But I Just Can’t Trim it to 1,000 Words! Editing to word count…

Frustrated writer trying to edit to short story competition word count Hawkeye Publishing

I drum into writers—follow the competition guidelines, and don’t go over competition word counts! You might be forgiven a 10% discrepancy, but never more, and why give judges a reason to discount a story you’ve put effort into writing? In a strong field, it’s an easy first cull to discount entries that don’t adhere to competition guidelines. And I’ll give you a big tip, to many editors and competition judges it appears amateurish when you submit tight on the word limit—being under the word limit showcases professionalism and efficiency.

If I had an Astin Martin for every time a writer said, ‘But I’ll lose the essence of my story!’ my whole suburb could be James Bond wanna-be’s in sleek, deep green.

Last year I judged the Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story Competition. When a disappointed entrant contacted me about not being one of the forty winners published in our anthology, we together looked at how to cull her story back within the 1000 word limit. Usually, writers over word count can find redundant words to cull. For Jean Stewart, however, a more advanced strategy was required.

Jean Stewart is a talented and emotive writer. Her level of ability far surpassed emergent at the time she entered our competition—hence her understandable frustration at still not having been published. I coached her through the biggest tip I give serious writers: Enter your story as late as possible, and leave your story as early as possible.

Enter your story as late as possible, and leave your story as early as possible to:

  • Avoid the writers’ foible of laboured exposition at the commencement of your story.
  • Throw your reader straight into the thick of the action—that’s where your story is interesting.

Writers often think their reader needs to know everything that’s in the writer’s head to understand their character. Readers don’t. They’re intelligent and they intuit your meaning from subtle nuances. It is this exercising of a reader’s mind that marries them to your story. They’re on the journey with you. And especially in short story competitions, every word is precious.

With Jean Stewart’s permission, here is her original story’s beginning. Fear and Hope is a powerful and important story. But it didn’t meet the competition guidelines in a strong field of submissions. Subsequently, you’ll read her re-worked story in its entirety. Keep in mind that many of the 312 words that were culled in the subsequent edit, were taken from the start of Jean’s story, so you can analyse the difference. Jean did a beautiful job of leaving the story early in her original entry. She also did an exceptional job of shortening her sentences for tension at the mid point climax. All important skills in a writer’s toolkit.

Please consider leaving a comment about Fear and Hope for Jean. She’d be thrilled. The comments facility can be found at the bottom of this article

FEAR AND HOPE by Jean Stewart
(original beginning – entry 254 words over limit):

Before him her youthful existence had not carried such stifling, paralysing dread and dominance of fear.

In 1971 at eighteen she’d moved from her Johannesburg home to campus residence at Rhodes University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. A fresh year with the chaotic enthusiasm of orientation week, lectures and wanting to belong. In early 1970’s Nelson Mandela was moving towards a decade of his Robben Island imprisonment.  What would he have suggested she do after her recent shock, she wondered. What advice would he give her? How did he face his fears? How could he remain so courteous and friendly to his prison guards? How could he study?

Apartheid was never condoned in her family. As white South Africans they lived within its laws…it had been part of her growing up, but like her mother she would verbally rebel against it, expressing dissent to anyone ready for political pro-government argument. But how ready was she to challenge the comfortable white way of life? Every now and then rumours of violent outbreaks in the surrounding townships of Grahamstown would surface. It was likely the calm passive black women who brought out trays of generous meals for gregarious indulged white students may have been recipients of a rampage the night before, terrorised from humble cramped homes.

She’d chatted to him briefly at one of the numerous student social functions.  She learned he was the son of an Indian diplomat based in Pretoria. Would he be classified as non-white? This was the stamped existence under Nationalist white minority government in South Africa. Her parents had inculcated her with the ideals of equality, respect and decency to all, no matter the colour of a person’s skin. Black South Africans she had come to know had been domestic servants or gardeners at her home. They displayed deference around children of the white boss and madam. Anyone who had been employed by her parents received good pay and humanity. Perhaps this was why she went out of her way to chat to the quiet and watchful student. She’d been keen to show her sense of justice and fairness to all…keen to live up to her parents’ standards and convey her abhorrence of Apartheid.

His dark smooth olive skin was taut across his face, brown eyes overly watchful. His English was cautious but clear. She introduced him to several students. He did not converse with a group easily; others soon moved off.

stop domestic violence

FEAR AND HOPE by Jean Stewart
(Editing to word count, 54 words under. Note how the message is still clear with background information streamlined):

She recognised him, having chatted briefly during one of the many student social functions at Rhodes University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

He was the son of an Indian diplomat. Her parents had inculcated her with the ideals of equality, respect and decency to all, no matter the colour of a person’s skin. Black South Africans she knew had been domestic servants or gardeners at her home. Anyone employed by her parents received good pay, kindness and humanity. Perhaps this was why she went out of her way to chat to the quiet and watchful student, keen to show her sense of justice and fairness to all … to live up to her parents’ standards and convey her abhorrence of Apartheid. If only the night had turned out differently.

It was 1971 and the summer evening was perfect for outdoor socialising – clear, star-brilliant sky. A live band tuning up, galvanising drums beating to loud emotional guitars. How she loved the music of her generation – Simon and Garfunkel, Procol Harem, Cream, Neil Diamond. She’d dressed in a tight mini skirt, jumper and boots. The night was young – several girls and eager young men greeted her.

His smooth, olive skin was taut across his face, brown eyes overly watchful. His English was cautious but clear. She introduced him to several students. He did not converse easily; others soon moved off.

Seeing him alone, she waved, beckoning him towards her. He didn’t move. She collected two beers and eased through the crowd. He declined; he didn’t drink. ‘Cool band!’ she ventured. He shrugged, unimpressed. She revelled in the thumping anticipation of the crowd’s mood, noticing several male students looking at her with interest. She was so keen to dance. He showed no wish to join the crowd.

She felt awkward; he was hard work and attempts to make him welcome on what must be a strange campus were not succeeding. Should she perhaps excuse herself and join other familiar faces? Reluctant to shun him; too polite to let him be. Her small talk didn’t produce a response. How about moving to a bench further towards the botanical garden where it would be easier to chat? He immediately agreed.

They walked away from the noisy throng, she with a sense of disappointment, he with a lighter step. He took the lead, heading towards benches high up the steep rocky pathway. They reached a point where the energetic party could barely be seen among the flickering lights below. They sat on a bench, both a little out of breath. She was relieved to find seating after clambering along unlit and uneven paths.

Later, she was confused how it happened. In one lightning move he had reached across and pulled her towards him. Smell of garlic, roughness of beard, sheer shock of strong hands tugging at tight skirt. Pulling back in fright, grip harder, material ripping. ‘Stop it!  What are you doing?’ she gasped. ‘You think I don’t know what you want?’ Furious harshness. ‘You a cock-teasing spoilt white girl, having anything you like!’ Choking with shock and fright. ‘What are you saying? I’m none of that!’ Rough pulling at her skirt, cheeks heating with sheer embarrassment, tight elasticised material reaching her knees.

It took all her strength to wrench free from hands and arms so powerfully insistent. Running down the rocky sloping path, sobbing and stumbling several times. Hearing him following, not looking back, heaving for breath, new boots scuffling on the rocky downward path. Reaching the concert group but continuing to the campus buildings glowing safely, outside lamps familiar and welcoming. Always someone on reception duty of each women’s residence. Reaching entrance hall, tearing straight upstairs to her room, hands shaking uncontrollably, struggling to find her keys. Thank goodness her shoulder-strap bag had remained with her. Relief at no other students – building deserted, everyone enjoying the night.

Flinging herself onto pillows, sobbing and shivering. Burning sensation on one knee, grazed and bleeding. Gashes across boots. Clothing torn up one side. Lovely glitzy skirt Mom had sewn shredded. Tears welling again. How could he have thought those things of her? How had she given him that impression? She wished she’d never set eyes on him. Chattering sounds of returning students hours later. Crawling into bed after bathing her knee, unable to sleep, willing the awful incident to leave her thoughts. Every step of it stark. Humiliation and shame washing over her.

As the weeks moved on, in a blur she pushed herself to attend lectures. The first term’s excitement had gone. She developed a facade, walking around in groups wherever possible, constantly watchful. There were sporadic glimpses of him, always alone.

And then he disappeared. Cautiously one morning she braved Economics 101, sliding late into a rear seat, scanning rows. He was not there. ‘Father’s a diplomat; family’s been sent somewhere else,’ she heard. The wave of relief was all consuming.

When she eagerly returned home for the first term break, she sat indulging in Johannesburg’s twilight heat on the sun-warmed steps. Kolisile, their black cook who always paid special attention to her beloved boxer dogs when she was away, sat nearby working on carving a cane penny whistle for her. She felt his compassion… he’d been around before she was born, loved and trusted by her family. His greying peppercorn hair and ebony skin glinted in the approaching night. That day he’d been spat on by an angry white woman at the local corner store. The previous weekend he’d been punched and flung into a police van for not carrying his identity pass. Right now he was delighted to see the little madam, his friend, back home for a while.

Growing up… humanity’s light and dark reflected at us.

love reflection

Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story Competition

The 2020 Sydney Hammond Memorial Story Competition is themed IF ONLY. We can’t wait to see your imaginative responses. The 2020 competition closes on 1st August 2020.

The 2019 winner was Christine Johnson with her story, New Girl.

The 2019 anthology Allsorts is available here.

Front cover of Allsorts, 2019 anthology from the Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story Competition

For serious book writers, Hawkeye Publishing is currently open for manuscript subscriptions. Carefully read About and Submissions before contacting us. Or consider entering the Hawkeye Publishing Manuscript Development Prize to win $2,500 worth of structural and line editing, and author coaching.

Carolyn Martinez

4 comments to “But I Just Can’t Trim it to 1,000 Words! Editing to word count…”

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  1. Jean Stewart - April 24, 2020 Reply

    ‘It is quite incredible how much I have learned in a focused short story coaching session with Carolyn Martinez.
    One of the most challenging tasks for me has been to put into practice far less ‘information dump’ at the start. Readers are smart – they don’t need too much background to set the scene…and too much could overload and drop their interest. This is my understanding of entering the story late – move into the main frame rapidly, let the reader pick up what is there.
    Leaving the story early seems to come a lot more easily to me – concluding without explaining too fully the finale. However I will work at improving on this too!
    Show not tell: to me this takes in all the above – developing pace and tempo with action and not step by step description.
    Thank you Carolyn for your generosity of spirit! I will keep writing …..’
    Jean Stewart

  2. Jason Fischer - May 7, 2020 Reply

    Well done Jean, great job on trimming your story down. Keep up the awesome work! 🙂 cheers, Jason

  3. Lyn Auger - May 9, 2020 Reply

    A compelling short story so identifiable and possibly not just to women!
    I think the critique created an impactful story which enabled the scene to be presented, leading to the drama whilst showing the innocence and resilience of the young woman, and the misguided young man. Within that thread the reader glimpsed the childhood which gave further understanding of how ‘rose – tinted’ glasses are shattered!
    The intro, which drew me into the scene, was enough to enable the incident to have it’s impact, leading to a desire to know the recovery and outcome. The conclusion was then able to put me back into a sense of comfort with understanding – always a good place for a reader!
    If further short stories from Jean contain ‘ slices of life’, such as this had been written, I look forward, with anticipation, to publication.

  4. Carolyn Martinez - May 15, 2020 Reply

    Jean, it was such a pleasure working with you on this! Carolyn

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