How Michael Winter won the 2004 CBC Short Story Prize

He cut his story in half at the last minute — and the gamble paid off.
Michael Winter is the author of Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead. (Rogatien Piano)

In 2004, Michael Winter — author of Into the Blizzard and Minister Without Portfolio — was about to mail his short story entry to the CBC Literary Prizes when he realized it was double the permitted length. What followed was an award-winning edit — and a valuable lesson on the importance of brevity. In his own words, Michael describes the experience.

I approached writing a story for the CBC Literary Awards as a mercenary venture — $5,000 for one story, not bad. Now, how do you win it? Jurors are wading through skyscrapers of paper, looking for one story that stands out. I heard a winning entry on the radio and it was about a death. Then I read one on a plane and it was about a birth. You can't go wrong with major life and death stories when it comes to a competition, so I thought I'd have a go at writing one. But which one, and how?

It took about nine seconds to realize that I'd write about them both: life and death. Pack it all in and double my chances of the story being remembered.

A man meets a woman, falls in love with her, she discovers she's dying and has a simple, parting request: she wants to have a baby.

This felt like a profoundly uncomfortable thing to write about, melodramatic and ridiculous in its summary, and yet I knew this heightened drama was the story's strength.

There was a deadline fast approaching. I wrote a draft in a week, then rewrote the story once a day for five days. Then I hauled out the contest guidelines to get the postal code and something caught my eye. Word limit: 2,500. My story weighed in at 5,000 words. 

What was I to do?

I went through the manuscript and deleted every line that was not necessary: dialogue, exposition, description — chopped it all. No tangents. And, in an hour, I had cut the story precisely in half. I read it again and, in an insane way, the story made more sense than the longer version. I walked the story, wagging in its manila envelope, to the post office and made sure they stamped the date on it. A few months later, the story won first prize.

Through an arbitrary problem I had arrived at a tenet of good writing: brevity wins. If you are having trouble with a story, it may not be an issue with the quality of the writing — there may just be too much of it.

After I won, I met one of the jurors and she said, we kept going back to your story. How did you manage those leaps, those odd connections? I told her what happened and a mix of shock and understanding passed over her face. She's an editor by trade, and I caught in her eye the shared truth that cutting is an indispensable part of rewriting.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.