Nonessential words: Tips for Cutting Word Count

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As a writer of short stories, I find my short stories aren’t short enough. Too many times I get excited about finding the perfect journal to publish in only to read their submission guidelines and discover my short story exceeds the magazine’s word count guidelines. Decision time. 1. Move on from not so perfect journal, or 2. Though William Faulkner usually gets credit, it was was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said, “Murder your darlings.” It means CUT! It’s not a big deal to cut a few hundred words, but when you’re over by a thousand words or more it means cutting details, dialogue, and superfluous words. You do need to cut items that do not drive the plot. Here’s a real life dilemma I had with a Civil War speculative novel I am writing. I put these conjoined twin brothers in, gave them two whole chapters, and everyone in my workshop group said while they loved their story it did nothing for the novel. I was rather attached to these men, spent quite a bit of time researching them and imagining their lives, but my workshop was right, so I cut them. They may find their way back into this novel or they may find their way into something entirely different, but for now they went bye-bye.

Also, don’t make the mistake of submitting over the word count guidelines. I’ve lied about word count in the past. I suppose there are worse things in this world to lie about. Remember when you thought you were pulling one over on your eighth grade English teacher by adding nonessential words? Rules are there for a reason. It’s a waste of your time and the editors who upon seeing your blatant word count violation, rolls his or her eyes and tosses your lovely story into Never, Neverland. There are too many reasons to get rejected, don’t give them an easy out.

I’ve listed the various genres next to their word counts below. Please do not hundred percent me on these numbers. I didn’t pull them out of the sky, but I also wouldn’t swear on the Bible or my mother’s life. You may also notice inconsistencies between flash fiction and short story word counts. I’ve seen flash fiction publishers go up to 1,000 words. A big chunk of short story publishers, in my experience, think 2,500 words is magical. Herein, lies the problem (for me). I’ve been experimenting with Nano fiction, Micro fiction, and Flash fiction lately. More is not always better. Don’t believe me. I see a correlation between the tiny house movement and modern writing. I wonder about how popular trends affect readers. Do you see where I am going with this? Social media has given us ADHD. If stories are getting shorter and shorter, could it be that readers do not have the attention span for longish fiction? It could be a time or commitment issue. Either way, publishers of short stories are requesting smaller word counts.

So, you’ve decided to go with option two a/k/a murder. Before you cut a conversation out and/or all your adverbs (do go sparingly on adverbs, though. I made a funny. See? Sparingly and adverb…haha) start cutting superfluous words. I recently cut about 300 words that were taking up white space. Here’s a list of my favorites. Enter them into FIND in Word and kill, kill, kill. It is remarkably satisfying.

Joy-killing Words (plus-ly): all, almost, begin, could, down, from, just, might, may, of, rather, start, some, sudden, that, the, then, up, which, very, and -ly

In addition to cutting your adverbs, be selective with adjectives as well. You can also cut connectives (and, but) and prepositional phrases by looking for prepositions (of, in, from).

If you are writing in passive tense, please stop. No really, stop. My joy-killing word search method will weed out some passive voice issues, but not all. Active Voice: I cut joy-killing words. Passive Voice: Joy-killing words must be cut. While you are only cutting one word, one word turns in two, three, even fifty. Plus, active voice is more immediate.

For those non-writer types who for some reason follow my blog (thanks MOM), if you don’t trust an under 50-word story, here’s a famous six word story accredited to Hemmingway: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” The reader fills in the blanks. If there’s an arc there’s a story. An arc doesn’t ensure a good story, but you can’t have a story without one. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Nano Fiction: 55 or less

Micro Fiction: 300 or less

Flash Fiction: 500 or less and up to 1,000

Short Story: (starting at 1,000) or 2,000-7,500

Novelettes: 7,500-17,000

Novella: 17,000-40,000

Novel: Over 40,000 (or starting at 50,000*)

*See NaNoWriMo where you can sign up to write a novel in a month. It’s how I wrote my first novel, not that the 30-day version was good, but it was definitely a start.

Live the story you want to read!

A Homage to Cat Lovers, featuring Buddy: My favorite Feline-Based Short Stories

Buddy, missing Since 12/5/2019 and Found 9/1/2020

I am writing this post is to honor charities, rescuers, fosters, adoptees, and all lovers of cats, but in particular to honor my sister, Aleea, who after searching for NINE MONTHS for Buddy, finally brought him home yesterday.

When I started writing this post I wanted to honor writers who figured cats into their stories, but before I finished I received amazing news from a fellow cat lover, Aleea. Some may describe my sister as a crazy cat lady, but regardless of what animal pulls at the heartstrings, Aleea turned that love into something more: she rescues adult cats and kittens at her home, places them with adoptees, supports cat charities, and has even gone so far as to taking in motherless kittens and feeding them with syringes. Five in her bathroom at one time! A couple of years ago, Aleea started caring for a tuxedo cat she affectionally named Buddy. Eventually, she was able to adopt him to a loving family. Shortly after his adoption, however, the new parents called Aleea and told her Buddy went through a vent into their ductwork. Buddy got spooked. No matter how many times they called for him, he never resurfaced. My sister and the family were devastated. Aleea put flyers all over Marietta asking folks to be on the lookout and provided information for his return. We assumed the worst, but Aleea did not give up looking for Buddy. Through a site called, a kid recognized Buddy and contacted the adoptive family who called her. An elderly lady (with six cats of her own) had been caring for Buddy. The previous family decided Buddy was probably best living with Aleea given his last grand escape and she brought him home yesterday.

This time, I wanted to use my blog to pay homage to Buddy, who certainly used one of his nine lives in the ductwork, and also to support and honor those who care for our feline friends. After nine months, Buddy has returned and is healthy and happy. While Buddy follows in the footsteps of his famous counterpart, Puss-n-Boots, he has yet to reveal his adventures. And for dog lovers, your turn is coming soon. That is, if I can find one story where the dog doesn’t die or the story revolves around revenge for killing someone’s dog. Seriously, I know of only one dog story where the dog actually survives. One, folks!

I hope you all enjoy this collection of my favorite cat short stories and please share Buddy’s story as well as the stories I gathered here as an ode to felines and their devotees.

Hemingway may not have been loveable, but he was a cat lover. His multi-toed kitties still populate his home in Key West, so it’s no surprise that cats influence his stories. “A Cat in the Rain” makes it to the top of my list because of its sheer economy (only five pages long) and it’s one I make sure to reread at least once per year. In a nutshell without giving too much away, a husband and wife are stuck in the hotel in Paris on a rainy day, the wife is bored, the marriage is not all that, and the cat is used to express what is missing from their relationship. Bad marriages, Hemingway, Paris, and a cat, mmm? Sounds like a pretty common Papa story, but boy is it good one. Yes, you do have the time to read it and I’m handing it to you here: “Cat in the Rain”

Oh, Joyce Carol Oates! Need I say more? She is what I consider to be the epitome of a good writer. Her stories stick with you, are haunting, disturbing in the very best way. My favorite feline story of hers, “Miao Dao,” is from Book Four of her Dark Corners Collection and if you have Kindle Unlimited you can download it for free and listen via Audio Books, or you can purchase it for $1.99. Two and a half hours of creepy. One reviewer gave it a one star and wrote “NO!” I was immediately intrigued. In terms of length, it’s more novelesque. I like to listen to Audible before bed and have a bad habit of not putting the timer on. This will scare the crap out of you, so I don’t recommend falling asleep with it pumping in your ears. To read: “Miao Dao”

Of course, I must mention Stephen King. Cats typically factor into his stories. The most famous kitty being Churchill from Pet Semetery, but I’m honoring short stories, not novels here. “A Cat From Hell” from his Just After Sunset short story collection is every bit what the title implies. One of the reasons I was attracted to this collection is because a great deal of the stories are set in Florida and I enjoy reading about southern based locales, so for my southern reader fans, this is also must. Oh! There’s a good dog story in this one, but it does belong in the category I mentioned above. To read or listen: “Cat From Hell”

Angela Carter’s version of “Puss in Boots” from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is surely the inspiration for the cocky kitty we all love from the Dreamwork’s movie. It’s filled with innuendo and adult humor. I just purchased the 75th Anniversary edition on Amazon. If you are are fan of fairytales, buy this for your collection. She also reinterpreted “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and Neil Gaiman credits Carter for the inspiration for his work. To purchase: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, I must include this tiny morsel, “The Price,” which proves black cats not only bring luck, they may be the only thing between you and your worst fears. This is another short one you can read in five minutes (2,400 words). To read: “The Price”

This mini-anthology would not be complete without a crazy cat lady story provided by the master of magical realism writer, Italo Calvino. “The Garden of Stubborn Cats” is about a city of humans who once lived in balance with their feline friends, but over time built skyscrapers, concreted over everything, and dominated almost every square inch for themselves, leaving only the garden. Do I think Calvino is commenting on man’s relationship with nature? Yep, but you decide because Calvino is as complex as our feline companions: To read: “The Garden of Stubborn Cats”

If you want to comment with additional stories, a no-spoiler synopsis, and a link to read, listen or purchase your favorite feline-based short story, I will be happy to add it. Dog lovers, do not feel excluded. When I gather enough dog short stories (meaning at least a few where they don’t expire), I’ll put together the canine version of this post.

And, welcome home, Buddy. We missed you mister! Meow!