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Short story writing: style, part 1

The secret of good style is to say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible. That is the most important statement that can be made about style, and the second most important is that it is only acquired through practice and experience. There are, however, some guidelines which can help us improve.


In any prose composition we are striving for a balance between two things: making sure the reader knows everything we want him to know, and making sure that reading our work is an enjoyable experience. Two kinds of experience we do not want the reader to have are boredom and frustration. The reader will become bored if he finds himself having to read paragraphs, sentences, or even single words which do not contribute significantly to the plot, and he will become frustrated if he feels his own imagination and judgement are being swamped by the author. Over-writing, which simply means saying more than is necessary, does both these.

The antidote to over-writing is simplicity and directness, and in practice the balance we try to achieve often boils down to the question: 'Do I add an extra word or phrase to give the reader a little more information, or do I leave the information out for the sake of a simpler sentence?' In short-story writing the answer is easy: You sacrifice inessential information for the sake of a clearer sentence.

Leave room for the reader to put the story together himself. Leave room for the reader to be in control.


Adjectives should be used as sparingly as possible. Over-reliance on them is unprofessional. (Hemingway advocated doing without them altogether.) Action, conveyed by verbs, is the life-blood of fiction, and adjectives are never more than embellishments. It is not really practical or desirable to do without them completely, but the fewer you use the more impact each one will have, so use them with restraint and discretion.


Commas are as important as words and, like words, should be used sparingly. If you can arrange a sentence so that you don't need a comma you should do so, and always think twice before using more than one in a sentence

Repetition of Words

She checked the indicator board for the destination of the train, then joined the passengers waiting to board the train.

Such repetition of words is awkward and unprofessional, and usually very easy to avoid.

Active vs. Passive Verbs

John threw the ball.
The ball was thrown by John.

In the first sentence the verb is active, and in the second passive. The active form is always preferable because it focuses our attention on the character, and makes for a simpler clearer sentence.


'That' can often be left out in writing, just as we often leave it out in speech. 'She knew she would succeed.' is better than: 'She knew that she would succeed.'

Style part 2 >

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