A few years ago, I entered a writing contest through Write On The River that required all entries to be less than 1,000 words.  I had a story I wanted to tell, but it was a short story, so I thought this would be a perfect venue.  My first draft was 2,000 words.

Normally I don’t worry too much about word count, but for this specific contest, I needed to do better.  So, I went back through the piece.  I cut out extra words, and I replaced phrases with stronger, more descriptive choices.  After a couple hours’ work, I had a much stronger piece.  But it was still over 1,000 words.

Our language is rich with options.  It is easy to go overboard.  But word choice is essential to convey meaning.  In our everyday lives, we can use excess words with little thought because if our meaning isn’t clear, we can just add more words.  But a single word, critically placed, can do the heavy lifting of a whole paragraph.  I went back to work on my piece.

Limit your word count on purpose.

Mark Twain is sometimes misquoted as saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”   This is actually a much shorter, and I would say stronger, version of what he actually said.  The point is, it takes time to get the right word choice. Forcing yourself to a limited word count can help make your writing strong.

Days later, I was finally satisfied that the tone, feeling, and message remained true.  In fact, its power had increased even though it was now just at 1,000 words.  My story took 2nd place in the contest.  The full story is below for you to read and judge for yourself.


As a writing exercise, take a piece you have already written.  Try to tell the story using half words.  Then decide for yourself.  Is your piece stronger now?  What did you learn from the activity?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Road Trip!

Bags packed? Check.  Fuel in the tank? Check.  Grandma strapped down? Mom tucked in her corner?  Check and Check.

Two days ago I called to reserve the moving truck.  The lady taking my reservation asked, “What are you hauling?”

I wasn’t prepared to answer that question.  “Do I have to tell you?” I asked.

There was complete silence on the other end.

“That sounded pretty sketchy, huh?” I said.

“Yes.” The lady said.

So I told her, “My sister and I are hauling my dead Grandmother back to North Dakota for her funeral.”

Silence again.

“That didn’t help, did it?” I asked.

“Um, no.” she said.

I could sense no laughter in this woman, but I hope at the end of her workday, she went home and told her family all about it.  “You’ll never guess the conversation I had today,” I imagine her saying.

I didn’t mention that we were also hauling our mother’s ashes.

Last year, our mother died of metastasized breast cancer.  Last week our Grandmother died of old age.  We are taking them both back to Stanley, ND, to bury them side by side.

The moving van lady may not have had laughter in her, but I have it in me in spades.  Laughter, along with anger, peace, sorrow, and joy, have all moved into my internal living room and have made themselves comfortable.  These competing emotions have set aside their differences and are becoming fast friends.  Sometimes they all get to talking at once, creating a cacophony so loud that all I can do is sit and stare, usually out a window, sometimes with tears running down my face.

“You got the story?” my little sister asks.

“Check” I say, as I pull up the audio book.

This road trip to North Dakota is the same annual 2,000 mile trip we took as kids and we would sing “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.”

Grandma lived all but the last few years of her life in North Dakota, coming to Washington only when she could no longer care for herself.  She was a prairie girl, used to the silence and wind.  To sit with her was to sit in the eye of the storm: peaceful and calm.

My mother, a nurse, was the logical choice of Grandma’s five children when she needed full-time care.  Mom spent her adult life riding an emotional roller coaster.  To sit with her was to be tossed by the storm: restless and sometimes volatile.

I look at my sister.  She is beautiful, but she doesn’t know it.  She is tough as nails, but so tender that I’m scared of hurting her.  She is the warrior you want at your side.

Grandma is peace, Mom is adventure, my Sister is courage, and I, I am afraid of being left alone.

My mother was afraid of a lot of things, but she was not afraid of death.  Her favorite thing to say was, “I’m in a win win situation! If I live, I get to stay with you guys, win!  If I die, I get to go home to Jesus, win!”

That was fine for her.  But where is my win?  When she passed away, the only thing I got was a living room full of emotions and more responsibility.

My first decision as the newly appointed most highly functioning matriarch was to move Grandma into memory care.  On moving day, she was in fine form, my little cutie in her big sunglasses and pink pantsuit ready for an outing. She didn’t really understand what was going on; just that it was all about her.  We got her settled and then it was time to leave her there.  It was a cozy room.  The place smelled nice.  But she looked so small.  She must have sensed my unease.  She smiled at me and thanked me for the visit.  Then she said she thought she might nap.

And now, a year later, she is strapped down in the back of a moving van.  These are my thoughts as we pull out into traffic.

My sister and I, the two living members of this adventure party, listen to our story, a murder mystery, and whenever we stop, we talk about what we think might happen next.  And as soon as we finish our food, gas fill-up, or picture taking, we race back to the truck to hear the next chapter.

We watch the most amazing thunder and lightning storm move across the prairie.

We take pictures of fence lines, oil wells, buffalo, and old barns.  We drive through The Badlands, which, while beautiful, will never be as beautiful as my mother’s description of them.

When the road is bumpy, I worry our passengers are getting jostled, which is ridiculous, I know.  What do they care?  But still…

We stop late in a hotel whose hot tub has closed for the night.  My sister insists we go anyway and hops over the fence.  She slides into the steaming water and looks back at me.  “What is taking you so long?”

I consider my little sister.  We are so much alike: both messed up and both sort of badass.  And I think, “I’m hauling two dead bodies in the back of a moving van. What’s a little trespassing?”   Responsibility scoots over to give recklessness room on the couch.

An idea has been creeping up on me all day and when I join my sister, it peeks out at me.  The idea has to do with my “win”.  It has to do with being so incredibly thankful for this moment and for my sister, and for my mother and my grandmother.  It has to do with the circle of life.  And…

And then the idea slips back into the shadows.  It isn’t ready for the light.  But it leaves behind contentment, who smiles at the room and says, “Alright everyone, it’s time to settle down. We have work to do.”

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