Every creative writer has heard the same criticism from a reader at some point. Scrolling down at the reviews for your newly published work is the comment that your short story, novella, novelette, novel, or whatever is “too short”. Some readers may throw in other criticisms like that your work was so short that they couldn’t relate to it or bond with the characters. While all creative people have to deal with criticism, most should be looked at as opportunities to improve. But is the “too short” review a real argument? Is that a criticism or a compliment?
Now, as a self-published author, I have argued in the past that short works are a perfect way to introduce your writing style and creativity to your prospective audience. The reason for this is an author is able to write different works in a short amount of time, giving the reader variety while testing out genres and styles that suit you as a writer. For example, I love reading mysteries and horror novels as a young adult. When I decided to start self-publishing, I discovered that my niche genre wasn’t horror. As I dabbled into the realm of shorter works, publishing them as teasers for the purpose of creating a fan-base and getting feedback, I discovered that my skills at writing horror needed work, but that I was actually better at writing fantasy with a touch of romance. I wouldn’t have discovered that without publishing and listening to the response of my audience.
Criticism Or Compliment
So, when the issue of a work being “too short” comes up in a review, should a writer take heed? Is that a criticism or a compliment?
Well, take heed to any criticism but attempt to understand the context of the statement. There are positives and negatives to reviews like this. There are also different reasons for the readers to leave reviews like this. You, as the writer, have the power to change what you can, but remember that you cannot please everyone either. My mother has a great saying which is a bit off topic but relevant. Whenever people talked behind my back ━ sadly, even some family members ━ it got to me, changing the way I felt about myself subtly. When she saw me like this, she would say, “You are not a hundred dollar bill that everyone is going to like you. You’re always going to have negative people around.” Ain’t that the truth! It was her way of saying, “So what if people don’t like you. They don’t matter anyway, so suck it up, buttercup.” Gossip was just another form of criticism, and it was for me to take heed to or throw away. The truth is that 100% of people will not like your work either, they just won’t relate to it and that is OK. Your goal is to find the people who do and keep them reading.
When you create anything, no matter how short or long, you are invested as the creator of that content. You want your audience to enjoy the experience as much as you love creating it. It’s a creative cycle; you make the content you love to share you creation with people who equally love it. In turn, they support it, so you can create more of what you love. When we receive feedback by those who support our craft by downloading it or physically purchasing it, we listen, because any disruption breaks the chain, the chain to creative happiness.
Yet, not all critiques are as negative as they sound. I do not know a single published author that hasn’t received a negative review. If you are testing your writing ability by self publishing your first attempts at storytelling, accept the criticism as a gift to help you grow your craft. The best form of testing and even developing the craft of writing is creating short literary works. However, the issue with readers and the most common complaint authors hear from their readers is it wasn’t long enough, especially if the story, for example, is not apart of a compilation. But there are industry standards that authors adhere to that make even shorter works the appropriate length.
Word Counts Matter
Aside from a deep delve into the plot and any critiques associated with writing, let us explore the “too short” critiques as strictly concerning length, because there are many issues with a story that can make a reader feel as if the story was rushed or too fast-paced to emerge themselves into.
Now, when writing anything from a short story to a full length novel, it is the author’s job to research the appropriate word count for the job. For example, a young adult novel is typically around 80,000 words. Any less than 60,000 is typically too short for readers, although the minimum word count is 55,000. Any more than 90,000 is practically un-publishable for a first time author, major publishing houses will consider it too long to be taken seriously. But for adult novels, 100,000 words or more is the standard. So, it is important to understand who you are writing for and how long your work should be.
So, what are the appropriate word counts based on the type of work you are creating? Here they are:
If you are within the appropriate word count parameters, why is it that you will receive criticism in terms of its length? I have dealt with this issue, everything from my short stories to my full length novel has been labeled as “too short” by at least one reader. I have concluded that this is attributed to one of two things; the reader’s entitlement or the reader’s involvement. So, which is better? Which one is positive and which is negative? Are there any negatives for the author? I will venture to answer these questions.
Perceptions and Expectations
Ultimately, we are dealing with a reader’s perception of what is, rather than what actually is. At that point, the author is blameless for the reader’s experience if the argument is solely length. Now, readers can then argue that they couldn’t get into the story itself. Due to length, there’s less descriptive elements in plot and character development, but this is to be expected in a shorter work. Short stories are not a main course or even a dessert. They are an amuse bouche, a single bit to hold you over until you delve into a larger meal. They can be so delicious that you crave more, but they need to be taken for what they are ━ a sample.
With the innovative e-book, readers have certain expectations that are not demanded when purchasing a physical book from a bookstore. Part of that is when reading a physical book, the reader knows the standard size of the book and pages. With an e-book, formatting is quite different; e-book pages are shorter than most, and font can be altered, so readers cannot gauge length as easily. The e-book reading experience is different, and therefore, alters the reader’s experience.
If the reader’s experience is changed by their expectation of what should be, we are left with what I call the reader’s entitlement. This is the reader’s belief that they’re deserving of something that meets their own preconceived ideal and, only then, are they satisfied. This is an unrealistic expectation, because it’s the belief that they deserve more than what the industry standard is, even if they pay nothing for the product. It’s an undue expectation, because the same expectation is not made with physical books of the same length. If a writer has penned a short story which has met the word count of 7,500 words or less, the reader has no reason to feel dissatisfied with length, coming into the the story knowing that it was clearly labeled and marketed as a shorter work.
If there are differences between word counts and the reader’s different from expectation of length, the only reason for dissatisfaction would be the reader’s entitlement. This equates to the idea that if they want more, then they are entitled to more, because the reader’s always right. Well, no. That is a fast food mentality that is being attributed to art, but even with art, art is limited to the size of the canvas the artist uses. Spectators do not expect artists to paint outside of the canvas.
If the reader has been told up front, whether in the description or written on the cover, that the work was a short story or a novella or whatever, the issue is the reader, not the writing and not the length. The reader has an expectation that they deserve more from e-books than they would have received from printed works.
It’s a perception that exists whether the work is listed as free or at a cheaper price than standard pricing in the industry. I have written and published short stories, novellas, novelettes, and YA novels, using my shorter works in an effort to test different genres and showcase my versatility as a writer. Each of these shorter works is free for whoever was interested in downloading them. Each of these stories had their own covers which said plainly what type of work they were. Still, there was at least one reader for every work that complained about length. They felt entitled to more ━ without investment ━ and that sums up the problem.
Ultimately, an author cannot change a reader’s perception as that is subjective to the reader and has nothing to do with the work itself in comparison to industry standards. It’s based solely on the reader’s feelings of length, and the author isn’t capable of changing that, unless they want to throw away full length manuscripts for free, but that is no guarantee that it would end the criticism. My own experience tells me the opposite.
I have published YA novels that have run at 80,000 words – as per industry standard – for a measly price of $0.99, and still, there were complaints about length. Giving away whole novels or selling them at prices that they could never physically buy a new book for will not solve the perception of what a reader feels they deserve, because the problem is the reader having expectations that are beyond the norm. It is a negative critique in this case, but it’s not due to the author or the literary work. The responsibility falls on the reader.
The second possibility is the reader’s involvement with your work. This is a positive thing. A reader’s complaints about length can be the ultimate compliment in this case, because it means that the reader was so involved in the story that they just wanted it to go on and on.
When someone is so involved in reading to this degree, the pages fly by. The reader has no concept of length, because it all becomes one big vision before their eyes. Every word becomes tangible. They experience becoming apart of the story, and before they know it, the experience is over. They have no concept that they read through an entire novelette of 17,000 words in two hours. This is the mark of success for any author. It means that you created a story that others want to devour and have withdrawal after the experience is over. This is how you as a writer build a fan-base.
The withdrawal creates more demand, and the demand leads to more readers. More readers creates a higher demand for work and the cycle continues. That is what I think of as a positive cycle. It is one where the reader is fulfilled, even after the disappointment of the end of the work, and the author is happy.
However, there are also negative cycles, one that lacks the appropriate give and take. If the author is gifting their work for free and the reader expects more, there is no balance. Thus, the “entitlement” that I was speaking of. So, is there a positive and negative to a criticism about length? Yes, but whether the review has a positive or negative connotation, there is nothing the author can or should do about it. Why? Because the author cannot change the reader’s subjective experience about length after publishing. For a reader to expect a full length novel out of a novella is unrealistic, and the only way to temper any disappointment, aside from story, starts with them. On the other hand, the tension created can entice readers to have a need to read more.
As a writer, your job is to create a picture with words, your plot is a moving picture that is meant to entertain, but this isn’t Burger King. Readers can’t always have it their way in terms of expectation, and the plot isn’t always going to be to their liking. The only two things an author has control of is their story, which they must stand by, and honoring industry standards to give readers the quality they deserve as per the norm.
Self-published authors have more liberties in terms of price and marketing, but the control an author has stops upon downloading or purchase of the product. From there, the product belongs to the reader for better or for worse, whether they are happy with the read or not. No returns after reading.
If they have unusual expectations, then the responsibility lands on them. If something is marketed as a novella and is downloaded for free, then the expectation should be that they’re about to read a short work. If they are reading a YA novel, the expectation should be that a YA novel is shorter than an adult novel, and the story will not be as graphic, for example.
As a reader, they must also take responsibility of what they are downloading and have chosen to read. When the T.V. Guide shows a half hour show on an 7:30 pm time slot, the watcher cannot expect a 2 hour movie. Broadcasters cannot be anymore clear about scheduling and watchers cannot be unreasonable about the content. It is the same with literature.