Clarifications and Advice: Story Length and Proof Reading
Since we started promoting the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest back in 2011, people have been checking in with us about the maximum allowable story length. Now, I don’t mind answering questions that people want to run by us about this, or any other topic concerning the contest. However, there seems to be a general assumption of leeway concerning this particular entry rule.
Specifically, the question that keeps coming up starts a little something like this:
“I know the maximum word length is supposed to be 4000 words, but …”
The short answer is, yes, the word length is fixed. We’re checking the word count of stories as they come in, and while we will allow a couple of words over the limit – we realize that not all word processing programs perform a similar word count function – if you are only a few words over the limit there’s no reason not to go back and trim until your story stands at 4,000 words, or less.
I can hear the words of protest now, and I entirely understand where those objections are coming from. You’ve crafted a piece where every word flows seamlessly into the next; there’s nothing you can do with that story that will make it more perfect than it is now; every single word is integral to the story that unfolds as your plot hurtles inexorably toward its [insert overly enthusiastic superlative here] climax.
Except … that’s almost never true. Whether it’s a first pass you’re working on, or a tenth revision, your story is going to have words, phrases, and probably some minor plot elements or flourishes that hinder, rather than enhance, the piece.
Think of it this way: all stories have a natural rhythm. The ones that work, anyway. That rhythm is a function of multiple elements; some of these we can define (pacing, language use, narrative drive, and plot, among others), and some we can’t (things which are intrinsic to each writer’s own style and manner of expression).
The easiest, and move effective, way to tell when a story’s rhythm is right is to read it out loud. Anything you trip over needs revision. Any dialogue that doesn’t sound realistic or plausible when you try to speak it should be cut or revised. Sections that sound needlessly repetitive are. You don’t have to read your work to someone else – though that gives you feedback on the way someone else hears your story, which is equally useful – but this will let you hear the way the words actually flow together.
Any awkward constructions, clichés, and those things that sounded perfectly fine in your head but really, really aren’t when you put them down on paper, won’t stand up to a reading, and you’ll be able to catch them fairly quickly.
The other reason to read your work out loud is to address an issue that is cropping up in numerous submissions we’ve received so far: we’ve seen an extraordinary number of errors such as typos, fragment sentences, and some formatting issues in the work coming in (like header information embedded in the body text …). One or two typos are forgivable; between faulty and/or inadequate programming on the part of word processing spell check features, and exhaustion, typos happen. The rest … the rest looks like what it is: sloppy editing. Reading your story out loud will help you catch these errors too. Even typos.
Anything that makes your story hard to read, that causes us to trip over it as we progress, makes it that much harder for your story to compete. All story submissions are really participations in contest format anyway, no matter where you send them; the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest is just actively referred to as a contest. But, from the get go, we want to be blown away by your extraordinary command of the English language, your exquisite gift for phrasing, by your ability to make music with the written word, and tell a story that pushes boundaries (not the boundaries of good taste though, that’s just … no), takes flight, and soars.
The bottom line? Every story can do with revising. Remember, you’re competing: we can’t award points for stories that were almost mind-blowing.
If you have questions about the above, or anything else relating to the contest, please ask. Address your queries to Michael Matheson at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, as always, we look forward to reading what you send. And remember, the hard deadline for 2011-2012 submissions is Feb. 15, 2012.