I’ve always liked reading people’s writing tips when I have a free moment. With the advent of smartphones, it’s easier than ever to peek at my feeds or pop in to check Pinterest for a few quick and creative ideas. I can research while I eat my breakfast cereal, instead of reading the nutrition facts of Raisin Bran for the 800th time, so that’s pretty cool.
Since I read a lot of advice from a lot of people, a lot of tips pop up over and over again. One of those is that if you want to be a better writer, you should write short stories. I don’t entirely agree. Should writers try writing short stories? Definitely! But maybe not the kind most people are thinking of.
Before I go too far, let me be clear that I don’t necessarily mean short stories in the traditional sense. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) defines a short story as anything 7,500 words or under. This is what most people are talking about when they encourage people to write short stories. Small enough to fit on a few pages, small enough to be printed in a literary journal. I do think the idea has merit, and yes, there’s a lot to be learned from writing short stories. more importantly, I think we should encourage people to write shorter stories, and that’s a different thing.
See, I tried writing short stories. I wrote a whole bunch of them for writing prompts, and there’s even a section over there on the left devoted to those short stories. I started because everyone told me I should, and I did learn from the experience, but you know what I learned?
That I hate writing short stories.
There are only a few things in that section that I actually ended up pleased with. The two short stories I planned to be short stories (Disposable Bodies and Eiri and the Dragon) and a handful of writing prompts, all of which have something in common.
Three of the four prompts I loved gave me a glimpse into the lives of characters who I can’t touch until I get to their books, all of which are at least a few years away. The fourth featured a character who was to appear in Born of the Moon, but ended up being cut to streamline the story. This is one of the reasons I ultimately decided short stories weren’t for me; the only reason I could make some work was because they were part of a bigger world.
On the other hand, there’s Gale’s Gift, and a second novelette I’m working on that I won’t talk about just yet. These are too long to be considered short stories, but they’re still shorter than most of what I write. And while I didn’t like doing short stories, I’ve loved working on these.
They give me enough space to do world building and add a sense of adventure, but they’re one tenth the length of the fantasy epics I’ve been working on the past few years. They’re also short enough that they demand more story be covered faster, cramming as much meaning into every paragraph as possible. And that’s why writing these shorter stories helped me improve; it drives home the need to make every piece of text valuable, probably better than any piece of writing advice I’ve ever read.
It’s not just something to apply to novellas and novelettes; it should be applied to every book written. Don’t skip writing the story that’s really important to you, just write it shorter, trying to cram it into as little space as possible without losing your meaning. It improves pacing and makes you more conscious of word usage. It also eliminates filler chapters, because you can’t spare a single page for something that isn’t actively moving some part of the story forward.
In some respects, you can think of it as a more hardcore form of editing, especially since the best way to practice is to take a page or paragraph from your existing story and then rework it, changing phrasing to convey the scene in as few words as possible. If the short paragraphs lack emotional impact, that gives you a clear indicator of where you need to improve, making you mindful of your word choices. It makes you more aware of the words that evoke emotion, drawing attention to the parts where they’re missing.
So no, writing short stories won’t necessarily make you a better writer. But taking your stories and making them shorter? That definitely will.