In the past two weeks, a couple of writing situations presented themselves to me that wound up being quite challenging to fix. And they were mirror opposites of one another. I had two stories, both good candidates for Amazon KDP, and both with length issues. The first one was too long, and the second too short. I wanted both of them to land around the 7500 mark for word count (my restrictions, of course, not Amazon’s).

In my ongoing efforts to improve my approach to writing in general, I have recently stayed focused on the principles of “Show, Don’t Tell” and the “Theory of Omission.” The two are quite related, and both came into play as part of my efforts to fix my conundrum. If you are unfamiliar with these guidelines, Wikipedia has useful topics on each, and I would encourage you to read up as a great way for improving your own writing (Iceberg Theory is Hemingway’s and the reason for this post’s title).

It didn’t take much time for me to realize that the easier of the two tasks would be adding content to the one, rather than stripping away sentences from the other. Why? Probably because it takes more effort to decide what has to be yanked out than it does to just plunk in more good stuff. So, we’re only going to talk about the pain, and not the pleasure.

An analogy might be having a garden that needs to be weeded. In some cases, it might be hard to figure out where the plants that you want to keep end, and where the weeds start. If you can picture in your mind a garden that has gotten more than a little out of hand, the idea of having to go in there and find the invaders so you can dig them out feels visually daunting.

Imagine pushing the good stuff carefully out of the way to get to those pesky weeds. Down in the dirt, sweaty, grimy, irritated, thinking about visiting the produce section more often instead of deluding yourself that organic produce grown with your own sweat and tears (maybe blood?) is the better way to go.

Okay, I’m overblowing this on purpose. The point being, if you don’t get to the weeds, you’re going to lose the garden, including the stuff you want to eat. Might as well get started.

I stared at my story, realizing that about 2000 words had to go. I vowed I would never put myself in this same situation again.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines for you to ponder, so that you can better avoid getting into this same predicament. These are offered in the form of questions that you will want to ask yourself:

  1. Have you made an outline of your story, so that you have a good idea of its beginning, its end, and most of the stuff that happens in the middle?
  2. How long do you want your story to be? Is it a short short story, short story, novelette, novella, or novel? (There are other word-count breakdowns, but those are the main ones you will likely run into.)

Those two questions are pivotal as you approach your goal of working within a semi-established story length that will (hopefully) accommodate everything you want to communicate as vital parts of your storytelling.

Going back to the garden analogy, wouldn’t it always make for a better experience if you took the time to lay your garden out? If you decided what plants would go where? If you were careful the whole time to ensure that you took everything slow, worked steadily, made sure the weeds stayed under control in the first place?

Yes, of course. But you didn’t listen to sage advice and now your vegetables are growing up and over your back fence, while also threatening to join you in the kitchen as a vine without end.

Okay, that’s it for the garden! Here’s what you do with your troublesome story, again offered in the form of questions that you will want to ask yourself:

  1. Does your story start at the right place in the overall progression of events? If it starts out too far away from the end, and this is part of your word-count problem, nudge the beginning and the ending closer together.
  2. Are you over-explaining things (telling, not showing)? If so, take the time to figure out the details that are nice, but not critical to include. Get out your paring knife and start whittling things down (that may be where the blood comes in).
  3. Is there too much dialog? Why is everyone talking so much? Is the conversation moving the story along in efficient manner? If not, tell some of your characters to shut the bleep up!
  4. How much of your iceberg is showing? (This is related to number 2 above). Don’t underestimate your reader. Hone your craft so that you give them just enough to cause an anxious turn of the page, not so much that they feel weighted down by too much description. Icebergs that are top heavy will flip unexpectedly.
  5. Even if you did have an outline of your story, it’s possible that you still went substantially over your word count. Why? Two reasons that are most likely: either there’s more to your story than you thought, and the additional words are actually vital; you’ve done too much meandering off the main path. If that’s the case, go through all the elements of the story and ask:
  • Are all my characters necessary?
  • Are all my scenes necessary?
  • Are all the places in my scenes necessary?
  • Are all my sentences as tight and succinct as they can be?
  • What have I missed? Where can I improve? Have I really dug deep? Have I really let go of all the fluff? Am I holding on to aspects of the story because of my emotional connection to them, or because they are actually crucial to the structure of my story?

Well, good news, I was able to trim the fat from my bloated short story by about 1500 words or so, and now I think it makes for better reading. I also hope not to repeat that torturous task too many times in the future. It was not fun.

Have fun in your gardens and on your keyboards and here’s to summertime writing!


Links to my short stories are here: