The Magic of 750 Words

October 3, 2022 § 28 Comments

By Jill Kandel

I brought a 1,500-word essay to my first writing workshop. So proud of it I could barely spit. After two hours of lecture and discussion on writing short, the instructor said, “Bring it back tomorrow. Cut it in half.” I spent the night cutting, pasting, moving, revising, and proudly brought exactly 750 words to class the next morning.

Six days later – our writing workshop nearly over – I sat down with the instructor for a one on one. I was a lifelong reader and a nurse by profession. A forty-year-old who didn’t know how to pronounce the word genre. My instructor gave me a long list of great books on writing, explained what literary journals were, kindly taught me how to say genre, and challenged me to write a 750-word piece for Brevity.  

I spent the next two years reading every single book on writing that he had mentioned. I bought literary journals by the dozens and worked on pieces that were 750 words or less. Brevity became the goal. Three years and several submissions later, Brevity accepted my piece There’s Things. Over the years, other journal acceptances followed, a memoir publication, then two.

Looking back, I realize that the magical number 750 has stayed with me now for over twenty years of writing. I learned to write while reading Abigail Thomas and Judith Kitchen. Their fine, short, focused work influenced mine. Word limits haven’t cramped my writing or shut it down. To the contrary, the 750-word limit has opened up the world of writing. Writing short taught me to find the just of what I needed to say. Learning to cut and throw taught me what was only anecdotal and therefore unnecessary to the whole. Whittling down is both a revelation and a revealing. Writing short has been the best of instructors, the best of friends. Seven hundred fifty: a lucky charm, a talisman, a jewel.

Cutting is to writers what simmering is to cooks. They let extra moisture evaporate, slowly let the flavors intensify. When we cut our stories down, the meaning of each word increases. The story gels. The water of it all evaporates. And we are left with a tastier story, a story worth savoring and rereading.

Out of curiosity, I sat down this week and did some math. My newest memoir The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir(NDSU Press, 2022) is 343 pages long. It has nine parts that are further divided into 188 small sections. Each of these 188 tiny chapters is titled. Many are dated. Doing the math, I see that I have written an average 900 words per section. It surprises me. How close to that magical 750 my writing has remained. How my first instructor and Brevity influenced not only my first essays, but so much of my writing.

Writing short has become almost cliché these days. Preeminent journals publish short-short stories frequently. You can take whole courses in writing Flash Nonfiction. Even the New York Times follows along with their Tiny Love Stories – no more than 100 words. There are Flash fiction contests and short non-fiction anthologies. Literary journals dedicated entirely to flash such as [100 word story] exist. Short is easy to find. But don’t let it fool you. Short is not easy to write. The complexity of the simple and the intricacies of the short take years to learn. It is, however, worth the work and still continues to have much to teach. 

The hard work of writing short remains one of the best tools I have consistently used in over twenty years of writing. It is the technique I return to again and again when my writing is muddled, and I can’t see where it wants to go. 

My first writing instructor was more correct than I could have ever realized.

“Bring it back,” he said. “Cut it in half.”

__

Jill Kandel began writing at the age of forty. She writes to fill in the gaps and questions formed over forty years of cross-cultural marriage and a decade working abroad while living on four of this earth’s continents. Kandel’s essays have been published in The Missouri Review, Gettysburg ReviewRiver Teeth, Pinch, Image, and Brevity. Her work has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing 2012 (Penguin Books) and in Becoming: What Makes a Woman (U. of Nebraska Press). Her first book, So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, (Autumn House Press, 2015) won both the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and the Sarton Women’s Literary Award. The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir is her newest book (NDSU Press, April 2022). Order signed books directly, or watch her evocative book trailers at jillkandel.com

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§ 28 Responses to The Magic of 750 Words

  • Reblogged this on and commented:
    “The hard work of writing short remains one of the best tools I have consistently used in over twenty years of writing. It is the technique I return to again and again when my writing is muddled, and I can’t see where it wants to go. “

  • lisakunk says:

    I needed this today. Thanks.

    • jillnkandel says:

      Hi Abigail! Years ago, I wrote you a piece of snail mail fan mail. And you answered it! That meant the world to me. And, yes. You and Judith are both writing stars that belong together!!

    • jillnkandel says:

      Thanks, Lisa! I’m glad you found it helpful. Writing it was a good reminder to myself! Spend the time. Cut it back!

  • “Cutting is to writers what simmering is to cooks. They let extra moisture evaporate, slowly let the flavors intensify. When we cut our stories down, the meaning of each word increases.” Love the analogy!

    • jillnkandel says:

      Thanks, Jan! Simmering and care make the difference between gourmet and McDonalds! Taking time with our writing does the same.

  • abigail Thomas says:

    Love being in the same sentence as Judith Kitchen, thank you very much.

    • jillnkandel says:

      Hi Abigail! Years ago, I wrote you a piece of snail mail fan mail. And you answered it! That meant the world to me. And, yes. You and Judith are both writing stars that belong together!!

  • jillnkandel says:

    Thank you for sharing, Elizabeth! I think writing short really is a tool to keep you coming back to your own work. To read and reread it. Put the time into it. Over and over again!

  • abigail Thomas says:

    Also loved your essay, forgot to say that.

    • jillnkandel says:

      Thank you! I love your work, too. Your journey into your 80s is beautiful too read about and gives me both joy and hope.

  • Anne Van Etten says:

    I think the “right” word-count and length depend on the form. Maybe conciseness works best for essays, but I can’t imagine a 250 page version of “War and Peace.” It would lose so much color, detail and essential Russian-ness. As for my own unpublished memoir, I know it needs some “simmering,” but I am too close to the story to do it myself – an astute editor is needed. Perhaps the current fondness for brevity has to do with people’s shortened attention spans. Too much information is bombarding us every day of our lives.

    • jillnkandel says:

      Strunk and White advocated for brevity back in the 1950s long before our constant media connections. I think it’s more a shift in style than attention span. A modern take on an old form!

      • Anne Van Etten says:

        Yes, I agree, it is a change of style. But style is formed by and reflects culture and the proliferation of “brief” or “flash” writing, is new. When I recommend a book to a friend and her first question is “how long is it?” I know she probably speaks for many readers. It is so much easier to read a brief blog posting than a novel! People are easily distracted. I have so far resisted invitations to write a blog, but who knows? Your post is thoughtful and wise, and I am looking forward to reading your memoirs.

  • Thanks for this important and helpful information for all writers. More isn’t always better, especially in (essays, blog posts, etc.) writing. The only thing I struggle with is the fear I’ll lose some of the lyrical quality of many of my memoir passages. How do you delete unnecessary words while still painting a picture for readers?

  • candidkay says:

    I always have to walk away. Let it sit for a bit. And then come back with fresh eyes. Usually, there’s a cut or two. Sometimes an addition. But the fresh eyes make all the difference . . .

    • jillnkandel says:

      I agree, Candid. Good point! It all takes time. Time with the work. And time away from it, too. Let it simmer!

  • marilyn801 says:

    This reminds me of the best scene in ZORRO & SON (CBS-TV-1983), where the father instructs his progeny to “get in, make your Z and get out!” I’ve always preferred the short-form – songs over symphonies; for me, bite-size chunks just WORK!! BRAVA, Jill!

  • I do my best writing when I have a word limit. Thanks for this great reminder.

    • jillnkandel says:

      You are very welcome, Elizabeth! I couldn’t agree more. I feel like my shortest work and shortest chapters are best of my writing, too. And actually, it’s fun to write short. I love the challenge of it.

  • Mike McLaren says:

    I really dig the cutting / simmering metaphor… sent a light bulb through my head.

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