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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.

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Too little information versus too much

Sixty percent of pacing woes were caused by that pesky “amount and order of information” parenthetical from our formula: Our judging panel either found too much detail or not enough.

In the latter, a work will generally leave the reader feeling confused – or, worse, with a stack of unanswered questions, like “Why did we suddenly jump from September to March with no transition?”  or “Who is this character our protagonist is speaking to (and why should I care about them)?” or, perhaps worst of all, “Why on Earth did that character do that?” We’re often missing stakes, motivation, and character development, but we may also simply be missing a few key details that would explain where the heck we are and what our characters are doing.

Stories like this often feel thin, flat, or disjointed; they leave the reader wanting more but not in a good way. Instead of pondering exciting questions like what will happen next?, we leave the work feeling frustrated at the writer for creating confusion. Sometimes the fix is easy: We ask early readers to identify where they felt lost in a draft and then aim to answer those questions in future drafts.

But this is also often a sign that the author was struggling to fit a too-big story into a teeny-tiny vessel, like cramming an elephant into a clown car. I know, I know: Logically, we’d assume that a story with too much information would be the sign that we need to upgrade our elephant-mobile. But that’s not usually the case.

To explain why, let’s switch metaphors. Writing instructors love to compare novels to houses and short stories to rooms. In a novel, the writer has an abundance of room to fill, space to decorate, and dark basements and dusty attics to explore. We can cram our mansions with various characters and subplots and intrigue and lengthy descriptions of our characters’ wardrobes to our hearts’ delights. A short story, the instructor cautions, is a room of that house: Other things may be happening out of sight in other areas of the house, but we really only have room to comfortably host a few characters, one storyline, and only one well-placed hint of a wardrobe. We must choose carefully when selecting who and what will occupy this room because cramming in too much will make the reader feel crowded and overwhelmed.

Well. If a novel is a house, and a short story is a room, then flash is the teeny-tiny laundry room that barely accommodates one person on a good day. It’s the space under the bed, the half-closet so straining with toys it threatens to burst at the hinges.

Or it’s the trunk of a car. As any person who’s ever taken a Volkswagen Beetle to Costco knows, only so many things will fit in that trunk. We simply reach a point where nothing else will fit. The vehicle does not suit the task you set out to accomplish.

If you find your beta readers are asking larger questions about motivation and character development that can’t be explained by adding a few words or editing a few sentences, it’s often a sign that you are trying to stuff too much bulk into a vehicle that cannot accommodate it. You want so desperately to be a Ferrari owner, but your story demands a roomy RAV4. You are listening too closely to your own desires to write flash and not enough to the beating heart of the story you want to tell. There is no shame in abandoning one form and picking up another, and doing so often lets our work shine to its fullest potential.

That said, we often see the opposite side of the equation, when a writer has selected a perfect subject for flash but insists on throttling it with too much detail.


A case against clutter

Reading a flash piece with a glut of unnecessary information is like trying to walk barefoot across a floor littered with Legos. We know we need to get from point A to point B, but there’s just so much pain-inducing stuff to avoid on the way. We have clunky sentences in spades. An abundance of adverbs. Eight-word phrases when two words would suffice. Our story is so buried with overwhelming detail (her silky raven tresses! Her sparkling violet eyes! Her alabaster-porcelain skin! All this explained before the first indication of action!) that it cannot breathe, let alone sing.

Happily, while the “too little information” problem requires an identity crisis, a story cluttered with too much information is easily solved with a judicious use of our red pen. It requires weighing every detail, every word, in our work and asking ourselves: Is this necessary? Is it useful? What does it add to this narrative? And if it is useful and necessary, am I sharing it with the reader at the right time? Am I balancing every detail with something unsaid, something for the reader to work out on their own?


Wait a second: Just how firm are all these ‘rules,’ anyway?

Listen, no art could exist without invention. And between you and me, I don’t actually believe in “rules” when it comes to writing. Rules make my rebellious heart feel very itchy under its collar. Case in point: Right now, I’m breaking the fourth wall by addressing you, the reader, in a nonfiction article. There’s no law that says I can’t, but there are many an editor who would huff and puff and say it’s Simply Not Done (and I’m sure I’ll get at least three letters from them in my inbox). But my doing so is a conscious choice: I think there’s already enough distance between writers and editors, and I wanted to talk to you, not at you. I accept the risk (and the letters!) by doing so because I hope it will resonate with my audience. That’s all any author needs to say when considering breaking a rule or guideline, even – or especially! – any of the suggestions presented here: I know I’m taking a risk, I believe in my choice, I have a solid reason behind it, and I hope it will resonate with my audience. If you can meet those four criteria, banish any worry of breaking the “rules” from your mind.

Originally Published