Strip It Down - Making Every Word Count

The rules for the fiction contest were short and sweet-- write a complete short story in 750 words or less--a writing frenzy known as "flash fiction." Flash for obvious reasons.

Simple.
Not really.

Writing less definitely takes more...creative thought. It's about making every word count and eliminating everything unessential to the story. If you've never tried it, its a tremendous exercise in writing technique. You have to create a story, characters and stir emotion in a page or two. Every word counts.

As you consider the exercise (which can be applied to non-fiction as well) there are five important steps to remember:

1.      Concise

One of the clearest indicators in a less experienced writer is long, flowery sentences packed full of adjectives and adverbs. The more detail the better right? Wrong. Rambling sentences are often hard to follow and feel contrived. If you have to make something work, it usually doesn't work. Writing has to flow.  

2.      Clear & Active

While a story should feel like a conversation, we can't always write as we talk. Several examples of this include things like the overuse of -ing participles, or the use of the active vs. passive sentence structure. (In active the subject performs the action in passive it receives the action.)

Example:

Active: Brad wrote the story

Passive: The story was written by Brad

Before we exit this short English lesson, the bottom line to remember is that we keep our story clear and active with both actual physical movement of our characters as they speak, using strong action verbs---which can eliminate the need for additional descriptive words-and by using active sentence structures. Each contributes to clarity and an engaging sentence.

3.      Show Don't Tell

Screenwriters do this regularly because of the nature of the visual medium for which they write. A screenplay has as much non-verbal action by the actor as spoken lines which are essential to the story. For example, a nervous or knowing glance between two characters, the wiping of a brow, which can show heat, worry, or weariness. A tapping finger can reveal nervousness or irritation. A bowed head can show prayer, resignation, or defeat. 

All of these non-verbal actions contribute much to your story and it often also eliminates the need for additional words. So don't feel compelled to add them.

Note: Readers don't want to be force fed. An element of discovery and imagination is what gives power to a story. Give them that satisfaction which happens when we show rather than tell. 

4.      Hook Them

The first sentence of any piece of writing is serious stuff. It should include your hook. This is true whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction in the form of an article, story, letter, proposal, etc. Hooks can be a shocking statistic, interesting historical data, famous quote, obscure fact, a teaser statement that evokes a question, mystery or thoughtful response. Each are possibilities in which to hook the reader's attention from the very beginning.

5.      Seal the Deal

Your conclusion-grabber sentence at the end of a chapter-should compel the reader to turn the page and start the next rather than create a natural stopping point. 

A book should be a continual flow of information from one chapter to the next. Subsequently even in an article, the paragraphs should tie in and flow from one to the next.

Lazy writers make these transitions using asterisks.And while there are times that these can be used and considered acceptable, they are not a replacement for necessary transitions and good writing. Do the work and tie your pieces together.

6.      Clean Up

After you get your first draft completed, it's time to start the clean-up. Ideally walk away from your piece for a day or two. Immediately after writing we are too close and too familiar with our words. Let it grow cold and and then come back and read it with fresh perspective.

As you begin to look back over your piece, one area to watch for initially is your first paragraph or two.How long does it take you to get into your primary message?

I've seen articles that use as many as three or four long paragraphs to lay the foundation into the article or short story. The problem when we do that is we haven't provided the reader with enough incentive to continue. It's much like a car salesman that takes too long to make his point.

It's easy go long and to use these important first paragraph(s) to "warm-up" to our topic with the many thoughts rolling around in our head. In the clean-up stage watch for this. 

Hooking the reader and getting to the point and purpose of the article in the right timing is an art form in itself. There is nothing more frustrating than a speaker or writer who tells you what they are going to tell you, but then take forever to do it!

As we write, our story or article unfolds as we lay down nuggets of information for our reader. (Think Hansel and Gretel and the trail of bread crumbs.) We lead them down a path as we provide information. This can work whether you write fiction or non-fiction. Each new nugget is a piece of the puzzle that builds until they reach the conclusion which should bring them to a satisfying impact.

Here's an assignment, if you haven't tried flash fiction, then I encourage you to carve out some time and try it. Learning how to create depth, develop your characters, evoke emotion and make your point (both fiction and non-fiction) in 750 words or less--especially with fiction--is an art and an exercise that will serve you well in developing your craft. 

Remember the key is to write it--then strip it down. Only then do we really look intently on what words really matter and remain and which need stay stripped off---to give us our best written piece.

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Karen Hardin - Literary Agent and Marketing Guru
PriorityPR Group & Literary Agency