Word count woes: How long is the perfect short story?

The word count range that a short story fits into is a hard one to pin down. They can range anywhere from a couple of hundred to 10,000 words and up. But where does a short become flash at the lower end, and when does it become a novella at the high end?

Edgar Allen Poe liked to a class a short story by its suitability to be read in one sitting. That’s quite a nice way to look at it, but how do you quantify one sitting? Does that mean as long as the reader stays engaged? Obviously everyone is different and attention spans vary wildly.

At Firewords, we limit our submissions to 2000 words, which is quite short compared to most literary journals out there. We like to publish immediate, powerful fiction that people can dip into, so this length tends to work well for us. It’s also a matter of space because our publication is, physically, quite small!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter how you brand your story; a label is just a label and whether it’s a micro, flash, sudden, quick, dribble, or drabble (all real terms!), it really makes no difference. The important thing, and the answer as to how long the perfect story should be, is that the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. Tell the story well in as few words as possible – that’s the winning formula. It may sound simple but it’s not always an easy balance to achieve. Adding more and more words when you’re writing is a common trap to fall into. Even worse, once they’re on the page it’s easy to become attached and find it harder to delete them. But being a ruthless editor is vital to making sure every word is completely necessary.

Struggling? Try this...

If you’re struggling to know what to cut and what to keep, here’s an exercise to try. Even if you’re not writing towards a certain word count, it can often help to add an imaginary constraint to push you into being ruthless. Once your first draft is finished, do a word count and then half it. Yep, you read that right. Whatever the current word count is, cut it in half. Now, this is quite extreme and you probably won’t stick with the end result, but it really makes you consider how to distill your story down. What will be engaging for the reader and what is expendable?