Long, long ago (before Covid hit the world stage and half the world became ‘covidiots’ (you’re choice which half…)) a writing professor told me, “there’s nothing you can learn writing a novel that you can’t learn better writing a short story.” I actually disagree with him. There are things we can learn from short stories, but novels have their own quirks that are only learned by writing novels.
In fact, the list of things some writers never learn from short stories includes how to write short! Actually, I should say, how to write succinctly.
No, dear reader, we’re not going to debate how long a novel needs to be, or what constitutes a novella, a short story, a short-short story, or flash fiction. For today’s post, it doesn’t matter. We’re not here to name kinds of stories. In fact, for today’s purposes, the non-fiction folks should tune back in as well. Today’s subject is making writing the length it needs to be.
The long and short of it (sorry... I'm sorry...)
Sometimes the things we write come out exactly the way they should be. More often, they can be trimmed, organized, and shortened.
Sometimes they need to be fleshed out and lengthened.
If you have a book-length manuscript, you can probably find instances of both. Don’t waste words. There’s no need for filler, but there’s also no need to trim away the meat with the fat.
When we come into writing, the first draft feels hard. Guess what, I’ve been telling stories all my life and writing professionally for nearly a decade. Some days, that first draft still feels hard. But, eventually you discover the real hard part is rewriting; in the stuff we do to make our writing really come alive.
Every word needs to do something. It should have a purpose for being there. That purpose should support your purposes in writing. One of those purposes is connecting with your reader. If your intended audience doesn’t get what you’re writing, you’re failing.
So, that covers using language your reader understands, avoiding jargon, not writing in 6 point wingdings font… But what does that have to do with long versus short writing? Several things actually.
We’ve already covered some. Don’t write so short that you’re leaving out information your audience needs to understand what’s going on.
OK. Yes. I know. You’re trying to subvert expectations, writing a mystery, trying to maintain suspense, have a killer twist, etc. Even if you’re doing those things, you need to play fair with the reader and provide enough information for your technique to actually work. WTF for WTF’s sake ain’t cutting it. The point is to lead the reader where you want them to go.
The same applies on the other side. Don’t pad your writing with a bunch of filler and expect the reader to pick the short version out of all the marshmallow fluff.
This isn’t easy. It means getting into the details of what we’re writing. Sometimes we have to make decisions and hard choices.
That subplot about the dog being secretly in love with the raccoon may have to go. That interesting anecdote about the time the queen said granola instead of Granada probably should get cut (does it really have anything to do with the main story?).
Should you introduce the estranged sister sooner? Possibly, if the character matters to the story (this gets into making that mystery/twist/subplot work right…). There are other times you should give the character’s stage business to someone else.
Are we getting the point? Do I need to explain more? Are there things left out? Are there things that don’t need to be here? Those are questions we need to ask in our writing? They’re questions I’m asking as I write this post. And I’ll ask them again when I edit the post. (If you think I got it wrong, leave a comment…).
It’s about making your writing do what you intend it to do. That takes learning and editing. It also takes being honest with yourself about how much you can actually do in a given size of story.
That 100 word flash fiction works for a moment. The novel could cover years. And neither one should try to do the other’s job.
Should it be a long story? Should it be a short story? Make it the story it really needs to be. Make your words count. And, I’ll see you next post.
About the Author
Patrick Kidder is the editor-in-chief for Forever Mountain Publishing and currently serves as the marketing and sales manager for the Latter-day Saints in Publishing Media and the Arts annual conference. In addition to writing and publishing, he has a master’s degree in psychology and is an eternal student with diverse interests. He’s authored three books, scientific articles, and a range of instructional and short fiction works. His fourth book is expected in 2025. He served a mission amongst the people of Georgia, US.