By Tegan Baker
Your deadlines are looming, you have essays to write, and exams to revise for, but a killer idea for a story pops into your head. So much possible procrastination. The compromise seemed obvious to me in my second year of my undergraduate degree: if you don’t have the time to work on a long project, work on a smaller project. Before university, I was convinced that to be a ‘proper’ writer, I needed to pen an epic to rival Malory or Milton.
It was when I decided to write something for the University of Reading’s Creative Arts Anthology, that I fell in love with the short story. For the first time I had a strict word limit for a piece of creative writing – and I found it thrilling! With short story competitions such as The Guardian’s Stephen King short fiction competition, the HG Wells Short Story Competition and 1000-word challenge, more attention has been drawn to short stories. These competitions tantalise entrants with the chance to win money and publication; two dreams for the average student writer.
But do other students share my love for the short story? To gain a better perspective on what Creative Writing students think, I questioned Dr Douglas Cowie, lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. He answered, ‘The short story form offers students the chance to practice various writing techniques in an achievable, complete form […] by writing something with a beginning, middle, and end, that is also possible to complete within the structures of a taught undergraduate course. Short story writing is essentially a very useful tool for student writers.’
Alice Straker, who read English Literature and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway and is now returning as an MA student, expressed her interest: ‘Whilst writing for university I found it a useful form as it was often a struggle for me to come up with a fully formed narrative.’ Her opinion is shared by Harriet Mckinley-Smith, who will be starting her BA in English Literature this September. She said, ‘The simplicity and directness of a short story has always enticed me as a writer. It eliminates the possibility for waffle which I think is a problem for most novel writers.’ Second Year Hannah Burdekin, also studying English Literature at Royal Holloway, comments on the explorative nature of short fiction: ‘A compilation of short stories allows for a wider exploration into a topic than, say, a single novel covering themes in more depth.’
Whilst most of the students that I spoke to praised the short story, it seems that not everyone shares this opinion. Nicholas Ross, who is also starting his BA in English Literature this September, explains his belief that the short story, ‘limits a writer’s potential to construct their own worlds. I struggle […] imagining Tolkien’s fictional universe being depicted in only a few hundred words.’ He adds that this can limit ‘short stories to […] take place in recognizable contexts.’ Burdekin expressed similar resignations: ‘For new authors, the short story may provide difficulties, such as limited character development and the danger of overcomplicating the plot.’
Whichever side of the fence you fall, it seems clear that short fiction offers student writers the opportunity for explorative writing if nothing else. The pithy format offers those new to creative writing the chance to compact their ideas into a controlled piece, where inexperienced writers may include unnecessary wordage.
This article was published in our September 2016 issue.