How often do you really look at how you write? The last few months I have been fixated on increasing the word count of my short fiction. Land of Nod, completed in time for entry to this year’s Bridport Prize (I know, delusional perhaps but at least you can’t criticise me for aiming to low) was just under 4,000 words. I was good there and trimmed about a 1,000 words of unnecessary stuff.
Looking at the submission guidelines of various online and print publications highlighted to me that less might mean more, certainly in terms of more chance of publication. Most are looking for work around the 2,000 word mark. Which got me thinking about stripping back my work. Earlier this year, as part of a writing course, I read a brief extract from Ursula LeGuin’s book on narrative writing, Steering The Craft. In it she directs the budding author to radically cut back a piece of work:

Take one of [your] longer narrative exercises — any one that went over 400 words — and cut it by half…….take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400–1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it. 

This doesn’t mean cutting a little bit here and there, snipping and pruning — though that’s part of it. It means counting the words and reducing them to half that many, while keeping the narrative clear and the sensory impact vivid, not replacing specifics by generalities, and never using the word ‘somehow.’

If there’s dialogue in your piece, cut any long speech or long conversation in half just as implacably.

I have never managed to do this . I’ve tried once or twice since reading the passage, but I have always been too weak. So I am going to try it with my latest piece of short fiction ‘On The Shelf,’ which I completed in first draft yesterday. I did give it a read through yesterday but I am obviously not being severe enough as I only managed to trim 147 words from a manuscript of over 3,500. I can see I will have to find the literary butcher in me to do what must be done.

The hard part will obviously be stripping the piece down by 1,700 or so words while still maintaining the narrative and descriptive depth. My aim is to get the piece down to 2,000 words. I would be pleased with that. The fact that the prize I intend to enter the story for has a 2,000 word limit is a great incentive too.

Just the thought of this makes me anxious. Which probably means it is a good thing to do. I may well go back to reinstate some of the trimmed darlings, but the actual process should teach me something about how I write and how I edit. Even failure should reveal something. I’m off to find a really big pair of scissors.