On Six-Word Stories and Concise Writing

Good writing is concise. It gets to the point without beating around the bush.

Perhaps this is why I am drawn to six-word stories, an extreme version of flash fiction supposedly inspired by Ernest Hemingway, that tells a story using only six words. The genre has gained popularity and has even spawned an online project titled Six Word Memoirs, first published in book form in 2008 by Smith Magazine.

Classic_baby_shoesLiterary legend holds that Hemingway sparked the six-word story movement when he made a lunchtime bet with friends that he could write a story with just six words. He apparently won the wager with his famous six-word “novel” that went: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

My greatest difficulty in writing is being brief while maintaining clarity and style. How can I convey all the undertones of my words without appearing redundant or long-winded? Here are some common tips.

1. Remove as many adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases as possible. They may be easy to use and often fun to write, but there are better ways to season your prose, such as by rewriting your sentences to show action instead of simply forcing the reader to see through constricting descriptions.

2. Use the active voice over the passive voice. Instead of “the people were horrified by the sight of the dragon eating the knights” write “the knight-eating dragon horrified the people.” While it can still be improved, the second version is much shorter and won’t confuse readers with as many present participles (-ing words), prepositional phrases, and overall number of words. Remember, you want to be as straightforward as you can.

3. Know your synonyms. Choose the simplest, most direct words. This is hard, especially if you’re not a walking talking dictionary. However, paying attention to diction can help strengthen your writing more than other methods. Take the time to think about your words and search online for simple alternatives to words like utilize (use) or corroborate (support). Don’t forget to consider the context of your writing because some pieces of writing, such as resumes or formal reports may require different diction.

4. Avoid repeating yourself. Phrases such as “see with my own eyes” and “end result” are redundant. Beware of these bad habits. However, reusing a word in one paragraph is not necessarily redundant. If you feel pressured to substitute such words with synonyms, make sure to avoid using inflated words that might cloud your meaning.

5. Weed out fillers. Fillers are important-sounding phrases that don’t contribute any meaning to your writing. Phrases such as “of the fact that” and “that exists” alert readers to look out for meaningless drivel. Even worse, they can put them to sleep.

Here is my take on the six-word story:

“Battery low. Charger in next room.”

“First day of school, I tripped.”

“Goals for school: make a friend.”

“No toilet paper? Bring your own.”

“Midterm tomorrow. I should start studying.”

“Got my midterm back. Oh f#!$.”

“Public speaking today. I’m still alive.”

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