You’ve probably heard that phrase a hundred times before: “Less Is More”. From your aunt the first time you apply your own make-up. From your mom when she let you put whipped cream on your pancakes. From your teacher when you wore that new cologne to school. But have you ever thought about how it applies to your writing?
I’ve read all kind of books in my life, some are like Dune, huge hulking books that are great books and also great paperweights and door stops. Others are like The Great Gatsby, small, thin texts you can slip into your coat pocket. Neither of these is better than the other, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. But if I ask you to remember specific lines or images, which book do you pull from? Do you remember word for word the many descriptions of the sand worms or the single detail of the piercing green eyes of the billboard of Doctor TJ Eckleburg?
The Great Gatsby and other novellas are so sparse and economic in their language that these images stand out to us, because of the contrast to the rest of the story. This is why flash fiction pieces are so popular. They have strong, lasting images, but in such a short amount of space that it leaves the reader astounded. By taking out the more extraneous details, the author is able to highlight what they most want the reader to walk away with.
Here’s an example:
Sitting in a Starbucks right by the Business 40 highway and across from the IHop, I type away at my silver HP Pavilion laptop the click clack of the keyboard blending into the similar noise from the people surrounding me. It’s early February so it’s pretty cold outside but I’m bundled up in my big black winter coat with fur around the hood, so only my long, thin fingers and toes in my soft bootie slippers feel the tingle of the chill. Soft jazz music plays over the speakers that blend into the brown ceiling tiles. It’s an artist I’ve never heard before, a woman with a soft voice and staccato rhythm, but I find myself swaying in my seat to the soft beat. As I make a mental note to look up the artist, a boy with piercing blue eyes like sapphires walks into the coffee house through the door to my right. I can’t look away from him. (160 words)
I’m working in my local coffee shop, sitting next to other writers and artists all typing away at their laptops. I flex my fingers to ward off the chill coming from the windows and try to focus instead on the soft music overhead. I look up as the boy walks in, with eyes are bright and blue as sapphires. (59 words)
What’s the difference here? There’s two main things I want you to notice. In the first one, you can see the scene vividly. You know where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m hearing, what I’m wearing, what I’m feeling, what I see. That’s great and you always want to to help you reader see the scene the way you do, but they don’t need to know everything, but I’ve included everything I can think of. The important detail, the boy with the blue eyes, is lost in the rest of the description. In the second one, you still get a good sense for where I am, perhaps not quite as vividly, but I’ve also cut out a hundred words. Now, the image of the boy walking inside the coffee shop stands out much more. This is what’s important, not that my coat has fur on the hood, and I don’t need to distract my author with these extra details in this scene. It is a trade-off, the many, vivid details versus the sharp, in-focus details. There are some parts of your story that you need to build more of the scene, maybe it’s important that I don’t who the jazz singer is or that it’s February. But most of the time, you can probably cut out those details.
“That’s all well and good,” you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t know how to write briefly every time. How am I supposed to know what’s the most important detail?”
You won’t be able to write with brevity if you’re used to including tons of details, but with practice and patience you’ll start to get better and better at this. Here’s a few tips for how to making your writing as tight and impactful as possible:
- Read your writing out loud – When you do this, you’ll hear as you read, what sentences are too long, where you’re repeating yourself. As you go, cross out anything that isn’t working and keep it out. You can always add it back in if you need it later.
- Set a page or time goal for your chapter – Maybe your chapter is 30 pages long and you know it needs to be more like 15 pages. Go through your manuscript and cross out any and everything you can. Maybe you won’t actually made it to 15 pages, but if you feel comfortable enough to cut it out here, it probably wasn’t that important to begin with.
- Ask yourself what the reader really needs to know – This is different from what you want the reader to know. I want the reader to know everything. I spent a month developing my character’s backstory. I’d love to spend a whole chapter detailing her life, but that’s not what the reader needs to know. They need maybe a line or two that will help inform the plot and then they need to move along with the story. Cut out that paragraph about what your character think about their father in that fight scene and stay focused on what your reader needs.
- Keep track of the descriptions that you use and try not to repeat them – In order to write with brevity, you need to limit and try not to repeat your descriptions. Does your character roll their eyes or shrug their shoulders on every page? Not only does that not help your reader but it also weakens your writing. Everytime you reuse the same description it loses its emphasis. Use resources like the Emotions Thesaurus to find new, more vivid descriptions you can use to show how your character feels without sounding like a broken record.
I’ll keep the rest of this brief, but here’s what you need to know: less is more, brief writing is powerful writing. Keep working, keep editing and keep cutting out those unnecessary detail and repetitive images. What’s most important though is that you have fun with your writing and get it done!
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