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How to Edit an Over-Length Story Down to a Specific Word Count

One of the most wonderful things about writing as a hobby is that you never have to worry about the length of your story. You can be as self-indulgent as you want, make your prose the royalist of purples, include every single side story and extra thought that strikes your fancy. It’s your story, with no limits, and you can proceed with it as you wish. 

When transitioning from casual writing to a more professional writing milieu, this changes. If you want to publish, odds are, you’ll need to write to a word count. If a flash fiction serial says, “1,000 words or less,” your story can’t be 1,025 and still qualify. If a website says, “we accept novellas ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 words,” your story will need to fall into that window. Even when you consider novel-length works, stories are expected to be a certain word count to fit neatly into specific genres – romance is usually around 80,000 words, young adult usually 50,000 to 80,000, debut novels usually have to be 100,000 words or less regardless of genre, etc. If you self-publish or work with a small press, you may be able to get away with breaking these “rules,” but it’s still worthwhile to learn to read your own writing critically with length in mind and learn to recognize what you do and do not need to make your story work – and then, if length isn’t an issue in your publishing setting, you can always decide after figuring out what’s non-essential to just keep everything anyway. 

If you’re writing for fun? You literally never have to worry about your word count (well, except for sometimes in specific challenges that have minimum and/or maximum word counts), and as such, this post is probably not for you.

But, if you’re used to writing in the “throw in everything and the kitchen sink” way that’s common in fandom fanfiction circles, and you’re trying to transition only to be suddenly confronted with the reality that you’ve written 6,000 words for a short story project with a maximum word count of 5,000…well, we at Duck Prints Press have been there, we are in fact there right now, as we finish our stories for our upcoming anthology Add Magic to Taste and many of us wrote first drafts that were well over the maximum word count.

So, based on our experiences, here are our suggestions on approaches to help your story shorter…without losing the story you wanted to tell!

  1. Cut weasel words (we wrote a whole post to help you learn how to do that!) such as unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, the “was ~ing” sentence structure, redundant time words such as “a moment later,” and many others.
  2. When reviewing dialog, keep an eye out for “uh,” “er,” “I mean,” “well,” and other casual extra words. A small amount of that kind of language usage can make dialog more realistic, but a little goes a long way, and often a fair number of words can be removed by cutting these words, without negatively impacting your story at all.
  3. Active voice almost always uses fewer words than passive voice, so try to use active voice more (but don’t forget that passive voice is important for varying up your sentence structures and keeping your story interesting, so don’t only write in active voice!).
  4. Look for places where you can replace phrases with single words that mean the same thing. You can often save a lot of words by switching out phrases like “come back” for “return” and seeking out other places where one word can do the work of many.
  5. Cut sentences that add atmosphere but don’t forward the plot or grow your characters. (Obviously, use your judgement. Don’t cut ALL the flavor, but start by going – I’ve got two sentences that are mostly flavor text – which adds more? And then delete the other, or combine them into one shorter sentence.)
  6. Remove superfluous dialog tags. If it’s clear who’s talking, especially if it’s a conversation between only two people, you can cut all the he saids, she saids.
  7. Look for places where you’ve written repetitively – at the most basic level, “ ‘hahaha,’ he laughed,” is an example, but repetition is often more subtle, like instances where you give information in once sentence, and then rephrase part or all of that sentence in the next one – it’s better to poke at the two sentences until you think of an effective, and more concise, way to make them into only one sentence. This also goes for scenes – if you’ve got two scenes that tend towards accomplishing the same plot-related goal, consider combining them into one scene.
  8. Have a reason for every sentence, and even every sentence clause (as in, every comma insertion, every part of the sentence, every em dashed inclusion, that kind of thing). Ask yourself – what function does this serve? Have I met that function somewhere else? If it serves no function, or if it’s duplicative, consider cutting it. Or, the answer may be “none,” and you may choose to save it anyway – because it adds flavor, or is very in character for your PoV person, or any of a number of reasons. But if you’re saving it, make sure you’ve done so intentionally. It’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to do with your words, or else how can you recognize what to cut, and what not to cut?
  9. Likewise, have a reason for every scene. They should all move the story along – whatever the story is, it doesn’t have to be “the end of the world,” your story can be simple and straightforward and sequential…but if you’re working to a word count, your scenes should still forward the story toward that end point. If the scene doesn’t contribute…you may not need them, or you may be able to fold it in with another scene, as suggested in item 6.
  10.  Review the worldbuilding you’ve included, and consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. A bit of worldbuilding outside of the bare essentials makes a story feel fleshed out, but again, a little can go a long way. If you’ve got lots of “fun” worldbuilding bits that don’t actually forward your plot and aren’t relevant to your characters, cut them. You can always put them as extras in your blog later, but they’ll just make your story clunky if you have a lot of them. 
  11. Beware of info-dumps. Often finding a more natural way to integrate that information – showing instead of telling in bits throughout the story – can help reduce word count.
  12. Alternatively – if you over-show, and never tell, this will vastly increase your word count, so consider if there are any places in your story where you can gloss over the details in favor of a shorter more “tell-y” description. You don’t need to go into a minute description of every smile and laugh – sometimes it’s fine to just say, “she was happy” or “she frowned” without going into a long description of their reaction that makes the reader infer that they were happy. (Anyone who unconditionally says “show, don’t tell,” is giving you bad writing advice. It’s much more important to learn to recognize when showing is more appropriate, and when telling is more appropriate, because no story will function as a cohesive whole if it’s all one or all the other.)
  13. If you’ve got long paragraphs, they’re often prime places to look for entire sentences to cut. Read them critically and consider what’s actually helping your story instead of just adding word count chonk.
  14. Try reading some or all of the dialog out loud; if it gets boring, repetitive, or unnecessary, end your scene wherever you start to lose interest, and cut the dialog that came after. If necessary, add a sentence or two of description at the end to make sure the transition is abrupt, but honestly, you often won’t even need to do so – scenes that end at the final punchy point in a discussion often work very well.
  15. Create a specific goal for a scene or chapter. Maybe it’s revealing a specific piece of information, or having a character discover a specific thing, or having a specific unexpected event occur, but, whatever it is, make sure you can say, “this scene/chapter is supposed to accomplish this.” Once you know what you’re trying to do, check if the scene met that goal, make any necessary changes to ensure it does, and cut things that don’t help the scene meet that goal.
  16. Building on the previous one, you can do the same thing, but for your entire story. Starting from the beginning, re-outline the story scene-by-scene and/or chapter-by-chapter, picking out what the main “beats” and most important themes are, and then re-read your draft and make sure you’re hitting those clearly. Consider cutting out the pieces of your story that don’t contribute to those, and definitely cut the pieces that distract from those key moments (unless, of course, the distraction is the point.)
  17. Re-read a section you think could be cut and see if any sentences snag your attention. Poke at that bit until you figure out why – often, it’s because the sentence is unnecessary, poorly worded, unclear, or otherwise superfluous. You can often rewrite the sentence to be clearer, or cut the sentence completely without negatively impacting your work.
  18. Be prepared to cut your darlings; even if you love a sentence or dialog exchange or paragraph, if you are working to a strict word count and it doesn’t add anything, it may have to go, and that’s okay…even though yes, it will hurt, always, no matter how experienced a writer you are. (Tip? Save your original draft, and/or make a new word doc where you safely tuck your darlings in for the future. Second tip? If you really, really love it…find a way to save it, but understand that to do so, you’ll have to cut something else. It’s often wise to pick one or two favorites and sacrifice the rest to save the best ones. We are not saying “always cut your darlings.” That is terrible writing advice. Don’t always cut your darlings. Writing, and reading your own writing, should bring you joy, even when you’re doing it professionally.)
  19. If you’re having trouble recognizing what in your own work CAN be cut, try implementing the above strategies in different places – cut things, and then re-read, and see how it works, and if it works at all. Sometimes, you’ll realize…you didn’t need any of what you cut. Other times, you’ll realize…it no longer feels like the story you were trying to tell. Fiddle with it until you figure out what you need for it to still feel like your story, and practice that kind of cutting until you get better at recognizing what can and can’t go without having to do as much tweaking.
  20. Lastly…along the lines of the previous…understand that sometimes, cutting your story down to a certain word count will just be impossible. Some stories simply can’t be made very short, and others simply can’t be told at length. If you’re really struggling, it’s important to consider that your story just…isn’t going to work at that word count. And that’s okay. Go back to the drawing board, and try again – you’ll also get better at learning what stories you can tell, in your style, using your own writing voice, at different word counts. It’s not something you’ll just know how to do – that kind of estimating is a skill, just like all other writing abilities.

As with all our writing advice – there’s no one way to tackle cutting stories for length, and also, which of these strategies is most appropriate will depend on what kind of story you’re writing, how much over-length it is, what your target market is, your characters, and your personal writing style. Try different ones, and see which work for you – the most important aspect is to learn to read your own writing critically enough that you are able to recognize what you can cut, and then from that standpoint, use your expertise to decide what you should cut, which is definitely not always the same thing. Lots of details can be cut – but a story with all of the flavor and individuality removed should never be your goal.

Contributions to this post were made by @unforth, @jhoomwrites, @alecjmarsh, @shealynn88, @foxymoley, @willablythe, and @owlishintergalactic, and their input has been used with their knowledge and explicit permission. Thanks, everyone, for helping us consider different ways to shorten stories!

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What is a Story?

When Duck Prints Press put out our call for applicants, we asked everyone to submit “a sample of their work (between 1,000 and 2,000 words)… [that] must function as a short story.” When we reviewed the 100+ samples we received, we noticed many areas where writers commonly struggled. Based on what we learned, we’ve planned a number of blog posts to discuss these challenging areas, and we’ve decided to tackle one of the most frequent issues first. Many otherwise strong submissions lost points on our rubric line regarding “plot and events,” and specifically, they scored a 1 or a 2 because “the story has no plot (for example, is a vignette).”

So, this begs the question, what is a story, and, of course, what isn’t a story?

(note that throughout this post, I use the word “narrative” to refer to any amount of text that may or may not be a story, and I use story only in a more narrow, specific sense.)

What is a story?

The answer is deceptively simple: a story is any narrative that has a plot. But…what is a plot? There are many ways to define a plot, but at its most basic, a plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and by the ending, something has changed. If, at the end of the story, nothing has changed, then it’s not a story. However, even if something has changed, it’s still not necessarily a story, because characters and time-frame also influence the definition. A narrative without at least one character is not a story. Likewise, a narrative time-frame, if it’s discussing events at a meta-level (“this happened, then this happened, then this happened”) may show that changes occur, but it’s still not a story – it’s an overview or an outline. The lines, of course, can be blurry – and where any given author, reader, or DPP reviewer draws the line between “this is a story” and “this isn’t a story” will vary.

How is a story communicated to the reader?

To function as a story, the narrative must include characters. Now, character doesn’t necessarily have to mean person, or even require sentience, but there must be some point of view being explored, and if the character is an animal or an inanimate object, writing it as a character will require a degree of anthropomorphizing. The key aspect is that the character has some form of agency – some ability to interact with and influence their surroundings. This character will have a point of view and a perspective that affects how they perceive the story’s setting, and by the end of the story this character should have either changed themselves, or changed their surroundings, or changed their relationships. The circumstances around this character must be different by the end of the story than they were at the beginning – or else it’s not a story.

What is change?

As part of the narrative, one or more characters in the story must engage in some form of activity that results in the world around them changing. Writing advice most oftenly calls this “conflict,” but honestly? I hate that word. The classic couching of “person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. society, person vs. fate” as the available types of conflict is tired. Defining the only kind of change as conflict and specifically describing it as “x versus y” is to automatically get a potential writer thinking in terms of antagonism. While antagonism is one available type of change, it’s not the only, and while many pieces of writing advice point out that these “versus” constructions don’t mean enmity by nature…why not simply choose a less confusing construction, one that doesn’t require addenda to explain the existence of narratives that clearly are stories but are less “versus” and more “and” – “person and self,” “person and person,” “person and nature,” “person and society,” “person and fate.” I’ve opted to use the word change, because one of the clearest ways to tell if a narrative is a story or not is to look at the nature of the character(s) are at the beginning, and look at the nature of them at the end, and say – what’s different? Maybe they’ve built something. Maybe they’ve reached a new understanding. Maybe they’ve conquered a challenge. Maybe they’ve altered their perspective. Maybe they’ve learned something. Maybe, they’ve changed the world, or maybe, they’ve just changed a light bulb – but something has changed.

Before some writing snob comes at me and says, “okay, fine, we dare you to come up with a plot that doesn’t fit into the classic five conflict types” …of course we can’t. That model functions because all stories can be shoehorned into it, as long as very loose definition of “conflict” and “versus” are used. But because it’s described in oppositional terms, a lot of writers get distracted by that terminology and think there has to be, well, a conflict, in the narrow definition of the word. And that’s clearly absurd – many of our favorite fanfiction tropes, for example, are fluffy and comforting and soft precisely because they’re not about conflict, they’re about harmony. Yes, “enemies to lovers” is wonderful, but so is “friends to lovers.” Two people going on a date that ends with a marriage proposal is a story: they started out as a couple and ended engaged. Something has changed – their relationship status. But to call that “person versus person,” while perhaps technically correct, is ludicrous. Now, to keep it interesting, there might be some “person versus self” – “I’m not worthy of this love, omg do they really care for me, oh will society give us problems if we say yes?” which is how it can be shoehorned into the “conflict” model. But be it ever so soft, and their love ever so accepted, and their faith in each other ever so steady – if there really is no conflict, just those two people meeting up and having a nice night and ending in a proposal…it’s still a story. To say it’s not a story because there was no conflict, only an advancement of their relationship…yes, a story like that is borderline to being a vignette or “slice of life” narrative. Certainly, if there’s zero sources of tension, it may not be a very interesting story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a story.

What else does a story need?

Honestly – not much. Don’t get us wrong – a story is stronger if it has a setting so that it doesn’t just take place in endless blankness. A story with multiple characters but no form of dialog (verbal or non-verbal) may be a little flat. A story where something changes but some of the introduced plot elements aren’t resolved will feel incomplete to a reader. A story without any negativity could be boring. Stories lacking these elements may not be good stories…or they could be amazing, and innovative, showing how a tale can be told without elements we usually consider essential! As long as something or someone has changed, and the story is told in a narrative, descriptive format that includes a character – it’s a story.

What isn’t a story?

Things that aren’t stories fall into two broad categories:

  1. Narratives that have description, characters, dialogue, setting, and other story elements, but nothing changes. Examples of this are “slice of life” narratives and what, in fandom-parlance, would be called an episode coda or canon insert – a chunk of narrative deliberately meant to make a bridge between two established events but in which nothing can change because the surrounding events remain established. (A coda or insert might be a story, it varies.)
  2. Narratives that are either entirely “show” (for example, a vignette) or entirely “tell” (for example, a synopsis),  These can also be seen as relating to time – either there’s little or no passage of time (usually the case in vignettes) or far too much passage of time (usually the case in synopses). Narratives like this may or may not include a character, but even if they do, they’re still not stories. Why not? Because any story that is entirely “show” and involves minimal passage of time is unlikely to result in change, and instead will be an extended description of a moment. And any story that is entirely “tell” and depicts a large swath are overviews – there’s no element to actually grab a reader and no reason the reader should care about this dry relationship of events. That’s not a story – it’s a history textbook.

Drawing the lines between these categories can be difficult, and to some extent will come down to taste. Anyone who says there’s a hard-and-fast rule in writing is a liar. Just because a synopsis or a “slice of life” narrative isn’t usually a story doesn’t mean they will never be one. But, in general, if you’re looking at a piece of work and you’re trying to determine if it’s a story or not, there are some signs that will strongly suggest it’s not a story:

  1. There are no characters.
  2. There is no setting.
  3. Nothing has changed between the beginning and ending of the narrative.
  4. The entire narrative is an extended description of a single person/object/setting.
  5. The entire narrative could easily be reworded into a sequence of, “thing one happened, then thing two happened, then thing three happened, then thing four happened.”
  6. The narrative feels like a “pause,” or a “bridge” that takes place between two events that aren’t depicted in the narrative.
  7. A central conflict or issue is introduced or described in details, but nothing is done to try to solve the issue.

Now, for the most important part of this discussion of what isn’t a story: writing something that isn’t a story isn’t a bad thing! Especially in fanfiction communities, we live for self-indulgent narratives that make us happy. We love to see those “moments between.” We live for a thought-out thousand-year history for some setting that didn’t originally have that much background. These kinds of narratives are fun to write, and especially when they’re part of an existing franchise, can be a delight to read. We are not saying that there is literally anything wrong with writing a narrative that isn’t a story.

That said, Duck Prints Press’s applicant call specifically asked authors to submit a writing sample that was a story, with the eventual goal of selecting authors to write short stories for an anthology. Which is to say: there’s nothing wrong at all with writing “slice of life” stories, codas, canon inserts, vignettes, or synopses – it’s simply not what we asked people to submit in this specific case, and we’ve come to see that a lot of people submitted non-stories without an apparent understanding of the difference, and we wanted to explain that difference.

But, to everyone reading this: write whatever brings you joy, in as much detail or vagueness as makes you happy, and share it with whoever you want. Just also understand, that for many types of narratives, if you’re asked “is that a story?” it’s not. That’s not to create a hierarchy – they’re all equal as art forms, they’re just not the same.

Okay I kinda understand this in theory but what do these differences actually look like in practice?

In long-form works, it’s usually relatively easy to recognize what is a story and what isn’t. Almost every novel ever published has a plot, and has things change, and is therefore a story. (though there are exceptions – Wikipedia lists a few longer vignettes and, when done thoughtfully, it can be astonishingly effective.) However, in shorter works, it can be difficult to tell the difference – and, as previously mentioned, the lines can blur.

In the interest of giving an idea of what the differences are, here are a few examples I quickly cooked up to try to show you all, since I’ve done a lot of “telling” so far (this blog post: also not a story, ha!) and very little demonstration. These are each around 150 words, to show that even in a tiny word count, any of these narrative structures is a viable choice. (Sorry these aren’t high literature – I just threw them together for this post, so I’d have something that suited.)

A story – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where something changes:

The door slammed open. Looking up from her embroidery, Victoria blinked as Margaret strode into the room.There was an air of expectancy that was inexplicable to Victoria; she grew more confused when Margaret approached and dropped to one knee.

“What are you doing?” Heart pounding, Victoria attempted self-restraint, but she couldn’t rein in her hope, because it almost looked like…it seemed like…but–

“Proposing,” announced Margaret, pulling a velvet-covered box from her pocket and opening to reveal an emerald set in a gold band.

“But you can’t!”

Margaret tilted her head to the side and frowned. “Why not?”

Objections occurred to Victoria, but examining them…she couldn’t think of a one that Margaret wouldn’t demolish with her usual brilliance. “You know what? You’re right. Who’s to stop us? And…I accept.”

And as Margaret slipped the ring onto Victoria’s finger, she knew: there could be no objection. Nothing had ever felt so right in her life.

“Slice of life” – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where nothing changes:

“What a day!” said James, dropping onto the couch with an exhausted sigh.

“I know what you mean,” Tom agreed. He fumbled a hand across the cushion separating them, and James delighted in the simple comfort of threading their fingers together.

A beep, beep, beep sounded in the kitchen, announcing that the microwave had finished nuking their leftovers.

“You getting that?” asked Tom.

“It’s your turn!” James countered.

“But I don’t want to let go of your hand.” Tom gave his hand a squeeze, and a pleased glow suffused James’s chest.

It was Tom’s turn to retrieve their dinner.

But Tom was right – holding hands was wonderful.

“Let’s get it together,” James suggested.

Hesitating, Tom remained still as James sit up and gave a tug on their joined arms, then he broke into a smile and rose at James’s side.

“I love the way you think.”

“I love you, too, darling”

And together – always together – they got their dinner.

“Bridge” scene, episode coda, or canon insert-style fic – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where nothing changes:

Arriving home after the battle, Sandy opened the rough-hewn door and shed her damaged armor. Her dented cuirass had left an aching bruise across her chest; she carried it to the smithy out back for repair in the morning. A gash on her thigh throbbed where an arrow had pierced the straps holding her greaves in places; she brought them to her leather-working station. Nicks and fissures marred her once-gleaming sword blade. All Sandy wanted was to collapse in bed, but resisted the pull of relaxation, because blood limned the damaged places red, and repair to the damaged weapon couldn’t wait. Taking a seat, placed her feet on the treadles that set her whet stone to spinning and set about polishing out every imperfection.

Yes, she was exhausted.

But her sword must be cleaned, and smoothed, and honed, and prepared.

Sandy must be prepared.

There would always be another battle to be fought.

Vignette, a narrative without a beginning, a middle, or an end, which may or may not have a character, and nothing changes and in which the emphasis is on showing, rather than telling (but, as in this example, a combination may be used):

The wind blew chill down the narrow mountain pass. All was silent, save for the rush of the breeze. All was still, save where gusts stirred the tall grasses and the branches of trees that reached, claw-like, toward the sky.

Once upon a time, a stream had carved this cut through the cliffs, forcing its way through soft chalk and hard shale, leaving jagged stones that emerged from the steep pass walls like teeth. The stream was long dry, now, only water-smoothed stones strewn across the ground to show where it had ever been.

Once upon a time, travellers had traversed the dried-up rill bed, pounding down the dirt, knocking the rocks aside, leaving scars where their fires burned. They’d lived, and laughed, and explored, and sought…and left, never to return.

Now, there was nothing: nothing but the storm.

And all was silent.

And all was still.

And the wind blew, chill, down the narrow mountain pass.

Synopsis, a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, which may or may not have characters, and where something changes, and in which  the emphasis is on telling rather showing:

Emperor Xiang Zhen was born in 9884 to Dowager Empress Luo Zexi and the warlord Xiang Yijun. After his birth, there was a long period of strife. Those who supported Xiang Yijun’s claim to the throne battled those who still supported the Dowager Empress’s deceased husband Peng Zhenya. Eventually, the factions found common ground when Xiang Zhen came of age, and he was enthroned in 9902.

With his reign came peace and prosperity. The arts flourished. Scholarship advanced, and many great Dao masters arose, using cultivation to rid the land of evil’s left by the long war. Xiang Zhen longed to join a Night Hunt himself, but he was trapped by his political position. He didn’t dare risk the fragile stability in the Empire. If something happened to him, the results could be catastrophic. So he studied, and ruled, and adjudicated, and endowed, and endured.

Xiang Zhen did as he must.

But, oh…he wished he weren’t alone.

I know this is long, so we’ll leave this discussion at this point. Hopefully you found it helpful, and please do let me know if you have any questions! Duck Prints Press is always here to offer support to writers, and we love getting writing asks!