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In the past when I've written short stories, I've found that setting a word limit tends to make my writing more focused and concise (generally, the limits have been imposed by a course I was taking).

I'm wondering if there's an "optimal" word limit I could use to restrict myself when I start writing a short story. I could write less or write more, obviously, but I'm looking for something that gives me a good starting point to work towards.

To give you an idea, I define "optimal" as:

  • a good, respectable length for a short story that readers are comfortable with
  • a length that could maximize acceptance for use in a variety of publications (although this is not a major concern of mine as I tend to prefer to write stories without thinking about where they could be published)
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This depends tremendously on a variety of variables... including your genre, the expected medium (online stories == shorter), the type of story and your own goals for it (a 15-page experimental character study might feel excruciatingly padded, a 15-page adventure romp might feel absurdly cramped). What kind of answers are you hoping to get? –  Standback Feb 19 '12 at 16:32
    
I thought I was pretty specific already as to the answer I was hoping to get, and to be honest, a down vote so quickly is just a little off-putting. It's a pretty good question IMO. I'm sure I'm not the only one who works better with a "target". Novels and children's stories, for example, have been discussed before on here with a recommended word count without any problems. –  Craig Sefton Feb 19 '12 at 16:36
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@Craig - I agree that this question is vague, and I really don't understand what you want an answer to. Do you want someone else to suggest target lengths? That's the beginning of a discussion, not an answerable question. I think we're going to close this, but perhaps it can be edited into a more answerable form. –  Neil Fein Feb 20 '12 at 2:06
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I don't understand why this question was closed. I believe it is relevant to what we do as writers. While it borders on the edge of inviting opinion rather than clear answeres, I still believe it can be answered, especially since he asked about the "average" length. I don't think the genre really matters with a short, it's more about acceptable length. This might vary by publication, but it's still a relevant question. –  Steven Drennon Feb 20 '12 at 14:37
    
@StevenDrennon - As I said above, the question is vague and invites discussion. Stack Exchange is not a forum; questions here need to be answerable, not discussion-starters. –  Neil Fein Feb 20 '12 at 17:13
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2 Answers 2

Consider an alternative approach: Write the first draft however you like, to whatever length fits your story, even if it's wordy and not as focused as you like. Then edit to improve clarity, focus, and style.

One way to do this (that my writing group has used to great effect):

  1. Write the first draft.
  2. Delete 1/10 of the paragraphs, in such a way as to do the least damage to the story.
  3. Delete 1/10 of the remaining sentences, in such a way as to do the least damage.
  4. Delete 1/10 of the remaining words, in such a way as to do the least damage.
  5. Note the word count after deleting all of those things. This word count is your target.
  6. Rewrite so as to restore any essential ideas that were deleted, while staying within your target word count.

This exercise is quite painful. It is also quite instructive, and enormously beneficial to clarity, focus, and style. It forces you to be mindful. It confronts you with your habits (good and bad) and forces you to make difficult choices about your words and phrases, and about which ideas to keep and which to toss. As you make those difficult choices, you will learn about the effects of your choices and about which effects matter most to you. In the end, your mindful choices will produce a style that has power and grace, and that fits the story you want to tell.

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I find it to be less a matter of a specific word count, and more a matter of readability. Edgar Allen Poe maintained that a good short story should be read at one sitting.

You want your reader to be able to enjoy the full impact of your story without the need for devoting hours of time to it.

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