I'm writing a short story for an assignment at school - but I'm having trouble keep it short. I have a habit to go off on a tangent quite a bit, and this ends up making it a lot longer than it should be. Also, I can't seem to get to the point and tend to dance around it quite a bit. Can anyone give me advice on how to keep it precise? the limit I have is 800 words.

  • 1
    Write two. The one you want to write, and the one butchered to size.
    – SF.
    Oct 21, 2013 at 14:18
  • 4
    Step 1. Cut out all the tangents.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Oct 21, 2013 at 18:19

7 Answers 7


It is important to keep the story in the scope of your limit. What I mean by this is don't try to tell an epic tale in 800 words. When I write flash or microfiction I do two things:

1) I start in the middle of the action. 2) I keep things tight, focusing on an instant instead of a scene.

If you set a goal and keep that in mind and only tell what the reader needs to know to make sense of what is going on, it is possible to write impactful fiction with a minimal of words. For me these tend to be emotionally evocative without being heavy on action, focusing on a change in the character rather than a change in events.

I wrote a good article on this a while back which you can find on my blog:


In the article I talk about word economy in relation to a flash fiction contest where you had a limit of 55 words to tell a story. I hope it helps.


Writing a story in 800 or fewer words can be very difficult, but in a less time-constrained writing environment you have the luxury of extensive editing. Good editing often must be ruthless; each small piece of expression, even a single word, can seem like one of your children which you must cast out of your family. Even an especially powerful phrase may need to be kept from the story. (Of course, you can save any removed content for later use.)

Often one must allow the readers to insert details from their imaginations even if these details conflict with your imagination. Allowing the readers to more extensively use their imaginations has the benefit of increasing the readers involvement in the story.

Writing a short short (500 to 1,000 words) is not about world building or even extensive characterization, so details can often be left out.

You might also note that specific, concrete nouns and verbs can often eliminate the need for additional modifying words and phrases (particularly adjectives and adverbs; e.g., "hurried" rather than "walked quickly" or "raced" rather than "ran as fast as he could"). Similarly using active voice versus passive voice and using inanimate objects as sentence subjects can tighten sentence structure (e.g., "her Corvette growled to the curb" rather than "she drove her Corvette to the curb" [one word longer and not even including the 'growling' aspect] or the awful "her Corvette was driven to the curb by her").

If you have a complete story that is too long, not only can you remove small portions that do not add to the main point of the story but you may also choose a subplot within the story to become the plot of the shortened version.

The following exercise that just came to mind might be helpful in motivating harsh reductions in word count: At the word count limit, insert an abrupt unsatisfactory ending (e.g., the characters are incinerated in a nuclear blast). The point is not to end the story in that way but to force the writer to end the story properly before that possible ending can come. (Once the story is properly ended, alternative futures are possible, almost as if the story was a fixed-length, door-lined passage ending in a doorway you do not want to use.)


What you need to do is get rid of unnecessary words. For example, "She went down the extremely long passageway." could be shortened to "She went down the hallway." That is what I do. In the previous example, it could sound better by saying "She sprinted down the hallway" or something like that.


  • Removing baggage words is always a good idea. Target adverbs with malice. And you can wage war on "the" and "that", too. Read a sentence without these words, and if it works without them, zap. Another way to slim down a work and improve the strength of the writing: Identify passive voice and replace it with active voice.
    – elrobis
    Nov 8, 2017 at 22:23

I have this habit as well. Saying the same thing in less words while getting across the same meaning is a big part of skillful writing composition.

If you want to trim your work but keep the meaning, try to find where you can "Compress" sentences, or even combine them. Read through multiple times and see where redundancy and unnecessary detail occurs that add nothing to what you are focusing on.

With that being said, focusing on your point will require the above regardless. Try looking at each of your paragraphs and asking what they are leading the reader to; what is the point of your story and is what you are leading the reader along accomplishing the point of your story, and are you doing so by showing not telling?

The Purdue Online Writing Lab, specifically this page, may be of great help to you:

Common Pitfalls for Beginning Fiction Writers


If you need to cut things down, you can look at what is necessary to the story and what isn't. Definitely re-read your story and you might find things that you don't want in there, or perhaps a better and shorter way of writing things. i know that when I first started writing flash fiction i would reiterate the same thing at least twice. So look out for repetition. This can be helpful, when you want to keep your story without forcing you to restart completely, which i know a few students in my class had done.


The more elements your story has, the longer it will be. That means that every additional character added makes your story longer. Every additional location and scene makes the story longer. Every unique viewpoint makes the story longer. Every additional conflict makes the story longer.

Combine and axe until all the unnecessary elements have been trimmed away.

Additionally, short stories are fundamentally different from novels in that readers expect to have to fill in gaps themselves rather than getting all the information in exposition. Write all of the interesting details you want, but then cut out anything that isn't required to understand the story.

Even then you've probably kept too much. Cut out all the exposition you can find until you think that the story is unreadable. Then give it to a friend (preferably one who reads short fiction) and find out what confused then and slowly add it back in.

  1. Remove adverbs They weaken your language.
    Instead use strong verbs. Here are some quick examples:


  • slowly walked with ambled
  • quickly grabbed with snatched
  • quietly cried with whimpered

  1. Summarize your story in one or two sentences (to get an idea what you are really writing)

Example 1

A young man, raised by his uncle, meets an old man who knew his father and convinces the boy to join the resistance to save the galaxy. - Star Wars : A New Hope

Example 2

A summer beach town is terrorized by shark attacks and the sheriff finds himself under pressure to kill the shark, save the people and save the town and its tourism. --Jaws

  1. Think action/reaction and write nothing else Try not to explain everything. Instead, just show the character in action. Show actions the character takes and allow the user to interpret.

John crouched behind the bushes and looked at his digital watch: 2:03. He scanned the area around the back of donut shop. No one. This would be easy. He ran to the back door, pulled out his pick tools and went to work on the lock.

There is no need to tell the reader that John in breaking in. Readers are smart and will figure out what is going on if you show them properly.

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