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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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6. How will this narrative surprise the reader?

This question is not about dramatic twist endings, which have generally fallen out of favor in modern literature. But there should be something new in your story to compel the reader, whether it’s a strange turn of events, a character we’ve never seen before, or a storytelling choice we didn’t see coming.


7. Where am I wasting the reader’s time?

Every relationship between writer and reader is an exchange of time and attention. They vow to be a willing partner to your work, following your lead, spotting your clues, and extracting meaning from your words. It’s up to the writer to make sure that precious time isn’t wasted on clunky phrasing, extraneous information, or stray plot threads. Not considering your reader does a disservice to your reader. Look closely at your narrative: What waste could be eliminated? What flab could be culled? Where are you telling the reader five random facts when one carefully chosen detail would achieve the same purpose?


8. Where am I playing it too safe?

Flash, like fortune, favors the bold. Its sparsity begs for striking language, vivid strokes, and a confident hand to wield the pen. Take a careful look at your draft and eliminate any signs of timidity or meekness. They have no place in such a confined form.


9. Is my title doing enough work?

Selecting a title is one of the most important decisions a writer makes for any work, but it’s triply essential in flash. Titles can identify setting, character, time period, mood, or theme without padding the word count, making them a vital tool in any writer’s arsenal. It also serves as the first invitation to your work, so it should be compelling as well. If a reader was browsing flash on a journal’s website, what about your title would cause them to click your story? Which would give them pause in an anthology?

Titles are far, far too valuable to be throwaway names chosen on a whim. If yours isn’t doing any work for your narrative, it’s time to start brainstorming others.


10. Am I confident flash is the best vessel for my idea?

Your ideas are valuable. Give them the respect they deserve instead of shoehorning them into a genre where they don’t feel comfortable.


11. Is this work clean and error-free?

Annoying? Yes. Obvious? Seemingly. But you have precious few words to tell this story. Don’t waste them with grammar and spelling errors.

Each one distracts the reader and pulls them out of your narrative, breaking the spell you’ve cast on the page – and in such a short form, it’s nearly impossible to recreate the magic once it’s lost.


How to improve your flash writing skills at home

The first answer, of course, is to read. Read flash whenever you have a spare moment. Flash journals flourish on the internet for free, so there’s no excuse not to enjoy them. If you’re a print-or-die person, numerous anthologies are also available to purchase. Read well, read widely, read often.

But writers can also learn a lot about the power of brevity by cutting their existing works. Here’s how:

Copy an existing work into a new document. Can you:

  • Cut two words from each sentence?
  • Cut two syllables from each sentence?
  • Cut the first or last paragraph?
  • Trim the word count by 25%?
  • Trim the word count by 35%?
  • Trim the word count by 50%?

The pieces you end up with as you work through each of these exercises may not be publishable, of course, and agonizing over each word may not exactly be fun, either – but they will teach you how to stretch a word the same way we stretch a dollar. And those are skills that carry over in each and every future story you write, I promise you.





Hippocampus Magazine

The Sun’s “Readers Write” section



After the Pause


Flash Fiction Online

Ghost Parachute

SmokeLong Quarterly



100 Word Story

Journal of Compressed Creative Arts


Tahoma Literary Review


—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at

Originally Published