Updated: Sep 14
Image Credit: Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay (Vignette added by author)
It seems apposite for this evergreen pinned post for me to begin by stating what I mean by 'a short story,' as definitions will vary from one person to the next.
As has often been the case at moments such as this, I turned for aid to my trusted and well-thumbed 2004 edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. In this, Chris Baldick defines a short story as:
A fictional prose tale of no specific length, but too short to be published as a volume on its own, as novellas sometimes and novels usually are. A short story will normally concentrate on a single event with only one or two characters, more economically than a novel's sustained exploration of social background. (p. 236)
That’s fine. However, most writers would appreciate a word count guide, i.e., a ‘from ➞ to’ figure. Consider the first part of Baldick's definition: 'A fictional prose tale of no specific length.' One of the shortest stories ever written was by the late Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. It comprised a mere six words: 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'
But what might the normal word count range for a short story be? According to a 2021 MasterClass article, 'the average short story should run anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 words, but they can be anything above 1,000 words. Flash fiction is a short story that is 500 words or fewer.' The MasterClass article also notes that specific word count targets apply to certain fiction genres, such as thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, romance, and historical fiction, with another target range likely for non-fiction works. As the tags that I’ve applied to this evergreen post hint at, the fiction and non-fiction field is vast, and I plan to explore every corner here in the subjects I write about; I am a creative writer, after all!
Frankly, there are no hard and fast rules for the length of a short story, which, unsurprisingly, is what MasterClass had to say on the matter. In my book, the number of words I use depends on the subject I’m writing about, i.e., the genre of the piece, whether it’s for a specific target audience or purely for my pleasure, and mine alone, how ‘experimental’ my approach to a certain piece is, and a host of other factors. That said, most of what I produce for the short stories section of my website is likely to range between 500 and 5,000 words, with the bulk at the lower end. Oh, and for those who delight in having access to and supporting exclusive content, it should not surprise you if I place some of my longer posts (between 5,000 and 10,000 words) behind a ‘paywall.’ For now, though…
… are you still thinking of Hemingway and 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn'? That's the power of well-chosen words… less is sometimes more!
What of essays?
Let's consider Chris Baldick's definition, again from the same source material, the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris states an essay is:
A short written composition in prose that discusses a subject or proposes an argument without claiming to be a complete or thorough exposition. A minor literary form, the essay is more relaxed than the formal academic dissertation. (p. 87)
Alternatively, MasterClass has this to say in a 2021 blog post:
An essay is a piece of short-form, nonfiction writing that focuses on a specific topic. Writers typically use the essay format to argue a thesis or to provide their viewpoint on a subject.
The MasterClass article expands into a discussion of the different forms essays take, ‘from persuasive essays, which make an argument, to narrative essays, which tell a story’ and noting that essays ‘can be any length, ranging from one paragraph (which reminds me, once again, of Hemingway!) to many pages, and can be formal or informal.’
Rather helpfully, the MasterClass article lists eight essay types, which I show below in title form only. Visit the excellent MasterClass article for their description of each essay type.
1. Expository essay.
2. Analytical essay.
3. Persuasive essay.
4. Narrative essay.
5. Descriptive essay.
6. Compare and contrast essay.
7. Cause and effect essay, and
8. Critical analysis essay.
I do, perhaps, take minor issue with one part of Chris Baldick’s definition (forgive me, Chris!) in that I do not consider the essay to be a minor literary form. What does that term mean, anyway? What are the major literary forms? Oh, I appreciate an essay can be shabbily and weakly composed, but is that a reflection of the form, or a criticism of the creator of the piece, who is lacking focus and experience? Baldick provides examples in his entry for ‘essay’ in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms of notable essayists, none of whom, I would argue, were engaged in using a minor literary form: Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Addison, Steele, Hazlitt, Emerson, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. (p. 87)
To the ever-growing list of essayists, I now add my paltry efforts!
On a final note, I want to give you some notion of what is coming for this section of my website, i.e., what I currently have planned. To my Short Story and Essay categories I intend to add a ‘Writer’s Block’ category, which will comprise both short stories and essays, depending on the next-in-line writing exercise suggested in Jason Rekulak’s The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination. Once these entries appear, select the ‘Writer’s Block’ category to pull any related story or essay up. The first of these (in the order presented in Rekulak’s chunky block book) will be ‘Describe your first brush with danger,’ which is accompanied by a monochrome photo of a child playing with matches. Epic.
 Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, ed. by Chris Baldick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).  MasterClass, ‘How Long Should a Short Story Be?’, Word Count Guide: How Long Is a Book, Short Story, or Novella?, 2021 <https://www.masterclass.com/articles/word-count-guide> [accessed 2 September 2022].  MasterClass, ‘What Is an Essay?’, Writing 101: The 8 Common Types of Essays, 2021 <https://www.masterclass.com/articles/guide-to-common-types-of-essays> [accessed 14 September 2022].  MasterClass, ‘What Is an Essay?’  Jason Rekulak, The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2001).
Baldick, Chris, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)
MasterClass, ‘How Long Should a Short Story Be?’, Word Count Guide: How Long Is a Book, Short Story, or Novella?, 2021 <https://www.masterclass.com/articles/word-count-guide> [accessed 2 September 2022]
———, ‘What Is an Essay?’, Writing 101: The 8 Common Types of Essays, 2021 <https://www.masterclass.com/articles/guide-to-common-types-of-essays> [accessed 14 September 2022]
Rekulak, Jason, The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2001)
Citation for this post (MHRA - Modern Humanities Research Association). Please use:
Priestley, James, ‘Welcome to My Collected Short Stories and Essays!’, Welcome to My Collected Short Stories!, 2022 <https://www.jppriestley.com/post/welcome-to-my-collected-short-stories> [accessed D/M/Y]
(Insert the word 'accessed' and the date you did so in the brackets)