I recently entered Round Five of NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest. The opening and closing lines were given; all I had to do was fill the space between them without exceeding 600 words. I wrote my story and the word count read 772. So I began to edit. (Unfortunately, the contest rules don’t permit me to post the story, so I can’t show you specific examples. I’ll do that with another story in a bit.)
To tighten a story, start with the low-hanging fruit. As King Arthur did Excalibur, so I wielded Rule 17 from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” Find three words doing the work of one and replace them: “about that time” becomes “then.” Find words that aren’t serving much purpose: “in the bottom drawer” is better than “in the bottom desk drawer” if you’ve already referred to the desk. Look for unnecessary adjectives: “He put on his blue coat and went out.” Do we need to know the color? If not, toss it out. This is a quick and painless way to reduce wordiness.
The first 70 or 80 words were easy to find. Now I had to start cutting story. This is less amusing work, certainly, but it didn’t take long. I looked for occasions when I made a similar point twice and eliminated one version. I lopped off any sentence that didn’t drive the story, however magnificently it was crafted. Not every word is scripture. One of the worst things a writer can do is to let his ego overrule the needs of the story.
I soon reached 600 words. The story was now leaner and better.
I routinely do some of this kind of editing, but it had been a while since I had gone at a story hammer and tongs like that. I enjoyed it and indulged myself again on this past Thursday’s story, “Security Breach.”
When I was done writing, I checked the word count: 410. That’s nice and short, well within the general limits of flash fiction, but I wanted to see how spare I could make it and went on a Strunkian search-and-destroy mission.
The third paragraph, for example, had originally read: “A soft beep and a flashing light caught Arvid8’s attention: a motion alarm.” The final version: “Arvid8 heard a motion alarm.” The first version was fine, but the specifics about the alarm weren’t important for our purposes. The character knew what was happening and responded, moving the story along.
Here’s the original fifth paragraph:
The enclosure for the trap was almost invisible. The mouse walked straight into the trap and a little door folded down, sealing the opening. The mouse walked onto the trap and seized the morsel of food. When the trigger tripped, the powerful spring propelled the titanium hammer to come crashing down onto the mouse’s back.
And here’s the edited version:
The trap’s enclosure was almost invisible. The mouse walked straight in and a little door folded down, sealing the opening. The mouse walked onto the platform and grabbed the bait. As the trigger tripped, the powerful spring propelled the titanium hammer onto the mouse’s back.
I deleted an extra reference to “the trap,” tightened up some other phrasing (“enclosure for the trap” to “the trap’s enclosure”), and relieved the paragraph of unnecessary verbiage (“to come crashing down”). The savings? Ten words.
When I was done, there were 101 fewer words — 101 words that you, the reader, didn’t need and didn’t miss. You got both into and out of the story more quickly.
If you require a hundred words to properly tell some portion of your story, use them. Strunk and White counsel us to omit needless words, not needed words. The goal is not to whittle your prose into something you could send by telegraph but rather to remove every obstacle to clarity and ease of reading, however long your story may be.
Look for deadweight in your next story; see how many words you can eliminate and how much the story improves as a result. I took more than 200 words out of this piece during my final edit. You’re welcome.