In fiction, concision matters

Lessons learned from journalism

By DelSheree Gladden

Red pen on corrected typescript

I recently made the transition back into journalism, as an editor this time rather than a writer. In my position, I largely work with newer freelance writers who don’t have a background in journalism and may not have a background in writing at all.

Journalism has always been a medium where every word has to count. Stories are measured in inches rather than pages or total word count, even though most companies operate in a digital-first publishing model now.

When I first started in journalism in 2019, coming from a fiction-only background, I struggled to keep my stories short and to the point. That lesson has been reiterated to me as I mentor community members and fiction writers to develop journalism skills.

Concision is key.

Studies in recent years have noted readers shortened attention spans and preference for shorter literature. That doesn’t mean writers can’t write longer books, but it does mean it’s more important than ever for writers to choose their words carefully.

There are three pieces of advice I find myself giving my freelancers over and over, and they apply to fiction writers just as much.

One: Don’t bury the lead.

When you have less than a thousand words (often much less) to tell a story in a new article, you can’t wander your way to the point. Grab the reader’s attention quickly and hold it.

While fiction writers have a little more leeway in this, it’s still important to jump right into the story and not expect the reader to wade through unnecessary description or backstory before they get to the point. Within the first few pages of a novel, or opening paragraphs of a short story, the reader should know who the main characters are, what their current situation is, and what conflict they will face in the story.

Two: If you can say it in fewer words, do it.

There’s no room to be wordy in journalism. Readers turn to the news to find out important information. Overexplaining and editorializing risks losing readers’ interest if they don’t feel like they are having their need to know met in a timely manner.

Fiction writers also need to be aware of wasting their words. Readers come to fiction to be entertained and escape reality for a while. Repeating information needlessly, overexplaining story points, outright rambling, and including too much description or backstory that isn’t pertinent to the story all drag out a story and keeps the reader’s need to be entertained from meeting met. 

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

Three: Keep it active.

Active voice is more engaging that passive voice, and it typically requires fewer words. It’s often more accurate, as well. Active wording makes a news article sound more authoritative. In fiction, it improves the pace and generally draws the reader in more fully because the story is actively happening. Passive voice reads like the reader is being told about a story that already happened, which can put distance between the characters and the reader.

Journalism and fiction writing seems like to completely different worlds, but many journalism skills and techniques cross over nicely and can help improve fiction writing and storytelling.

What do you think? Want more or fewer words in your fiction? Want to know every little action the characters make? Leave a comment.

DelSheree Gladden

author DelSheree Gladden

 was one of those shy, quiet kids who spent more time reading than talking. Literally. She didn’t speak a single word for the first three months of preschool. Her fascination with reading led to many hours spent in the library and bookstores, and eventually to writing. She wrote her first novel when she was sixteen years old, but spent ten years rewriting it before having it published.

DelSheree has several bestselling young adult series and has hit the USA Today Bestseller list twice as part of box sets. DelSheree also has contemporary romance, cozy mystery, and paranormal new adult series. Her writing is as varied as her reading interests.

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