’s because my subconscious knows the story stinks. I recently came across a notebook where in 1996 I’d outlined ten fanfic ideas I hadn’t written yet. And if you read fanfic, you are glad I didn’t write them. Trust me.)

At any rate, this one popped back, and I had a better sense of how to write it. Virtually all the details were unchanged, and the two key scenes were intact in my head. I figured I’d work out the ending when I got there.

The full draft was 4000 words, and honestly, I can’t figure out why. It’s not four thousand words worth of story. Imagine the equivalent of standing at a cash register wondering why you got charged ten bucks for a can of Sprite.

Begin the unwriting. I decided the story really should have been three thousand words, and out came my wrench, my hacksaw, my flame thrower, and my rolling pin. The wrench for tightening, the flame thrower for eliminating things that didn’t need to be there, the rolling pin to flatten the places it was inflated, and the hacksaw to remind myself not to be a hack writer. 🙂

I’m down to 3195 words now, and here’s the chief places I cut. When you’re editing your own work, look for these wastes of space:

  • Unnecessary stage directions. “He went around the truck, opened the door, and sat in the driver’s seat.” Unless you’re trying to slow things down, try, “He got behind the wheel.”
  • Repetitive directionals. He fell down. Uh, Jane? Where else is he going to fall?
  • Saying the same thing twice, once pretty and once because you’re afraid the reader is too dense to get it. Just say it for you — demand the reader pay attention.
  • Filler conversations. Filler narration. If you ever find yourself writing, “And then something happened,” cut it out.
  • Doing the same thing three times. Even if they tried four times to jump start the car, it’s enough to show it only once.
  • Unnecessarily specifying: “He climbed into the front seat of the truck” means the same as “He climbed into the front seat.” If you’ve established he’s going to drive the truck, and in the next sentence he’s driving, we know he’s in the front seat of the truck.
  • Disjointed ideas: combine them. “He got into the truck. From the street behind him, he could hear shouts” can turn into “While getting into the truck, he could hear shouts from behind him.”

At any rate, I managed to cut 15% of the story without affecting the content of the story at all. I have two hundred words to unwrite in order to reach my goal, and to achieve it, the story’s going to have to bleed a little. Or a lot. But what remains is taut and deserves to be there.


  1. blueraindrop

    i’m bad about saying things twice… and trying to explain analogies to the point that it about makes it pointless.

    but forget the front seat if you know he’s driving…. he got in the truck. where else is he gonna drive?

  2. philangelus

    The story I just did, he’s not actually driving half the time he gets in and out of the truck (dead engine, kid in the cab he’s trying to comfort) so I did have to specify driver’s side / passenger side and front/back of the cab.

    I did an edit for someone where we did take about 20% of the story away by eliminating stage directions and nothing else.

    I read an awful book once which read just like the stage directions of a screen-play (He got up from his desk. He walked to the door. He put his hand on the knob. He opened it. He looked into the hall.) I kept expecting a narrator to pop in saying, “We’re very sorry. This should have been edited out in the final draft, but if we had, the book would have only been twenty-three thousand words long.”

  3. whiskers09092006

    For filler narration, I could just imagine a kid’s book in a sing-songy voice: “And then something else happened! Something that was so spectacular, I’m going to take three pages to amp up to telling you about it. But trust me, once we get there, it was super-duper, extra special!”

  4. philangelus

    LOL! But they’d better be darn good illustrations on those pages!

    I knew I’d rubbed off on my Patient Husband when we were reading “Are You My Mother?” and the text says, “And then something happened.”

    He turned to me and said, “There’s no excuse for that sentence to exist, is there?”

  5. Capt Cardor

    There are exceptions to every rule about writing. That doesn’t make it wrong. Words should be used with great precision and economy, except, perhaps, by Balzac and Dickens.

    “Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

  6. whiskers09092006

    Well…Dickens was paid by the word. A man’s gotta eat! 😆

  7. philangelus

    Dickens wouldn’t get a novel contract today. A friend of mine told me her agent said, “Paradise Lost is an amazing work, but I wouldn’t try to sell it.” 🙂

  8. Colleen Spiro

    I like your post. I happen to love unwriting. I love trimming and simplifying. But it isn’t always easy.

  9. Cricket

    Stage directions. Mea Culpa.

    Complicated tenses often go with them. We know exactly when he starts, continues, and completes each action, and set each interruption and distraction precisely. I interpret from your post that we need to give the reader credit here (and everywhere else). He can figure out some of the details, and the rest don’t matter (at least not until Jane’s post on atmoshpere). Give them something easier to read unless you want them to slow down.

    A lot of this advice needs to be rethought for storytelling. Listeners often drift in and out, no matter how good the telling. We won’t mention the person in the next seat, or the door opening. You need the repetition to help the listener follow, when they can’t slow down or flip back a few pages to check something.

    Three times is actually a Western convention. Some cultures (I think Native American) use four or even five. I guess we’re more efficient, but maybe in our haste we lose the atmosphere, or the opportunity to throw in variations. One of my favourite stories has four, and each time the situation changes slightly and the noose tightens.

  10. Cricket

    Then again, most of my beta readers told me to flesh things out. Appeal to the readers’ senses. Set the scene. Fill in the environment.

  11. cathrl

    (Cath scrutinises current story nervously).

    I’m definitely getting more verbose, and I’m not sure why. This is definitely worth looking into.

  12. Cricket

    How do you handle your word count when you edit? Does it go down?

  13. philangelus

    I usually set a target goal for my word count and go down to that number, yes. This time I targeted 3000 words, got as low as 3045, and then added in a bit that needed to be there.

    Next week I’ll re-edit, more will come out, more will go back in, but I expect it to stay around the same overall number.

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