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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Less Is More

by Kevin Cunnah

Cut!

The thing that all writers dread – having to reduce wordcount! I mean,
all those words, your carefully crafted words that convey a specific
nuance of meaning or emotion are there for a purpose, right? Taking
out even one of them is going to destroy the integrity of your piece
or mar it irreparably.

It doesn’t matter if the target wordcount is set at five thousand and
you’re at five and a half or it’s set at five hundred and you’re at
five hundred and fifty. It doesn’t matter if your editor asks you
really nicely and explains why the cuts have to be made – they just
don’t understand. How can they? This is your baby, your creation, in
all its glorious perfection.

Taking a knife to it is unthinkable.

Well, it is, isn’t it?

About six months ago I wrote a bunch of short stories for competition.
The wordcounts varied between a thousand and five thousand words and I
tried out a number of styles – it was one of those halcyon times when
the ideas just flowed. The stories were all written fairly quickly but
I edited them thoroughly (I thought), I had most of them beta read and
I edited them again before submission. I was pretty pleased with them
as one by one I sent them off.

And that was the last I heard.

Recently I went back and re-read them and you know what? They weren’t
bad at all (he says modestly). I thought they compared favourably with
the previous winning entries that I’d researched. Clearly the judges
of all those competitions had no taste.

Then I was stuck for a flash fiction piece for the group. Inspiration
had packed up and taken a vacation. Hmmm, I thought, maybe I could do
something with one of the competition pieces? One of them definitely
called to me. But it was just over fifteen hundred words long and my
target wordcount was eight hundred and fifty words, even with a ten
per cent overspill that only gave me nine hundred and thirty five
words to play with. Could I possibly shrink the story by thirty per
cent without ruining it?

Answer: yes.

It’s amazing the difference a few month’s perspective makes. That and
a ruthless evaluation of each word did the trick. If the word didn’t
advance the story it was out.

You know what? That story is now much tighter and more punchy and has
gained rather than lost from the pretty drastic reduction in
wordcount. Six months ago I would never have believed it and would
have argued (and from memory did) against changing or removing one
more word from the version I submitted. Now I have to admit I was
wrong.

I find flash fiction is a great discipline for the aspiring writer –
it forces you to consider the value of every last word rather than
measuring success by reaching wordcounts in the tens of thousands or
more. Clearly you need to write eighty or a hundred thousand words and
upwards to complete the average novel – but it’s always worthwhile,
having produced all those words in the right order, considering if
they are all really necessary.

Sometimes - and I suspect more frequently than most of us would like
to admit – less is more…

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