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The 200/50 Word Challenge

February 9, 2022

I have been keeping up with George Saunders’ Story Club religiously. It’s been a great biweekly reminder of how to read closely, includes writing exercises to do, and provides an active and interesting community to interact with. I wanted to share one of the writing exercises because I found it challenging and frustrating and meaningful for me. George has also shared this exercise in his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

The exercise is a flash fiction piece of 200 words, but it can only contain 50 unique words. For example, if you wrote, “His arm rested lightly on the table,” you have used 7 unique words. You can use these words again. Your second sentence might be, “The table was set and his fingers rubbed lightly against the wood.” You re-used the, table, his, and lightly. The rest count as new unique words, so now you’re at 14 unique words. You only have 50 unique words to use in the 200 word piece. This is a timed, 45 minute exercise.

One strategy that was suggested is to make a list of words you’ve already used to keep track of your 50 unique words. It worked pretty well for me.

So here’s what I ended up writing:

Rain draped the forest. A protective covering of trees softened the sadness above ground. People walked under the trees, and the trees spoke in their shadows. There were hushed whispers as people passed in sadness, while joyful cackles followed those who spoke in rainbows. The trees did this for years to keep track of those who were protective of the forest. People who passed in sadness walked in both shadows and whispers, while those who passed in joy, walked above the ground with softened steps. Years passed, and people walked, until there were no more trees. There were no more shadows, no more whispers or cackles from the trees. The trees were hushed, while the people spoke to both above and under the ground. People walked above stumps for years, until rain and rainbows draped the stumps and hushed the sadness under the ground, until trees followed the stumps above ground. 

Here’s what my document looked like when it included my word list.

Some observations I had about the process:

  1. I only made it to 151 words before my 45 minutes was up. It was really hard towards the end trying to think of new things to say without using new words.
  2. It was hard to keep track of the words at first, but by about 20 minutes in, I had a good working knowledge of my 50-word bank.
  3. It was ridiculously hard to keep a story going using only a small number of words. It made me think very closely about what I wanted to say and how I could say it within the confines of the exercise.
  4. I found myself trying to say something, not having the words to say it, and going back to edit what I’d previously written to see if I could delete any unique words to free up an extra space in my list of 50.
  5. I think I made this harder than it should have been because I decided to use my January monthly creative writing prompt as fodder instead of just letting myself do what came naturally.

I really liked this exercise, even though it was so hard, because it made me appreciate word choice and the importance of figuring out what I actually wanted to say. When I couldn’t figure out how to say it, I was forced to either say something different or modify something else I’d written. It has made me appreciate word choice on a whole new level.

I’d like to try this exercise again sometime so see if it’s any easier without a prompt in mind already. Let me know if you try this and how it went!

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 10, 2022 2:38 am

    Now that is a tough challenge. Kudo’s to you for doing it.

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