The power of ten words in writing (and editing)

The internet abounds with ten-word writing challenges. Why are they so popular, and how can you use them to improve your own writing?

How many words does it take to tell a story?

Believe it or not, it’s possible to do it in ten words – or even nine. 

One of my favourite examples of the power of concise language is hidden inside a Neil Young song.

Powderfinger is itself a masterclass in storytelling: in just over three minutes, a young man attempts to defend his family against a gunboat “coming up the river” and dies in the attempt. 

(Hear the song here, read the lyrics here; Rolling Stone’s short and sweet analysis is also worth reading).

Hidden in this gem is one line, part of the young man’s list of people who might be able to help him fend off the threat on the river, but just can’t:

Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmy-Lou

Every time I hear the song (often as a wonderful Cowboy Junkies cover version) I am stopped in my tracks: I can see Big John, I can see his slow descent into alcoholism, I can see him and Emmy-Lou in love, I can feel the sadness after she drowned.

But, besides the emotional impact of the line, and the song, there are also some lessons to be learned.

Why try to tell a story in nine or ten words?

Working really hard to shorten your writing can only make it more powerful, and trying to tell a story in as few words as possible is a way of exercising your writing muscles.

For good reason, the Internet abounds with ten-word writing challenges – there are competitions, like this one (it doesn’t look like they’ve announced the 2024 winners, but I love this one from 2022: Two pillowed heads turn away. Loneliness scrolls through handheld light.)

What we learn from brevity

For me, the power of the Young’s writing lies in several things:

  • stripping out all the unneeded detail
  • focusing on universal themes: love, loss, grief
  • keeping the characters to a minimum

Other things listed in a helpful article on flash fiction can be extended to any writing:

  • Make every single word count. Help your readers visualise what’s happening as much as possible.
  • Don’t spread your story too thin – too many plotlines, too many events, too many parameters in a scientific paper: all these detract from your central theme. 
  • Take the reader on a journey, no matter how short.

Also: apply ten words, backwards, to your own writing!

When you are editing your own writing, there’s a way to make the ten-word concept work for you. Try this suggestion by Tim Gray: “Next time you have a final version of a document, take out 10 words. Then try it again.”

I did that with this piece of writing, several times. If I’ve done enough, it is short enough to have held your attention. Which is much more important than my attachment to my own writing.


It’s the reader, stupid | Safe Hands

Main picture: Etienne Girardet, Unsplash

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  1. Verbal diarrhoea is what I was accused of. Me! never.
    Recently, my tutor gave me an assignment to “cut the text by fifty percent.” I eventually managed it, after a great deal of effort.
    That was when I realised that my accuser had been right.

    Keep well, Renee.

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