600 Words or Less (SOLSC 20)

Still thinking about my sight-word stories …

I didn’t choose words randomly.  I pulled from the 1,000 most commonly used words, a list very nicely compiled for me by the 100-word set in The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists.  These are the “instant word” lists that were created by Dr. Edward Fry.  The lists are interesting because they’re presented in frequency order.  Here’s how that breaks down for the first hundred words:

 Words 1-25 Words 26-50 Words 51-75 Words 76-100
the or will number
of one up no
and had other way
a by about could
to word out people
in but many my
is not then than
you what them first
that all these water
it were so been
he we some call
was when her who
for your would oil
on can make its
are said like now
as there him find
with use into long
his an time down
they each has day
I which look did
at she two get
be do more come
this how write made
have their go may
from if see part

Notice anything?

I’m glad enough that “you” comes first of the pronouns … but then I’m much less glad to see that “he,” “his,” and “they” come before “I” … and that all of them come LONG before “she,” which can’t even make an appearance before “we” and “your.”  And as you move on in the lists, there are more curiosities: “man,” “boy,” and “men” show up in the second hundred, followed up at the tail end of the set by “mother” … “father” makes his appearance at the start of the third hundred, but “girl” doesn’t come into play until almost the end of that set.  “Woman” doesn’t show until you’re past 600 words.  So many thoughts.

I ordered the list alphabetically when I started writing the stories.  That way I could avoid pesky questions about sexism and patriarchy find words more easily. Still, those 100-word stories weren’t easy to write.  I said yesterday that I liked them because my students could read them without struggling and, therefore, read for meaning.  But the truth is, there wasn’t much meaning in the stories.  100 words leaves you with more mystery than meaning.  Here are my two favorite examples of that:

Looking at the Water

There she is.  I see her each day at this time, and I have been seeing her for a long time.  She likes to look at the water.  Each day she comes down and has a long look at the water.  Some days when she comes, there are other people down by the water.  She does not look at them.  All she looks at is the water.  

Some days she writes about what she sees.  Other days, she looks and looks for a long time and then goes on her way.  What does she do all day?

I would like to see what she sees when she is looking out at the water, but I have not said a word to her.  I would like to see what it is that she writes on those days when she writes.  What could she be writing?  Is she a writer?  Does she want to be a writer?  I would like to find out, but how would I go about finding out?  If I call out to her, what will she do?

Who is she, and what does she do when she is not looking out at the water?


How Could She?

Look at her.  How could she have been with him?  This is not the first time she was with him.  She was with him for a long time.  Now I will have no part of her.  I have her number, but I will not call her.  I will not see her.  Each day I go out and look up and down to see who is there.  I see many people but not her.  She is with him.  Day in and day out, she is with him.  I would have had a word with her, but she could not find time for me.  So now I do not have time for her.  If she did not like me, she could have said so.  What can I make of this?  Many a time she has come to me and I have been there for her, and now this.  I will not be there for her one more time.  How can I?  Who would be?  Not now.  Not this time.  He can be there for her now.  She has him, and now I will find someone other than her.

So yeah, not exactly winning any prizes, but so, so, so readable.  “How Could She?” was a solid crowd pleaser.  It never failed to generate all kinds of discussion in class and get students writing all the backstory and imagining what happens next.  And that’s the thing I loved about the 100-word stories.  There are so few words, so few things you can say, everything you write is full of holes, pulling the readers in to create a story to fill up the nearly-empty frame you’ve hung.

The empty frame is the magic of these stories.  I tried out various lists to see what I could and couldn’t do with each.  The 150- and 200-word lists got tossed early because there were just more words I wanted to include (such as “girl”) that I wouldn’t get until I jumped up to 300 words.  That list created so many more story options but still left so many holes.  I wrote most of my stories with that list.

Probably the most popular story after “How Could She?” was “My Husband, the ‘King’,” which I wrote with the 400-word list.  Four hundred words was right on the edge.  You can fill in a significant number of holes using that list.  Jumping up to 600 words meant closing pretty much all of the holes.  The stories from the 600-word list are much longer because, with 600 words, you can say almost everything you might ever want to say.  (Sort of.  You can’t get crazy with your vocabulary — “crazy” in that you might want to say a word such as “deliquesce” … or something even more outlandish such as “woman” — but you can really say a LOT.)  Those stories were good for students to take home to read on their own.  The word list was still basic enough that people didn’t struggle to make meaning, and the stories were long, so people could spend some time with each … they could read for pleasure, something they hadn’t done much if at all.

My original goal for writing the stories was to create reading material that was clearly for grown ups.  And the stories were about all kinds of adult themes: managing your money, raising children, learning your family history, immigration, domestic violence …

I haven’t written one in a long time, but thinking about them all day today is making me want to jump in again.  I got an email from my mom today (after she read yesterday’s post) saying she’s thinking of doing some literacy tutoring at her church, so creating some new stories for her could be a fun project to take on while I’m home recuperating this spring.  Time to dust off my lists!

my husband the king(Cover from the original chapbook story.)


See the rest of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.



10 thoughts on “600 Words or Less (SOLSC 20)

  1. I am already imagining a backstory for “How Could She?” I’ll have to tuck this writing idea away for the summer – when I will have time to get creative (I hope!).


  2. I was really intrigued by this whole process. I thought the two stories were very engaging, like you say a frame to generate thoughts and conversations. What a great way to introduce adults to the power of literacy. You were very thoughtful and creative in meeting these needs. I hope you do write some more.


    1. Finding ways to make a story was an interesting challenge. I was really proud of the ones that dealt with more complex issues, but my heart always goes back to “How Could She?”


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