Why Novel Writers Should Read Short Stories When Editing

Today I read a blog post about a writer who reads 365 short stories a year and it got me thinking about how short stories affect our writing. In the post, the author basically explains that, by reading one short story, a writer can effectively create a daily habit, which allows them to read a whole plot in a short period of time and, therefore, build up our own understanding of how to write fiction.

I’m not going to dispute this; the logic itself is completely right. If the best writers are the best readers then reading one short story a day will almost certainly have a greater impact on your ability to write than if you read one novel a week. In that week time period you would have experienced seven different writer’s styles and stories instead of the one you would get from the novel.

That being said, I think it goes a little deeper than that. As the writer of the post quite rightly says, a short story is not like the novel as you have a vastly shorter amount of time to get the story across. The plot has to be tight, the characters believable, the environment realistic – and all of this has to come across in a matter of a couple of thousand words at best.

And this is precisely why I think writers should be reading more short stories, not necessarily once a day all year round as suggested (although I can see the value of taking such a course) but at least once a day during the editing process for your novel.

As those of you who have been following my blog posts lately will know, I am a massive advocate for the editing process. As far as I’m concerned, too many authors skip the editing process or don’t give it its due care and attention in the belief that editing is the job of some publishing house stooge and has nothing to do with creativity. Editing is the most important part of writing and those who treat it with less devotion than they do to the story crafting part do so at their peril.

But why do I advocate reading more short stories when editing a novel? Surely if a novel is 70,000 words plus, there is little you can draw from reading short stories that will help you, right?

In a way that is true, but in a much bigger and more accurate way it isn’t. In my experience the act of editing is about three things: subtraction, transformation and addition. One of the first jobs of the editing writer is to be absolutely brutal with their work; carving out all of the unnecessary parts of the story that just slow everything down and doing away with all those awkward phrases that just make the whole thing read as a disjointed mess. Only after that can we start to transform and add to the phrases and passages that remain to make a coherent and flowing story.

Reading short stories is a great way to teach yourself how to do this. Short stories, by their very nature, are slim lined, trimmed and lacking excess weight. By reading them, we learn exactly how to make an engaging storyline with only a few words which means, when we return to our bulky novel, we can see precisely what we need to do to get rid of any extraneous bits.

Now I’m not suggesting that you should be as brutal with your prized novel as you would be with a short story – after all, if you remove all the fat from your novel you would eventually just end up with a short story which isn’t the purpose of the exercise. What I am saying is that reading short stories whilst you’re editing will get your mind in gear and will allow you to look beyond your work of art that you have just poured your soul into and spot the areas where we need to take a carving knife to it.

Everybody has a passage in their novel that they love to bits but we know isn’t really needed in the story. What reading short stories will teach you is how truly pointless that lovable passage is and encourage you to take the hard choice.

So when you next have a book to edit, try picking up one short story a you’re your novel will be that much better for it.

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