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Make every word count: An editor’s tips for writing the best flash stories

Here's how to make your short-short fiction and nonfiction stand out in the queue.

Flash is one of my very favorite genres. Yet despite its short form, it contains a perilous amount of opportunities for a writer to misstep. With just one wrong word, the entire work falters, and the hopeful editor sighs and shuffles on to the next story in the queue. Reading flash submissions is an easy way to have your editorial heart broken a hundred times a day – but when a winning work lands on your desk, it’s like finding lightning in a bottle. Because when each word is placed exactly right, a tiny narrative can become a powder keg, leaving a major impact that defies its short length. It’s a work of pure magic, the kind that makes me fall head-over-heels for the genre all over again.

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Before we can talk about all the factors that make or break the flash genre, we need to talk about what it is, what it isn’t, and why the heck you should consider writing it in the first place.

So: What is flash, anyway?

The No. 1 factor that defines a work as a piece of “flash” is word count. That’s it.

You can have flash fiction OR flash nonfiction.

You can write flash romance, horror, sci-fi, memoir, or humor.

You can call it microfiction or microstories or micromemoir or just call it short-short writing. (You might even call it a prose poem; see our advice columnist Gigi’s advice for differentiating between the two if you’re waffling.)

Whatever on Earth you decide to call it, your work can be about anyone or anything as long as it falls under a certain word count. The catch? That maximum length differs from publication to publication.

So, there’s no end-all, be-all definition to how long a flash work can or can’t be. But if I were to ask you the most widely accepted maximum length for flash fiction and nonfiction, what would you guess?

A. 500 words

B. 750 words

C. 1,000 words

D. 1,500 words

 

Technically, all of these answers are acceptable, since there are flash-seeking journals that cap their short-short submissions at each of these lengths. But generally speaking, your best bet for the most widely accepted definition is C. Most publications (including The Writer) cap flash at 1,000 words. 1,001? No dice.

 

Why bother writing it?

I believe every writer should try their hand at writing short at least once. Why? Because learning to write short is like learning to stretch a dollar.

Writing in tightly compressed forms forces us to ask ourselves:

  • How can I make this one sentence do the work of two?
  • How can I make this one word do the work of five?
  • What is absolutely essential to leave on the page?
  • What can I get away with cutting?

The skills we develop when we practice the art of writing economically don’t vanish when we switch to fleshier forms; rather, they make us laser-focused when we hunt for excess on the page. Writing leanly will teach you how to cull flab in any draft, and your future manuscripts will be all the better for it.

But flash has other benefits besides fine-tuning your editing eye. It’s also a form that doesn’t require nearly as much time and attention as other genres, meaning it’s tailor-made for a world where both commodities are in precious short supply. Short-short stories provide quick hits of serotonin for both reader and writer alike. They require less time to write than longform projects and even less time to read. They can withstand even the shortest of attention spans and fill the tiniest pockets of time, whether our readers are in waiting rooms, at bus stops, or in the school pick-up lane. For both reader and writer, they are borderline bingeable.

But flash has subtler benefits for the writer, too. It’s an ideal form for experimentation, allowing the author to use bolder conventions or POVs that would become tiresome in a longer work. It’s a terrific petri dish for toying with language and form “rules,” offering a safe and confined playground to try unexpected things. And for writers interested in exploring dark or intense subjects or characters, there’s less risk of exhausting or overwhelming the reader with material that might prove too harsh or severe to sustain a longer work.

That said.

 

“Short” does not mean “easy”

Flash contains no room for error. Zero. Zilch. It’s the closest thing literature has to a high-wire act, and one wrong step will send your work plummeting into an editor’s rejection pile. Never mistake a low word count for a low level of precision.

Unlike in novels and memoir – or even short stories and essays – there is no time for gradual layering of character, plot, setting, theme, etc. There is no “gradual” or “layering” in flash, period. What you see is what you get, so the author had better start with the getting from the very first word. There is no room for throat-clearing, for swaths of nuance, for large casts of characters or epic plots. Every word must be laser-focused from the very first line.

Flash cannot abide clutter. It requires adequate space to store our content. We can call it space, or, more accurately, we can call it silence. A good work of flash lives and dies by what is said as much as what the writer leaves unsaid.

Writing on the art of short-short nonfiction in our pages a few years ago, Beth Ann Fennelly wrote: “Like jokes, micro-memoirs succeed or fail based on timing; timing, which is created through the amount and order of information in balance with silence.”

And it is this precise equation – (amount of information + order of information) + silence – that trips up so many writers in this genre. Because it’s these components that work together to create a piece’s pacing, and pacing is the No. 1 problem I see in this field. But I didn’t realize how severely it plagued the form until I broke down our flash contest rejections by the number.

In every The Writer contest, we offer entrants the opportunity to receive a critique of their submission. I combed through the top revision suggestions listed in every critique in our 2019 flash contest, which accepted both fiction and nonfiction under 1,000 words, and identified the top pitfalls that plagued submissions, as seen in the left chart below.

Some of the answers were unsurprising. It made sense that submissions with weak prose would struggle in a form that relies so heavily on economy of language, while endings and successful character development are an Achilles heel for authors in every genre. But in the end, it wasn’t any of these common missteps that was the fatal flaw for the majority of submissions; 55% of submissions were felled by pacing woes.

Admittedly, even with our handy formula listed above, pacing is still a bit of a nebulous term. What specifically affected each submission’s pacing?

 

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