I am elated to welcome Jesse Stanchak, creator of Micro Flash Fiction (@MicroFlashFic) and author of “The Tyranny of Sand and Other Tiny Stories: The Best of @MicroFlashFic” as a guest blogger. Jesse’s microfiction stories, which he has been publishing three times a day for four years on Twitter, often reverberate in my head long after I’ve read them. This one is a piece of wordplay confection. This one made me pretty introspective, given how I feel about the power of writing (and the way we can be our own worst enemies emotionally). Thank you, Jesse, for sharing these thoughts about effective writing in such an approachable, creative way.
Brevity has never been more critical. When you ask people to read your book, screenplay, or even just an email, you’re in direct competition with an entire internet’s worth of other experiences. You need to make your shots count.
The easiest way to set your writing apart is to value your reader’s time. Your audience is more likely to pick up your work if it looks manageable, but they’re also more likely to finish it if you grip them right away, and they’re more likely to remember it if the message is clear and powerful.
But too many writing guides focus on simple substitutions, such as trading “finish” for “bring to a conclusion.” That type of advice ignores common structural issues that will keep your writing from being the lean tiger it deserves to be, no matter how much trimming you do around the edges.
I’ve spent my whole career writing concise copy for news organizations, marketing campaigns, and social media. I also run one of the most popular fiction accounts on Twitter, @MicroFlashFic, where I have published three tweet-length stories every day for the past four years. Those experiences have shown me it’s not easy to craft a short, punchy, and meaningful piece of writing. But it’s much harder to edit flabby prose into a tiger-lean body of work. It doesn’t matter how much fat you trim if the muscle isn’t there underneath.
Here are three rules I use when I’m trying to cram an entire universe into 280 characters.
Know what you’re really trying to say
What are you trying to make people feel, believe, or do? Every piece of writing should have a goal. If a word serves that goal, it’s useful. If it isn’t, you can cut it out. Simple, right? But many people aren’t intentional about their writing’s purpose, so the work is pulled in too many directions.
If I write a story about a person in a haunted house, I have choices to make. Am I trying to convey what it’s like to be inside that house? Am I uncovering the mystery of why it’s haunted? Am I exploring the person’s reaction to the house in light of past trauma? Those things might seem like they’re all part of the same story, but they pull your narrative in different directions. Trying to pursue them all means your story will be bloated and sluggish.
If you decide what’s essential and chase only that one rabbit, you stand a much better chance of catching it. And those other aspects of the story? Someday they can become their own tales that are every bit as rich and deep.
The most important advice anyone has ever given me came from my 9th grade English teacher. “Never say, ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’ Write as if everything you say is true.” I owe my personal and professional success to not hedging anything I say. Confidence isn’t just personally attractive; it’s also the key to powerful writing. The world is full of bad novels, unproduced screenplays, and emails that no one responded to because of their weak, verbose language. Once you know what you’re really trying to say, say it without apologies or curlicues.
Don’t write “My analysis of our financial data seems to suggest we’re spending too much on widgets relative to our competitors, and therefore I suggest we reduce our quarterly widget budget.” Instead, use “The data shows we need to spend less on widgets.” The second sentence isn’t just better because it’s shorter. It removes ambiguity and doubt. It tells the reader what needs to happen, so they’re more likely to do it.
The same holds true in fiction. Don’t tell me how things seem; tell me how they are. Don’t describe the entire room; tell me about the one detail the character can’t ignore. Don’t tell me how a character feels; show me how their feelings translate into action. Write boldly, even about timid people. The result is shorter, more confident, and more memorable every time.
Leave room for wonder
Being confident doesn’t mean you have to tell your reader everything. Your writing is more powerful if you let the reader fill in some blanks for themselves because that makes them a contributor to your work. I call this purposeful ambiguity “story oxygen” because it lets your writing breathe.
This is a well-known trick in horror. The monster in the shadows is always scarier than the monster you can see clearly. But it works in every genre. The love interest in a romance is more attractive if you can get your reader to fill in their idea of a beautiful person’s appearance, based on a few key elements. The world of a fantasy novel is more compelling when each detail hints at the larger world rather than prompting a three-page digression about the ancient wars that shaped that land. Some of these are blank spots that will get filled in later, but some won’t. Leave room for your reader’s imagination to contribute, and they’ll love your story even more because they had a hand in creating it.
This rule works in non-fiction writing, though it looks slightly different. You can’t withhold critical details from a report or an email without undermining your credibility. Instead, you invite the reader to contribute to the response. Ask for feedback or give the reader a choice to make. They’ll be more invested in your message if they can immediately work with the information you’ve provided.
If you know what you want to say, say it confidently, and then leave a little room for the reader to contribute, you’ll find the editing process is faster and easier because you’ll just be trimming fat instead of trying to cover up weak muscles. Now go get ’em, tiger.
Jesse Stanchak publishes new short fiction three times a day at @MicroFlashFic. (Note from Paula: Jesse’s book, The Tyranny of Sand and Other Tiny Stories, would be perfect for your holiday giving! The price has just been cut, so it can be yours for $9.99. Order here.)
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.