Excuses, Excuses

100 words, or 1000, isn’t many. Every piece of writing has a word limit, whether it’s for a contest, a magazine or even a novel submission. Nowhere is this more apparent than in flash fiction. There are definitely some stories you can’t tell in flash fiction. But I have to admit it annoys me when people respond to constructive criticism by using word limits as an excuse.

I couldn’t fit it in comes back to me time and again, when I suggest that a piece would have benefitted from more clarity, an explanation of a particular point, or so on.

Well, you know what? Try harder. I am well aware of the restrictions of word limits; I write flash fiction once or twice every week, and I know how hard it is to condense a story, to rework it to fit a word limit.

Some stories just don’t fit into some word counts. Spot Goes To The Park will never be a worthwhile novel, and you couldn’t fit War and Peace into 1000 words for all the tea in China. So if the story really doesn’t fit the word limit, don’t use it. Sure, write it anyway, but write it for a different contest, or just for fun. Don’t write a poor version and then blame the word count.

But actually, the story that doesn’t fit is the exception. If you publish a novel, someone will probably need to come up with an elevator pitch (about 25 words) or the blurb for the dustsheet (100-200 words) or even just a summary (similar). In either case, they will be looking for the essence of the story. In flash fiction, that’s all you have. It’s not quite the same as a blurb, because flash fiction includes the ending, but it is quite like the summary you’ll be putting in your covering letters.

The two keys tricks are to make every word count and to imply everything. Don’t spend half your precious words telling us that a character is cruel, tell us in a single sentence that they stepped on a kitten because it was in the way, or even, in the perfect single word. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, but are all the more powerful because of it.

As a general rule (to which there are obviously exceptions), I find that flash fiction works best if it’s either dialogue or not dialogue. Trying to fit both in is just too much for the space available. Back-story is out too, except by implication, but by implication it’s in in spades.

But I’m digressing from my rant. The point is not that I know how best to write flash fiction, or any kind of fiction. The point is that as a writer, I think one has a duty to write to the form. There is no kudos in writing a song and then saying “well, it would have worked better if it were a prose piece,” and word limits are no excuse for a poor story.

So the next time someone critiques your writing, think carefully about blaming the form. You don’t have to agree with the comment, of course, but if you do agree with the comment, you’re the one who can learn from it and improve, the rule-makers aren’t going to change the word limit just to please you.

There, rant over. Cheerier service will be resumed next week. Probably.


Filed under Writing

14 responses to “Excuses, Excuses

  1. paulmclem

    Agreed. Nothing worse than a story which doesn’t make sense because the author has tried to squeeze 400 words into 100. Write a complete story in/around the word limit…that’s the whole point of the challenge.

  2. I enjoyed your rant and hope you felt better forit. I wish you’d pop over and throw some con-crit my way, but I appreciate the FF crowd is so big now, we can’t read everyone all of the time. 🙂

    • Sadly, it is, but I’ll do my very best to come and see yours this week, Sarah Ann. I wish I had the time to get round more than I do. Thank you for sticking with me.

  3. Been there, ranted that. Good one.


  4. Can you hear my applause? This is so true. In fact, just today, a fellow writer actually said he thought he would drop out of a forum simply because he was struggling to tell a story properly with only 4,000 characters–that usually lands anywhere between 650 and 750 words. This same writer, who has some good, raw talent, wasted about 75 words of dialogue explaining to the reader why its difficult to create a commercial for certain pharmaceuticals. Interestingly, he did not respond to my recommendation that he cut that portion in favor of driving the action.

    I’m glad to hear that someone else doesn’t enjoy listening to the excuses of lazy writers.


    • It might be for the best if he does drop out, MG – I definitely think some forms suit some writers better than others, so maybe 4000 characters just isn’t for him. Some people just don’t want to be helped, I guess.

  5. Reblogged this on Being MG and commented:
    This is just too good not to share. Writers, take notes!

  6. Pingback: Some excuses are more equal than others? | elmowrites

  7. Found this through MG’s blog. Hope it’s okay to just jump right in. I don’t agree with all conversation or no conversation, but I do agree that not every story fits every format, and one should choose an idea that can conform to a given limit. I’m often surprised at how much can be accomplished.

    • Certainly don’t mind you jumping in – welcome, Mirel! I know the dialogue / non-dialogue point is an oversimplification, but it’s something I’ve seen done badly a lot more often than well.

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