Tips for Writing Short Pieces

By Ishita Shah, Kate-Yeonjae Jeong

You've just finished a masterpiece. One that will be remembered for the next millennia to come; that should be praised for its subtle nuances by none other than Stephen King; that will (maybe) be showered with Pulitzer Prizes from every direction. Your story lures the reader into a realm rivaling that created by the almighty Edgar Allen Poe and the omnipotent Ernest Hemingway. However, as you waltz on your way to submit your creative treasure to Polyphony Lit, you encounter a major dilemma: your work is WAY past 1,800 words, the maximum number allowed for a submission of fiction or creative non-fiction. Yikes.


Your first instinct might be to start deleting paragraphs and paragraphs of your pristine writing. For many of us writers, this seems like the logical solution. Rid the protagonist of their groundbreaking, life-changing revelation because it covers the span of 400 words. But this, in fact, is exactly what you should NOT do to salvage your piece. Because, more often than not, you will regret depriving your readers of that cryptic build-up to the climax. Instead, take a deep breath, and follow our advice. But before you do anything, be sure to save a copy of your original work in a place. Anything that needs to be retrieved can thus be easily accessed. Being over word limit is a problem that can be solved with some time, patience, and rewriting. Here are our best tips for writing shorter pieces:

  1. Don’t pick an overly complex plot. You might be tempted to pull out your entire toolbox and pen an extravagant tale about a rich, bubbly fashion student who lives a perfect life, is dumped by her law school-bound boyfriend, miraculously pushes her grades up the letter scale and somehow gets into Harvard Law School herself (*enter our Legally Blond star, Elle Woods*), but soon, quite ironically, gets herself tangled up in a school crime (our own twist). This might make for an interesting read if you’re writing a novel, but for a short piece, we recommend picking just a couple of ideas to play with. Find yourself a conflict, and stick to that single conflict throughout. Work around it. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t make your story interesting. Plot twists, in particular, are your friend: Tell us a short story through the voice of a girl who describes her actions and her surroundings as though she is running a 5k race, but switch gears in the last few sentences to reveal that she is being chased down an alley by two convicted felons. You don’t need a complicated story to leave your readers awestruck. Save your wilder thoughts for another piece.

  2. Kill the extra words. Read through your writing slowly and carefully, and identify places where your writing seems unnecessarily wordy or out of sync with the rest of your story. For instance, if most of the story is written in an objective, indifferent voice, a more descriptive paragraph that incorporates a more emotional tone would likely be out of sync. However, when you do remove out of sync sections, make sure the plot is still preserved! Try summarizing overly wordy lines with fewer, more powerful words, or deleting them entirely if they don't contribute meaningfully to the plot. And, portions that seem out of sync - specifically with regards to language and tone - can be simply removed. Remember, less can be more.

  3. Cut the irrelevant or insignificant plot elements. Notice places where you include details and plots that don't connect to the rest of the story. For instance, if you started your story with a narrator buying a cactus for their peculiar plant collection, and you don't readdress or even refer to this cactus or collection later in the story, you can consider omitting it to shorten your piece.

  4. Delete the unnecessary details. Yes, we all love a good hyperbole, but it can sometimes take up too much space. If you spend paragraphs and paragraphs playing around with imagery describing one scene or object, you’re wasting precious words. Instead, try playing around with symbols. You can use a symbol repeatedly throughout the story by throwing it into a short metaphor or description, or applying it to a specific object, rather than explaining any one concept in detail. If you, say, begin your story by symbolizing the protagonist’s Saturday with a thundercloud, you thereby tell your readers exactly what this day looked like - without excessive explanations or extended metaphors.

That said, don’t stress about the word count when you’re writing!. 1,800 words is more than it seems. If you are still in the process of writing your first draft, don't stress too much about being within the word limit during the writing process. Just write to your heart's desire, with whatever details you want to include. Then, reread everything to find what you can cut out if you are over word limit during the editing process. And that's it! Now you are on your way to writing those Pulitzer Prize award winning pieces that will, hopefully, inch your work yet closer to the caliber of Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway. Good luck!


What do you do to shorten your pieces?

Shelly Bhagat is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.


Hannah Ramsey is a co-Editor-of-Chief at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.

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