Play-by-play: The Weird Things that Happen When You Write Under Time Pressure


Tick-tock…Quick, that deadline’s approaching!

Foolish me.

So, as I mentioned last week, I committed to produce a story just three days after Passover was over. I did prewrite before the holiday, and even had started a first draft in longhand (I often do). It was this surprisingly dark piece, written in second-person. A concerned family member was talking to “you,” and “you” (it becomes clear) are suffering from a clinical depression.

When I picked these materials back up after Passover had wrapped up,  the first thing I thought was: ugh.

  1. The tone was too dark, especially for this particular venue (Ironically, the theme I was given was “Put some spring in your step!” Right.).
  2. The second-person thing effectively pulled you in–making the dark subject matter even more depressing.

I felt like hyperventilating. Was I back to square one? With only three days to go?


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2 Major differences between writing a picture book and writing short stories

So the folktale project turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me.


Am I a writer, or a barber?

When I first started writing for kids, I didn’t really understand the difference between short stories and picture books. I’d submit short stories to book publishers, and picture books to magazines who published short stories. Selling Raizy and being guided through revisions by Devorah Leah Rosenfeld, the editor at Hachai, schooled me in the differences between the two media. After a couple years, I started writing regularly for children’s magazines, and her lessons allowed me to jump between the two formats.

2 Major differences between picture books and short stories:


1) The length differs significantly in the two formats. Oddly, an entire picture book has about half the words (sometimes less) as a short story for a kids’ magazine.

2) The illustrations in a picture book replace almost all the description. And the only words that could appear in a picture book text are ones that drive the narrative forward. When I learned this lesson, my picture book writing attained a sharpness that it had previously lacked.

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What’s harder than writing 1000 words a day?

Well, the kids are all in school, so I no longer have any excuses. I’ve been sitting at my desk daily and attempting to crank out a thousand words. This seems to be a pretty common goal for writers, and I seem to make it most days. Okay, some days. The days I’m not editing the stuff I wrote previously.

I guess he didn’t make it to 1000 words today.

On Friday, I set myself a different goal. I had written a piece a while back that the members of my writing group liked. However, when trying to market the piece, the best match for the story was a magazine that has strict word counts for each of its departments. I could only submit to one department at a time, and the piece would only be accepted if it met the qualifications listed. At 1500-ish words, my story didn’t fit in either department that matched the subject matter.

I had a choice with this piece. I could either beef it up to 2000 words, or cut it to 800 words.

So, Friday morning, I sat down to cut 700+ words from my article.

The piece had been well-edited before, and there were few passive constructions or the like to tighten up. At various points, I despaired that I would ever succeed. However, the process was extremely educational, and I’ll share a few of its lessons with you.

1) Think about showing vs. telling. I was able to cut several places where I found I was both showing and telling. The showing was enough. Let the readers make a couple inferences. It’s good for them.

2) Consider, “What it the main purpose of the story?” In a novel, there are often subplots or backstory that add to the narrative. Even a short story will often contain these elements. But in the short, short story (yes, it’s an actual genre), and even more in flash fiction, you have room to keep only the story elements that push the main narrative along. Yes, my little subplot was funny. Yes, I’d grown attached to it. But did it support the main idea? Not so much. Thus, it landed on the chopping block. Off went a couple hundred words.

3) Occasionally, adding a line will help you cut a dozen–or even more.I added a new ending (partly suggested to me by my friend Devorah Talia) and was able to eliminate a huge final scene that took up another two hundred words, or so.

Snip, snip!

4) How many adjectives and adverbs do you really need? After reading an article a year or so ago, I’d eliminated many adverbs from my writing vocabulary, switching to stronger, more precise verb usage. I had hardly any adverbs modifying verbs in the article. However, I seem to cling to the use of adverbs that modify adjectives. In this piece, the biggest offenders were the words “really,” “very,” “so” and the like. Also, the improved choice of nouns and verbs removed the necessity of using many adjectives.

5) Read aloud several times. I had read this piece to myself dozens of times already. Reading out loud was a very different experience. I was able to discern unnecessary material more readily, and often could think of natural substitutions for certain wordy idioms I’d used. Breaks in between allowed me to see the words with new eyes each time.

I submitted the piece this morning after cutting one more word. Let’s hope the exercise helps me sell the piece! Even if it doesn’t sell, the editing practice will have served me well.