How Short is a Short Story?

How short should a short story be so a story is still seen as short? It’s up there with how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? as one of the great philosophical questions of our time.

A quick Google of the question will give you varying answers. On the first page of results alone you can find answers that give you up to 30000, 20000, 7500 and 6000 words; most of the sites seem to agree a short story should be at least 1000 words. The most scientific attempt to answer this question suggests that 5100 words is the prime total.

Whatever the answer is, everyone agrees that once your short story is a certain length (what that length is depends on the website you’re reading from) your writing is now a novella. Which poses yet another question: how long or short should a novella be?

The reason this is on my mind at the moment is because the ‘short story’ – as I am referring to it – I’m writing at the moment is threatening to be twice or maybe even three times as long as short stories I have written previously that have just about pushed the 2500 word barrier. While I see it as a short story, I recently found out about a writing competition asking for novellas where the word limit is 6000-17000 words, a category I can see my short story being able to fit.

Of course, when writing for yourself it doesn’t really matter how long your writing is or in which category of writing you define it as. Perhaps the best answer – and the most infuriating – is simply: as long as it needs to be. If you develop your characters well and the story moves at a good pace, never dying down then it doesn’t matter if its 400 words or 40000 words. It just matters that you’ve achieved something when you’ve finished.

As an aspiring writer still looking for a break, you’re at the mercy of competition rules and publisher guidelines where word counts are concerned but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve managed to cut stories before to half the length when imposed with competition rules and it challenged me to only keep the finer details and I do have a tendency to really ramble on in some cases.

I’ll finish this short story and see how we go on the word count. I’m hoping I do manage to make it over the 6000 word mark because I think it might actually stand a chance if I entered it into the novella competition I mentioned above. However, I’m conscious that every word has to be there for a reason and that reason can’t be simply ‘I need it for the word count’.

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